Lonely are the Brave

In Lonely Are the Brave, the opening shot demonstrates a thesis offered by Jane Tompkins in her essay "Language and Landscape." The stark, arid landscape puts "a whole set of values in place before a single word is spoken." The land is full of promise and yet calls for a certain kind of hero, a man as rugged as the land itself. In David Miller's film, western values, characterized by the myth of self, run up against the forces of law and order, the myth of state, inevitable and necessary, yet a misfire of the American dream.

Lonely Are the Brave is a successful adaptation of Edward Abbey's novel The Brave Cowboy, a cult classic which underscores the tension between the old and new world. The cowboy epitomizes American individualism, Emerson self-reliance, and a connection to nature; yet the film conveys a sense of loss as it plays out the conflict between social constraint and individual freedom as tragedy. When we witness tragedy we acquire as one's own a reflexive mood, not only about the limits on freedom but about the power of stories to shape our attitudes and opinions. To this end, tragedy contains two salient elements: courage (defined by the ability to act violently) and the inevitable necessity of defeat. As myth, the courageous cowboy, again and again, rides off into the sunset as more "civilized" folks move into the land he domesticated with a six-gun. Such a scene is not without irony. Without tragedy, we forget the inevitable necessity of defeat.


The Opening Shot: the camera pans down and to the left. A campfire and an open can of beans, then back to the right along the reclining, napping cowboy, Jack Burns, his face half-hidden under a cowboy hat. At the same moment we hear jets overhead, and it seems that we are caught between two different eras of American history. Jack sits up, tilts his hat back and looks at the sky; three jets make vapor trails across the clear, open air. The open desert with the horse and rider and the open sky with the jet fighters are in contrast to one another and act as a epigraph to the tragic drama about to be played out in the film. Jack exhales and contemplates the encroaching modern world (or at least he appears to) and then turns to his horse, Whiskey, standing beside him. The "setting" establishes the cowboy's uneasy position in a changing world; the frontier and its representations are becoming nostalgic.

The tension between the modern military hero and the frontier cowboy hero will later become a theme in Disney'sToy Story, where different images of American heroes collide, yet must eventually cooperate, in order to protect the "Good Society" in an era of cultural change.



Jack pulls an apple out of his saddle bag, takes a bite and then tempts his horse. The cowboy here again is the lone American Adam. We have a brief Eden scene in reverse as Jack offers the apple to his three-year-old mare, the equivalent of a woman companion. The saddling-up scene involves the comic and rebellious cunning of the horse pitched against the authority of the master. Ultimately, however, the horse and the cowboy are one, both a bit spooky. Jack unhobbles the mare, jumps on her back, and rides her quick and hard to get the friskiness out of her as the film credits role across the scene.

In the next scene, Jack and Whiskey come to a barb-wire fence and a sign that reads "closed area." Fences become the subject of a forthcoming conversation between Jack and Jerri Bondi (played by Gena Rowlands), the wife of Jack's best friend. Jack gets down off Whiskey and cuts the three strands of wire with a pair of cutters he evidently keeps handy in his saddle bag. He rides on through the fence to a vista of Duke City (Albuquerque) and the Rio Grande River; the music turns upbeat, Magnificent Seven-like, especially when Jack and Whiskey plunge into the Rio Grande--a crossing over into urban civilization.

Jack and Whiskey come into town from god knows where; they cross the Sandia Mountains to rescue Jerri's husband and Jack's best friend, Paul, who is awaiting transfer (in a grubby, local jail cell) to a federal prison. On one level the adventure represents the postponement of the inevitable, for Jack's fate is not unlike Oedipus' in that these men confront formidable forces in a changing world. Jack , like Oedipus, will realize this as the narrative continues.

In the next scene, without music, Jack and Whiskey cross a highway; this crossing is much more difficult. Whiskey resists and a man driving a convertible veers to the side of the road, honking his horn; the man yells at them, "Are you crazy?" Another vehicle goes by just missing the horse and rider. The director, David Miller, portrays the cowboy as a relic, spinning around in our rear view mirror.

The symbolism continues. When Jack and Whiskey get to the other side of the asphalt, they pause in front of a wrecking yard, a backdrop of worn out or partially destroyed automobiles, artifacts of the modern world, just as Jack and Whiskey are artifacts in the New West.

