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Lonely Are the Brave
"Told you you didn't understand. A Westerner likes open country. That means he's got to hate fences. And the more fences there are, the more he hates them."
"I never heard such nonsense in my life."
"It's true, though. You ever notice how many fences there are getting to be? The signs they got on them: no hunting, no hiking, no admission, no trespass, private property, closed area, start moving, go away, get lost, drop dead. Know what I mean?"
"I don't even wanna know."
"Then they got those fences that say this side's jail or that side's the street. Or here's Arizona; that's Nevada. Or this is us; that's Mexico... That one between here and Mexico is the fence that got Paul into trouble. He just naturally didn't see the use of it, so he acted as if it wasn't there. So when people sneaked across it, he just felt they were still people, so he helped them."
"Jack, I'm going to tell you something: the world that you and Paul live in doesn't exist. Maybe it never did. Out there is a real world, and it's got real borders and real fences, real laws and real trouble. And either you go by the rules or you lose. You lose everything."
"You can always keep something."
Jack Burns (Kirk Douglas) remembers all too well what the West once represented. Freedom. Loyalty. Rugged individualism. Wide open spaces. Unspoiled natural beauty. A justice that was instinctively understood rather than codified in tens of thousands of pages of laws. He has no home to call his own. He carries with him not a driver's license or credit card, but a bandolier and a dried bull's ear. He travels on horseback rather than by automobile. The world around Jack may have transformed into something unrecognizable, but he himself is immutable. So too is Jack's devotion. He hasn't seen Paul (Michael Kane) or his family in years, but upon hearing that his friend has been jailed for aiding Mexicans who've illegally crossed the border, Jack quickly hatches a scheme to set him free. And, appropriately, it's straight out of a B-western: hiding a couple of hacksaws in his boot, deliberately getting himself arrested on a drunk & disorderly charge, and busting Paul out from the inside. It never occurs to Jack that a jailbreak perhaps isn't in Paul's best interests – that it's a delusion that they could just lay low until things blow over and life returns to normal. Still, a man like Jack cannot be caged. Nor can the sheriff (Walter Matthau) of this sleepy New Mexico town allow an escapee to flee across the border.
Just as the Old West was long dead by the time of Lonely Are the Brave's release in 1962, so too was the concept of the traditional Western hero – the good guy sporting a white hat while the badniks were clad in black, his best girl and closest friend on either side of him, and a triumphant score roaring all the while – increasingly looking like a relic from the past. If the film had been set a century earlier, there's every chance that this could've been the role in which Jack would be cast; he certainly has the charm and moral compass for it. But not here, and not now. The modern world has no place for Jack, nor he it. He knows he could never be able to provide Jerry (Gena Rowlands) – now Paul's wife – with the life she deserved. A cowhand's lifestyle in this day and age can't help but be transient. With Jack's definition of freedom now comes isolation. It's difficult to imagine a happy ending for him in the best of circumstances, and these are anything but.
Every last element of Lonely Are the Brave is executed masterfully. The black and white Cinemascope photography lends the film a timeless quality – appropriate, given that it revolves around a man out of his time – that would surely have been snuffed out if shot in color. Its performances are uniformly superb, which is all the more remarkable given that Lonely Are the Brave came so early in the filmographies for much of its cast. Kirk Douglas is able to convey so much about Jack with just his physical presence and facial expressions. I can't help but marvel at how effortlessly natural the rapport is between Douglas and Gena Rowlands. Walter Matthau brings so much to what could've been just another antagonistic authority figure: his disinterest in other people's bullshit, the certain respect he clearly comes to form for Jack, and just the fact that he so wholly comes across as layered and real rather than some overtly cinematic construction. The bond between Jack and his tempermental horse Whiskey unerringly feels genuine, making for the film's warmest moments as well as its most harrowing. The mountainous setpieces that comprise the second half of the film posed an enormous challenge for the production, and that danger very much comes across on-screen. And I cannot begin to put into words how extraordinary Dalton Trumbo's screenplay is. The dialogue so often sparkles, and yet Trumbo with equal precision knows when silence would have a greater impact still. I appreciate the way the film introduces a series of puzzle pieces – a stoic loner, a small-town sheriff, and Carroll O'Connor's toilet-toting truck driver – without making it apparent how they'll eventually fit together. Composer Jerry Goldsmith proves to be an equally gifted storyteller, conveying more through his inspired embrace and subversion of traditional Western motifs than reams of dialogue could hope to convey.
