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Kirk Douglas shines in little-known Western – “Lonely are the Brave”

Updated: Apr 18, 2023


Kirk Douglas stars as loner cowboy Jack Burns, who plans to get his buddy Paul Bondi out of jail.

(Click an image to scroll the larger versions)


Blu-ray, 1962, unrated

Best extra: A retrospective documentary with interviews with star Kirk Douglas, co-star Gena Rowlands, and others.

FILMMAKER STEVEN SPIELBERG says he loves it, while legendary actor Kirk Douglas considers its protagonist one of his favorite roles. But the greatest praise comes from Douglas’ son Michael, who puts “Lonely Are the Brave” at the top of his dad’s 80-plus movies. The three reminisce during a 20-minute documentary carried over from a previous DVD, highlighting stories from this nearly forgotten modern-day western.

Douglas plays loner cowboy Jack Burns, trapped in a complex post World War II environment, in the high country of New Mexico. He still doesn’t own a car and his horse, Whisky, is his only transportation as he heads to fictional Bernal County, N.M. to visit his best friend in jail. His unorthodox plan is to get arrested and then devise an escape for himself and his friend Paul Bondi (Michael Kane), who’s being held for helping Mexicans across the border. Bondi is against the plan, so Burns is on his own. After his escape, he heads to the mountains on his horse, with Sheriff Johnson (Walter Matthau) and Deputy Gutierrez (George Kennedy) hot on his trail and using the latest technology.

The story was based on Edward Abbey’s novel, “Brave Cowboy,” but Universal Studios insisted on changing the name. “I didn’t like that title,” says elder Douglas. “I wanted to call it ‘The Last Cowboy.’” In the early ‘60s, Douglas was shocked by how much audiences sympathized with Burns’ horse, a three-year-old mare. “But that’s show business,” he says. “I loved that horse. Of course, I love horses. And Whisky stole the picture.”

(1) Burns wakes up to the sound of jets flying overhead in the high country of New Mexico. (2) Jack has a cigarette and coffee before he and his horse Whisky head to fictional Bernal County, N.M. (3) Whisky is spooked by highway traffic. (4) He calms Whisky down after a close call with a truck.


Spielberg remembers seeing “Lonely Are the Brave” at a drive-in in Arizona, when he was just a kid. He notes the interesting pursuit at the end, “where they dog him up the mountain.” And he recalls the fight sequence where Burns gets drunk and fights a one-armed man, played by World War II veteran Bill Raisch, who went on to be quite famous as the one-armed man in the 1960s TV series “The Fugitive.” But, Spielberg says, the rest of the movie “just sort of faded into that wanton, hungry memory of a young kid, just wanting epic drama and big color Cinemascope production.”

Years later, Spielberg would rediscover the movie, which has become one of his favorites.

After reading the Abbey novel, Douglas bought the rights for a movie adaptation. “Jack Burns was a free guy and a good guy and I hadn’t played that many good guys. It’s more difficult to play a good guy,” he says. Burns still has sparks for Boni’s wife, Jerri, played by Gena Rowlands. You sense they had a relationship before his best friend married her. The on-screen chemistry between Douglas and Rowlands is obvious. “Their scenes were almost like improvisations, although we know they were well-written. They just seem so at ease,” says Spielberg.

The production was helmed by director David Miller, but Douglas credits Dalton Trumbo’s script for making the film so good. Trumbo had been blacklisted during the era of the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings of the early 1950s. He had just won the Oscar for “Roman Holiday,” and refused to give names of colleagues to the committee. He was imprisoned for 11 months and continued to write uncredited scripts. Douglas, who was producing and starring in “Spartacus” (1960), hired Trumbo under the name of Sam Jackson to write the screenplay. “I felt like such a hypocrite,” says Douglas. “I insisted on putting his real name on the script,” and it appeared the silver screen within Saul Bass’ opening title sequence for the epic, directed by Stanley Kubrick. It effectively broke the Hollywood blacklist.

(1) Jack stops to see Paul Boni’s wife Jerri, played by Gena Rowlands. (2) Her reaction implies she and Jack had a relationship before she married Paul. (3&4) Jack hits a local watering hole to get liquored up, and before you know it he's in a fight - which leads to his arrest.


