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Pause: Remembering Kirk Douglas (and a City I Wish I’d Known)

Kirk Douglas has died.  Meanwhile, his obituary in the Albuquerque Journal gave only the briefest mention of his 1962 movie, Lonely are the Brave.  Which is odd, because Douglas considered this movie his favorite.  And because the movie was filmed in Albuquerque.

The movie is based upon the fine 1956 novel The Brave Cowboy by Edward Abbey, a UNM graduate and firebrand of wilderness defense.  In the movie, Douglas is Jack Burns, a modern-day self-described “cowhand” and “loner clear down deep to my very guts.”  Burns also has issues, to say the least, with 20th-century life.  He rides on a horse named Whiskey into “Duke City” from a ranch likely in the vicinity of Socorro, New Mexico.  He soon purposely commits a minor, if wild, infraction in order to be thrown into the Duke City jail.  Burns’s longtime friend, Paul Bondi, is an inmate there, destined for “two years in the penitentiary” for giving aid to some “wetbacks” after they entered the United States.  With the aid of a pair of hacksaw blades smuggled into the jail in his boot, Burns wants to spring Bondi and himself from the jail.  He then wants Bondi and Bondi’s wife and son to join him on an escape to the safety and idyll of “a place in Sinaloa,” Mexico.  I’ll reveal no more.

The movie was directed by David Miller.  In a New York Times article, film director Alex Cox described the movie as “elegantly photographed, theatrical rather than ‘natural,’ exuberantly acted, deftly paced.” Screenwriter Dalton Trumbo did a fine job with the script, with Abbey himself, in his journals, generously remarking, “It’s very good – the dialog much livelier, heartier, wittier, than my own.”  Douglas, 44 when he made the movie, is as magnetic as ever: handsome, simple, strong, his famous chin dimple still as obvious as Tijeras Canyon.  The marvelous cast includes Walter Matthau (at his grumpy best), gorgeous Gena Rowlands, Michael Kane (unfortunately, often overlooked in discussions of the film), William Schallert, Carroll O’Conner, George Kennedy, and Bill Raisch, who is exquisitely menacing as an embittered one-armed man.  The movie has comedy and a very curious love triangle.  Finally, the movie is beautifully scored with equal measures of drama and tenderness by Jerry Goldsmith.

As a writer and a lover of wilderness who has long been interested in what writers call the “spirit of place,” I am grateful that Kirk Douglas had the vision and sensitivity to make certain that Lonely are the Brave was filmed not somewhere in California, but in Albuquerque.  The West Mesa, Rio Grande, and Sandia Mountains also figure prominently in the film.    

Watching the movie, I occasionally wish I could have lived in Albuquerque in 1961, when the movie was made and the city’s population was a mere 200,000.  Yet, today, thanks to this movie, I can, in a sense.  I can join Jack Burns and his beloved horse as they camp in the sand-and-juniper emptiness of the West Mesa, which today is blanketed by houses and strip malls.  I can enter the tranquil neighborhood and cozy home of the Bondi family – at the time, the North Valley residence of Arch Napier, an employee of the Albuquerque Tribune.  I can travel on the movie’s “Highway 60” – actually, Route 66 in 1961, serene by today’s standards – as it winds intimately through Tijeras Canyon.  And, with gasping Jack Burns, I can slog up the western ramparts of the Sandias, which Abbey, with a stirring mysticism, described as “loom[ing] over the valley like a psychical presence, a source and mirror of nervous influences, emotions, subtle and unlabeled aspirations” – and which today, thankfully, remains mostly unsullied by development.  

I’ve lived in Albuquerque off and on for over three decades, and I’ve come to embrace this city and its unfailingly awesome surroundings.  As for Edward Abbey, he indicated he had scarce love for Albuquerque, but his romantic and tragic novel, and this film, remind me of why I’m sticking with this city for the duration.

When it was released in 1962, Lonely are the Brave was a modest popular and a strong critical success.  Today the movie is rightfully regarded as a cult classic. 

Thank you, Albuquerque.

And rest in peace, Kirk Douglas.          

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