Lonely Are the Brave is as perfectly crafted a film as I've seen. Though not an action-driven movie, its most thrilling moments – an expertly staged bar brawl against the future One-Armed Man; Jack being pitted against a helicopter from a nearby Air Force base – are nothing short of spectacular. Despite the haunting inevitability established early on, so much charm and humor is deftly woven in as well, enhancing the drama rather than deflating it. As someone with a longstanding appreciation for Westerns of all stripes, it's fascinating to view the archetype of the Western hero through a more modern lens, both in the seemingly insurmountable challenges that mid-20th century society poses to Jack as well as how a system grown complacent by technology and convention struggles to deal with him. It's little wonder that Kirk Douglas so often pointed to Lonely Are the Brave as his favorite of the many films in which he starred; it is in every way a masterwork. DVD Talk Collector Series.
While this presentation of Lonely Are the Brave does share the same master as Koch Entertainment's 2013 Blu-ray release overseas, it's an altogether different experience. That German disc was slathered in noise reduction and saddled with a soul-crushingly low bitrate; this 2020 release is far more filmic in appearance, and its AVC encode spans both layers of this BD-50 disc. Famed film preservationist Robert A. Harris notes that he's recently seen a screening of a new 4K restoration, and, if that indeed is the case, it's puzzling why Universal wouldn't have made that available to KL Studio Classics. Still, even though this older master shows its age in some respects, this is still quite a handsome presentation, and prospective viewers should in no way be deterred.
Though its sheen of grain isn't as fine as I would expect to see in the purported 4K remaster, Lonely Are the Brave's filmic texture has still been preserved very nicely here – deftly compressed and suffering no signs of clumsy filtering. The wispy, flailing antenna on Sheriff Johnson's Jeep would surely have fallen victim to automated scratch removal, and yet it remains beautifully intact here. There is a brief bit of damage early on:
...but nothing remotely along those lines caught my eye throughout the remainder of the film's runtime, leaving this as close to immaculate a presentation as I could ever hope to see. Definition and detail are respectably robust. The fine pattern of Jack's shirt at times seems as if it's on the brink of moiréing, though it never actually gets to that point. The image strikes me as having somewhat of a digitally sharpened appearance, and while that's in no way distracting, things just aren't quite as warm or organic as I would've preferred. A couple of examples that stood out to me have been presented below, with the foliage in the exterior shot particularly looking a bit off to my eyes:
...although, again, it's hardly cause for concern. Perhaps exaggerated by what I take to be mild sharpening, whites are also clipped at times. For instance, look at the crown of Jack's Stetson and the searing glow atop Whiskey's head:
Still, even though some gains would almost certainly be found with a more recent remaster, I'm still very pleased with what Universal and KL Studio Classics have delivered here. This is a presentation that stands strong on its own merits, and it's an incredibly compelling upgrade over the German release from a few years back, despite being sourced from the same master.
More impressive still is Lonely Are the Brave's 16-bit DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack, presented in two-channel mono. The lossless audio is consistently clean and clear throughout, not marred by any aberrations whatsoever. Even the film's most loudly shouted lines and jarring sound effects don't suffer from the slightest flicker of clipping or distortion. The lower frequencies are ably represented, whether it's Kirk Douglas' powerful voice or the pounding percussion over the opening titles. Every last syllable of dialogue can readily be discerned, and the reproduction of Jerry Goldsmith's brilliant score is equally masterful. I'm not left with any complaints or concerns at all. Very nicely done.
