On my way down to spend a week in the Mojave desert I queued up Edward Abby‘s Desert Solitaire on my trusty iPhone and spent some time with the old curmudgeon.  His desert was at the Arches and the Canyon Lands of Utah, near Moab, which was still in 1959, a small, mostly Mormon, outpost.  Abbey spent a couple of summers as a seasonal ranger, hauling the few tourists out of sandy washes, trucking out the campsite garbage and contemplating sunsets and the vagaries of the human species.  The book is a mezcla of writings, from a gripping lust, betrayal and murder story to an anarcho-rant against all things mechanized and govermentalized to journal-like pieces of a trip through Glenn Canyon just before the dam went up, and a few carelessly adventurous desert trips.

I liked the book, some parts more than others.  We certainly share a mind-mingling sense of kinship with deserts and dry, stony places, not so much his sometime carelessness with the object of his love, like rolling tires into the Grand Canyon just to see them roll and bounce, or killing a rabbit to see if he could, nor the attitudes he  held that find an echo in the fringes of states rights cattlemen like Cliven Bundy and his supporting militias.

“…the wilderness should be preserved for political reasons. We may need it someday not only as a refuge from excessive industrialism but also as a refuge from authoritarian government, from political oppression. Grand Canyon, Big Bend, Yellowstone, and the High Sierras may be required to function as bases for guerrilla warfare against tyranny…

What I didn’t know was that Abbey had written a couple of novels and that one, The Brave Cowboy, had been made into a movie with Kirk Douglas, called Lonely Are the Brave.– which I watched the other night.

Movie Lonely Are the BraveWhat a fine, old black and white movie, with a very smart script by recently un-blacklisted Dalton Trumbo and a gripping horse and man scramble up the cobbled slopes of the Sandia mountains.  It’s reminiscent of Humphrey Bogart’s attempted get-away in High Sierra though Kirk Douglas’ Jack Burns gets an army helicopter and a sadistic deputy to deal with as well.  Walter Matthau plays a convincing low-key sheriff who would just as soon not catch the escapee, and Gena Rowlands has some nice furious-at-all-men lines.

Though I haven’t read the novel, it’s clear that Abbey’s basic themes are here — a man who won’t be fenced in, taking wire-cutters to barbed wire in the opening scenes, a man who rides his horse through on-rushing traffic,  and a man, all but alone, hounded (to death) by the mechanized forces of the modern world, from high speed jeeps on rutted mountain roads, to a swooping helicopter, to a careening long-haul truck.  Against all this the Abbey-man cannot win.

What the film gave up, even with Dalton Trumbo at the pen, was the novel’s set up for the opening jail scenes, the Jack Burns break-in and his subsequent break-out.  As Abbey had it, the initial crime of Burns’ jailed friend, Paul Bondi, was failure to register for the draft — on anarchist principles.  When Burns breaks in, to break Bondi out (actually an odd idea, but never mind) it turns out that he has not registered either.  Now, at risk of more than a few weeks in jail for a bar-room fight, he makes his escape; being a draft-dodger the authorities throw everything into the pursue.

Universal Pictures couldn’t go along with giving opposition to the draft any screen time, even in 1961 — though they can hardly have guessed how the idea would catch on among draft-age young men as the war in Vietnam began to require hundreds of thousands of them.  Instead, the “crime” becomes helping illegal immigrants after they have crossed the border, “not to cross,” Bondi’s wife explains to Burns, “but after they’ve crossed, with food and water.”  This had to be a Trumbo idea, the durned lefty — author of, among others, Johnny Got His Gun, of 1939, as anti-war a book as you’re likely to find.

So, I was sorry the anti-draft story got lost, but it’s a good movie nonetheless, worth having on your shelf of movie classics to revisit from time to time.  In the additional material on the DVD is an interview with Douglas in his somewhat disabled old age, saying Lonely Are the Brave was one of his favorite films, as well as a matter of pride for hiring Trumbo against the black list.  Good work Kirk!

And for more on Edward Abbey (1927-1989) here are some pages devoted to him.