Lonely are the Brave dramatizes Edward Abbey’s Brave Cowboy, and I daresay improves upon it. As with Abbey’s original, the plot features a cowhand who still lives and breathes in the Old West, thrown into conflict against the forces of the modernizing west. When he learns that a friend is imprisoned, he rides to the rescue, arranging a jailbreak and fleeing to the mountains to elude the law. But in the modern west, sheriff’s posses include Jeeps, helicopters, and CB-radio coordination.
Here again is the solid story, of a man defending his friends and their conscience against cold, bureaucratic tyranny. The sheriff here is a warmer character, though, played by Walter Matthau, who admires his foe from afar. The acting in general is superb, and the cast includes many a familiar face aside from the stars. Carroll O’Connor, better known as Archie Bunker, appears several times as a truck driver….and George Kennedy, whose booming voice and massive teeth appear in Cool Hand Luke to Oscar-winning fame, shows up here as one of the cruel deputies. The cinematography manages to capture the beauty of New Mexico even rendered without color. The ending, too, is improved with a dash of ambiguity, creating ample reason to believe the cowboy will hit the saddle again. I enjoyed the music, done by the same fellow who later scored several Star Trek films, and could only find one little fly in the ointment. The cowboy’s friend, Paul, is imprisoned not for fighting the draft, but for helping Mexicans cross the Rio Grande. I suppose on the eve of American involvement in Vietnam, defying conscription wasn’t quite as palatable as it might have been in the early fifties when the book was set. (Central characters Jack and Paul had served in the Army, after all; their contempt was not against fighting, but what they and Murray Rothbard viewed as state slavery.)
Lonely are the Brave is easily the best book-to-film adaptation I’ve seen, in terms of faithfulness and cinematic quality.