Cut to small house on the edge of town. The music comes up. Jack rides towards the house. Inside the camera focuses in on Jerri's hands; she is kneading bread--the camera pans up to her face as she hears the horse and rider approaching. Jack lets himself in the front door; she is washing her hands. She turns towards the door with a towel in her hands. Her wedding ring is obvious. Jack is framed in the doorway with the open landscape and mountains looming behind him. This brief moment once again positions the cowboy on the threshold between the domesticated world, represented by the refined woman of the east, and the wildness represented by the New Mexico landscape.

In part, westerns tend to present a polarized view of women as two opposing archetypes. In her essay "Genre and Gender," Julia Levinson discusses archetypal Western women: "First there is the transplanted Eastern woman . . . representing all the forces that threaten to displace the world of the wild West. The Western hero respects and protects her and often courts her." Jerri fits this billing and more as she is a '60s woman in transition. The fullness of Jack and Jerri's kiss suggests that they were once lovers. The following conversation between these two friends dramatizes the mythological opposition represented by female archetypes of the East and West. Jerri competes with the hero's soul mate--in this case abstractly represented by Whiskey and the individual freedom embodied in Jack's upcoming story of "the wild-eyed mountain girl" called "Do what you want and the Hell with everybody else." Levinson characterizes the fate of the second archetype: "As tough and independent and self-sufficient as the hero, her fate is generally even sorrier than his." Certainly this sorry fate proves out, for in the end of the film Whiskey and the philosophy of life named the "wild-eyed mountain-girl" meet a tragic end.

As the dialogue continues, we learn that Jerri's husband Paul is heading for two years in the penitentiary for helping illegal immigrants. Burns plans to break into jail to see his friend, "You can always arrange to see a fellow." At this point in the narrative, we get a brief symbolic aside as Jack notices a baseball bat, picks it up, and asks about Jerri and Paul's son, Seth. In the Bible, Seth is the third son of Adam and Eve and represents the hope of the Messianic line. This allusion couples with baseball, which is a powerful form for identifying the American character, in sprit, as players act out another kind of drama on an open landscape. Films such as The Natural and Field of Dreams portray the game of baseball as religion and myth in American consciousness.

Central to Lonely are the Brave, we witness the dialogue about fences. Jack tells Jerri that she doesn't understand Paul because she is from the East--he explains the Westerner's point of view. She calls his words nonsense.

"Jack I'm going to tell you something. The world you and Paul live in doesn't exist. Maybe it never did. Out there is the real world and its got real borders, and real fences, and real trouble. Either you play by the rules or you lose; you lose everything."

Jack tells Jerri about the "wild-eyed mountain girl" named "Do what you want to do and the hell with everybody else." From Jerri's perspective, this is individualism taken to dangerous levels of hubris.

Cut to Joplin, Missouri, where an eighteen-wheeler is hauling a load of toilets to Duke City. The trucker, played by Carol O' Connor, remarks to a passer by, "What kind of emergency do you suppose they got up in Duke City?" This disconnected scene reoccurs like progress reports bearing down from Delphi. The oracle will catch up to the "ghost" cowboy at the fatal crossing back into the wild.

Cut back to house as Jack emerges from the bath. He says, "Did you ever notice how your feet swell after a bath?" Before he sets off for town on foot, Jerry asks him not to make any trouble. Jack replies, "Trouble's what I came here to fix." We may see Oedipus (swollen feet) standing on the steps of the royal house of Thebes proclaiming, "Now you have me to fight for you, you'll see/ I am the land's avenger."

The question of one's identity becomes central to developing a larger sensibility about the role of the individual in a modern society. Tragedy (like Aldo Leopold's definition of ethics) contains the inevitable necessity of defeat that keeps in check the pathos of individualism. This quest for identity within a world that demands conformity becomes inherent when the Western narrative begins to turn sour in the 1960s. For instance, after Jack is arrested for fighting in a bar, the police officer asks him questions about his identity:

"You mean you have no identification, no draft card, no social security, no driver's license. . . . You can't go around without identification, it's against the law. How are people going to know who you are?"

"I don't need cards to figure out who I am. I already know," Jack replies.

The irony of his words is as apparent as in Sophocles' Oedipus the King. For Americans in the '60s, Lonely are the Brave suggests a need to uncover the truth of our predicament--the myth of the cowboy no longer is reliable for processing the complex questions of a technological society.