This review is part of Legends of Western Cinema week.
This Western has been part of my life since I was young. It is a powerful movie, and one I love deeply... but I can't watch it very often because it breaks my heart.
This is a modern Western, set in the year it was filmed, but still very much a Western, even with cars and helicopters.
The basic plot: Jack Burns (Kirk Douglas), rides into a New Mexico town to try to help his best friend, Paul (Michael Kane), who's been jailed for helping illegal immigrants and faces two years in prison. Burns may live in current day, but he's an old-fashioned cowboy, doesn't have a home, doesn't have ID or a driver's license. He's a simple man of the Old West, out of his time, out of his place. The world has gone and changed, and is full of fences and laws and cars and airplanes and chaos masquerading as civilized order.
He gets deliberately arrested to join his friend in jail, to convince him to then break jail with him. But Paul has changed and accepted the modern world, and he intends to serve out his two-year sentence. He has a wife and a son, and if he breaks out of jail, they'll all be on the run, forever. He doesn't want that. So Burns breaks out alone and busts for the Mexico border on his horse, Whiskey, with the New Mexico law in hot pursuit.
I'm a sucker for movies about characters lost and outdated as time, progress, and civilization steamroll right over them and their ways. Maybe because that's how I've always felt. Some of my favorite Westerns are all set in the early 1900's, and incorporate this theme: Big Jake, The Professionals, The Wild Bunch. And Lonely are the Brave.
This movie is quiet, introspective, but still has plenty of action. It's Jack Burns' movie. Well, Jack Burns and his horse, because the young and skittish, beautiful, flaxen-maned Whisky is a main character herself, and as important as Jack. He talks constantly to her, she acts up in return and has more personality than quite a few actors I can think of. This is Kirk Douglas at his finest. He's always made a great cowboy, and how he brings Jack Burns alive is the center of this tale. It's my favorite role of his.
There are so many scenes that are amazing. The opening, where we see a open-aired camp, Burns lying on his bedroll, sipping coffee, Whisky in the background... when he hears engines and looks up in the sky to see three jets leaving contrails over the New Mexico sky. His look as he watches their intrusion says it all. The movie is full of those contrasts: Burns and his horse and open country against highways and jail and the modern world.
There's some dialogue in the first half of this movie I always liked, that always sums up the difference between Burns cowboy perspective, and the modern world taking over:
Burns: "A Westerner likes open country. That means he's got to hate fences, and the more fences there are, the more he hates them. D'you ever notice how many fences there're getting to be? And the signs they got on them: no hunting, no hiking, no admission, no trespass, private property, closed area, start moving, go away, get lost, drop dead! And they got those fences that say this side's jail, or that side's a street, or here's Arizona and that's Nevada, or this is us, that's Mexico. The one between here and Mexico is the fence that got Paul into trouble. He just naturally didn't see the use of it, so he acted as if it wasn't there. So when people sneaked across it, he just felt they were still people so he helped them."
Jerri: "Jack, I'm going to tell you something. The world that you and Paul live in doesn't exist. Maybe it never did. Out there is the real world. And it's got real borders and real fences, real laws and real trouble. And either you go by the rules, or you lose. You lose everything."
Burns: "You always keep something."
The scene when he looks in on Paul's sleeping son, marvels at him, at what he will never have. Not a word spoken, just watching Burns react to the young boy, to family life.
Every scene between him and Jerri (Gena Rowlands) is outstanding. They sparkle and shine when they're together. I love how obvious their history is in how they act towards each other. How they take care of each other, how they talk about Paul and life, how they can really talk with each other. And their goodbye scene... it nearly makes me cry every time. It's so sweet, so poignant, so perfect. (That cue on the album has the same effect on me as the scene in the movie).
I love how amazed and rather proud Burns is when he finally realizes that Paul won't be breaking out of jail with him, how he accepts that his friend has changed and moved into the modern world. And how he can grin about it, even as he is now alone, a last cowboy.
My favorite scene in the movie is when Burns has a chance to escape clean... if he leaves Whiskey behind. He starts to go, pauses and looks back at her, and she's watching him. He starts to leave again... and he can't do it. He can't abandon her. He just can't, even if it means his freedom, even if he gets killed. That makes me cry too, cuz I so get that. I wouldn't have been able to leave her either. Their subsequent climb up the steep mountainside not meant to be climbed by anything but a mountain goat is always harrowing.
The rest of the cast is outstanding as well, with Walter Matthau as the sheriff hunting Burns, and George Kennedy playing a nasty bully of a police officer who gets his kicks beating up prisoners. Carroll O'Connor plays a trunk driver.
The script by Dalton Trumbo is so well done. Perfect example of how to set up your end in the beginning, how to say so much with so few words, how to convey even more without a single word spoken. Those contrasts between modern and old worlds, the way the police can't believe Burns has no ID, nothing. I admire the writing so much in this film. The black and white cinematography is perfect. This is not a movie that would work in color.
But I also admit, I usually stop the movie five minutes from the end. The minute it starts raining... I hit the off button. The ending is brilliant, but hard, one of the hardest in any movie I know of. I bawl buckets when I do decide to watch it. Rough rough rough.
And Jerry Goldsmith's score... it's in my top five scores of all time. It is amazing by itself, and it could not be more perfect and suited in the actual movie. Jack Burns' theme, often played on solo trumpet, is so beautiful, and so lonely and sad, and so goose-bumpy. The beautiful variations of that theme, particularly when Burns and Whiskey sneak along trails in the mountains. And my favorite cue, "Run for It," so tense as his options dwindle, so soaring as he and Whiskey race for the forest.
(this is the only selection of music from this film I could find)
"You know what a loner is? He's a born cripple. He's a cripple because the only person he can live with is himself. It's his life, the way he wants to live. It's all for him. A guy like that, he'd kill a woman like you. Because he couldn't love you, not the way you are loved."