Younger Douglas says Trumbo’s well-crafted script was a great comment on society at the time. In the opening sequence, the camera focuses on a sleeping cowboy with his hat over his eyes. “You think you’re watching an old-time Western with dawn breaking and a cowboy getting ready to saddle up his horse.” But, the sound of distant jet engines wakes Burns, and he looks up to the sky, and sees the jet contrails of three military aircraft. “It was such a great metaphor for setting up this whole structure of the end of the West as we know it,” he says.

Douglas also felt his dad played against type in the role of Burns. “Dad was sort of known for that intensity and that energy, but here he had relaxation and ease and grace that was unique.” Spielberg had a similar observation, calling Douglas’ performance, “magnificent in his self-control. And the love of that time he was living in, and moseying throughout this mechanized, polluted world of the 20th century, made me think that this was a film that was waiting for him to star in.”

Additional extras include a short featurette on composer Jerry Goldsmith, who was transitioning from TV music to motion pictures, and got the opportunity to work on the film, thanks to a suggestion by the great composer Alfred Newman. Soundtrack producer Robert Townson says Goldsmith’s score is introspective, an intimate depiction of the West, performed with a solo trumpet motif over an orchestral string ensemble introducing Burns. He applied a similar theme for another lonely character John J. Rambo in “First Blood” (1982). Only briefly does Goldsmith’s score salute the land with traditional Western fanfare, as Burns crosses a river on his horse, but quickly turns back to the character.

(1) Jack spots his best friend Paul and tells him about his plan to get them out of jail. (2) Deputy Sheriff Gutierrez (George Kennedy) starts to harass Jack and Paul. (3&4) Paul escapes and returns to get Whisky before heading to the Rocky Mountains.


A commentary is provided by Kino Lorber, with film historians Howard S. Berger and Steve Mitchell, who recorded the track just a few months ago, after the recent passing of Douglas at 103. Mitchell tells how Douglas had a special deal at Universal, after the success of “Spartacus.” If he loved a book and the project was nixed by the studio, but he could budget the production for under $3 million, the studio would reverse its decision. That’s how “Lonely are the Brave” became a reality.


It seems a 2K master (2.35:1 aspect ratio) was provided by Universal, which still has plenty of natural film grain, and overall the grayscale is well balanced with good black levels and solid mid-tones. But, at times highlights seem slightly overblown while the sharpness is quite good in the black and white imagery, beautifully photographed in New Mexico by Philip Lathrop (“The Americanization of Emily” & “Earthquake”).

A restored mono DTS-HD soundtrack is front and center, replicating the original sound that has plenty of separation between the dialogue and Goldsmith’s score.

Fans of both Kirk Douglas and Westerns should be quite pleased by this Kino Lorber Studio Classics presentation.

— Bill Kelley III, High-Def Watch producer

(1) Jack and Whisky head to the Rocky Mountains, as a stunt double handles the most difficult maneuvers along the mountain ridge. (2) Sheriff Morey Johnson (Walter Matthau) and Deputy Sheriff Harry (William Schallert) are on the hot pursuit. (3) Jack isn't sure he can make the complete climb with Whisky. (4) Sheriff Johnson recruits a U.S. Air Force helicopter to help in the search. (5&6) Two county deputies take aim at Jack and Whisky.



Glen Martin
Glen Martin
Sep 15, 2022

I agree with all the positive comments about this great film. But there seems to be no information about the amazing horse that played a central role in Lonley are the Brave.


Mac Zones
Mac Zones
Aug 15, 2021

How can I put into words my impressions of this film? I remember, just like Steven Spielberg, seeing it when I was very young but I saw it on a black and white TV instead of a drive-in. What I remember most is the chase and the sad ending that made me realize at the time that there was a clear dividing line that exposed what the old west was and what it had become. The one word included in the title of this film "Lonely", is the key word that brings out who the Jack Burns of this world are, that are so caught up in an era of great changes leaving behind in the dust, a lost era…

Mac Zones
Mac Zones
Aug 15, 2021
Replying to

Thanks to the Staff at High-Def Watch for your compliments. Rarely do I make such comments but this was an exception which impacted me personally many years ago and still haunts my memory because in essence, it was also my own experience, living through the early sixties, that I viewed first hand the reflected changes around me as I saw in that film. I've always believed, there is no future without a past when the past has no future. As such, was the essence of that film.

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