Also included are English subtitles and a commentary track.
- Audio Commentary: I've gotten so accustomed to solo commentaries in recent months that it's a greatly appreciated change of pace to hear a track with more of a conversational bent, courtesy of Howard S. Berger and Steve Mitchell. This engaging and wonderfully comprehensive discussion delves into how much freedom Kirk Douglas had as a producer at Universal, some key differences between Edward Abbey's novel and this adaptation, the many ridiculous alternative titles that the studio pitched to Douglas, that Dalton Trumbo's screenplay was so perfect that his single draft required no revisions, its thoroughly bungled theatrical release on these shores, and how grueling production was in such dizzyingly high, mountainous locations.
And this is indeed a discussion, in particular as Berger and Mitchell debate Michael Kane's performance as Paul. The two of them are so well-versed in films of the era that they're able to place Lonely Are the Brave in a greater context, in terms of the "end of the West" subgenre emerging in these years, how its black and white photography stands in stark contrast to the Technicolor Westerns so closely associated with Universal, and how parallels can be drawn to the seemingly disparate likes of A Thousand Clowns, The Electric Horseman, and Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. Their analyses of the film reveal a great deal of insight, such as how Jerry's distaste for her paintings that she nonetheless surrounds herself with represents a sort of imprisonment, Jack's definition of the American Dream seeming almost unrecognizable from the one that had seized hold in the 1950s, and how differently Jack interacts with Jerry following the jailbreak. Berger and Mitchell's commentary is a deeply rewarding listen and easily the most essential of Lonely Are the Brave's extras.
- Lonely Are the Brave: A Tribute (19 min.; SD): The first of two featurettes carried over from Universal's 2009 DVD release, "A Tribute" features interviews with Gena Rowlands, Steven Spielberg, Michael Douglas, and his since-departed father Kirk. The elder Douglas' legendary charm is on full display here, quipping about how the audience sympathized more with Jack's horse than the man himself. He also speaks about David Miller's direction, collaborating again with Dalton Trumbo shortly after breaking the blacklist with him on Spartacus, and Lonely Are the Brave's quietly spectacular opening moments. Spielberg provides both wide-eyed fandom and insightful analysis – from contrasting performances to Philip Lathrop's achingly gorgeous cinematography – and we learn that he played no small role in bringing the film back to home video. This warm remembrace and retrospective is well worth setting aside twenty minutes to watch.
- The Music of Lonely Are the Brave (10 min.; SD): Robert Townson leads this compelling, insightful discussion of Jerry Goldsmith's score. Among a great many other topics, Townson explores the ways in which Lonely Are the Brave at times embraces and far more frequently diverges from traditional Western bombast, how thematically appropriate it is that a solo trumpet represents Jack, that a melancholy cue evokes a love triangle never actually witnessed on-screen, and how sophisticated this score is for a composer at such an early stage in his career. Of particular interest is hearing excerpts from cues composed for the final moments of Lonely Are the Brave that ultimately went unused.
- Trailer (1 min.; SD): The last of the extras is a minute-long theatrical trailer, alongside trailers for The Vikings, The Devil's Disciple, A Child Is Waiting, Charley Varrick, and Midnight Lace.
It's also very much worth mentioning that the case opens to reveal the beautiful artwork from the British quad poster.
The Final Word
Jack Burns may be an anachronism – a man out of time – but even with its sixtieth anniversary just off on the horizon, Lonely Are the Brave as a film is anything but. Its messages and themes continue to resound loudly these many years later, ensuring that this masterpiece about the death of the Old West is timeless in every sense of the word. I tend to be perhaps too hesitant to award a release DVD Talk's highest possible rating, reserving them for titles with especially lavish packaging or countless hours of extras. To say that a film in every way exceptional as this merely comes 'highly recommended' still somehow seems inadequate. As any home video library would be far richer with the addition of Lonely Are the Brave, KL Studio Classics' much-anticipated Blu-ray release deserves a place in the DVD Talk Collector Series.