Case in point, is David Miller's beautiful Lonely Are the Brave, featuring a terrific script, cinematography, and a remarkable, perhaps career best performance by Kirk Douglas. I say career best performance, because it’s the film where he smirks the least and instead infuses his character with a tiredness and detachment that fits his character perfectly. Douglas stars as Jack Burns, a wandering cowhand, who mosies back into town on his steed, Whiskey, except the time is the modern setting.... 1962 in this case. He arrives back to his friend Paul's house, but only finds his friend's wife, Jerry played by Gena Rowlands. They engage in some dialogue, and Jack finds out his friend is in jail for two years. Jack decides to get himself arrested so he can go into the jail and break Paul out. He proceeds to get in a bar fight, and then at the police station punches an officer, getting sentenced to a year in jail. Once in jail, Jack finds his friend Paul, but also finds out his friend isn’t willing to risk getting caught and instead prefers to wait out his two year sentence. Jack breaks out that night anyway, gets back to his Paul's house, grabs his horse and heads for the hills. Only thing is, that escaping on horseback, a la 1880, is not the same as escaping on horseback in 1962. They’re after you with jeeps, airplanes, helicopters and modern communication. It doesn’t take long for the cops to track him down, featuring a showdown on the cliffs of the mountain. Ultimately, time and fate itself catch up with our modern cowboy.
In choosing to use the outmoded (by 1962 standards) concept of the cowboy as loner figure in the west, we find that at once it recalls such figures from other westerns….Shane, The Gunfighter, Will Penny, however, because it places him outside of the typical time frame, it begs the question…. “Is the concept of the western and the cowboy more a state of mind than any time frame or locale suggests?” In this sense, this film says yes. This concept of the loner cowboy wandering aimlessly is so out of touch with modern ways of thinking, it almost comes across as loony insanity by 1962. It strikes the modern world as so strange Jack lives this way, that when he announces to the police at the station that he has no identity cards or driver’s license, they look at him like he’s crazy. But the fact that he embodies the attitude, the mannerisms and the outlook of the loner cowboy is what makes this a western. The film almost makes a point of the fact that this cowboy is a throwback to old fashioned times, allowing for some funny comments from Walter Matthau as the police chief. But I believe that this film gets at the psychological heart of what makes a western a western, and it’s the state of mind. I complete my argument thus……Terrence Malick’s 1978 masterpiece, Days of Heaven not only occurs in the right locale, Texas, the right time frame more or less - 1916 (remember The Wild Bunch occurs in 1913), and also concerns a plot (that of the traveling and displaced easterner) very common to the western genre. Yet, it feels really nothing like a western. It doesn’t have the state of mind to me that recalls what the western is all about. Lonely Are the Brave certainly FEELS like a western to me and can claim a right to at least a significant portion in defining the neo-western as a subgenre….that of taking western characters and placing them into modern settings that allows a film to contemplate just how little or how much the west has truly changed.