Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Foolish Cowboys

The 1960s was a time where profound changes in American cinema took place and one of them was the rise of the revisionist western or in the case of the films Hud (1963) and Lonely Are The Brave (1962) a new kind of cowboy: a foolish, stubborn and rowdy individual who doesn't fit in a conformist society or is losing touch with their own sense of self and whose behavior is seriously driving them towards a downfall.

Hud tells the story of the character of the same name, played by Paul Newman. Hud is a hedonistic, self centered country boy whose lifestyle clashes with his father's (Melvyn Douglas) who runs the family farm. His father's pride and work ethic are foolish in the eyes of Hud, who spends his nights in town getting drunk and chasing women. Hud's younger brother Lonnie (Brandon De Wilde) looks up to him and even begins to emulate Hud. What we see here is a really great character arc that makes us realize that the story isn't really about Hud, but about Lonnie, who begins to follow in his older brother's footsteps and eventually rebels against the rebel to come into his own and abandon Hud's empty lifestyle and leave town after the family farm fails.

A friend of mine has a great theory about Hud. He believes that Hud is part of a "trilogy" or sorts that begins with Shane (1953) which also featured De Wilde as the young boy who looks up to Alan Ladd, followed by Hud where he's a teenager entranced by the rebellious, hard living man's man lifestyle before abandoning it by boarding a bus out of town to go to the big city. Here enter Midnight Cowboy (1969) where De Wilde emerges as Jon Voight, a naive cowboy who comes to New York to escape small town life and make his living as a male prostitute before he ends up back on a bus once again. Pretty funny but oddly fascinating, isn't it? When my friend shared this theory I thought it was a strange coincidence that made perfect sense to me.

Of course the character not included in this theory is Hud himself. Hud becomes trapped by his life. It's too late for him, but not for Lonnie.


Lonely Are The Brave shares themes with Hud. Paul Newman plays John W. "Jack" Burns, a lone cowboy whose only companion is his horse Whiskey. Burns is another stubborn old fool. A man who is on the surface good natured and even tempered but in the film's most illuminating scene he displays volatility. He runs afoul of a one armed man in a bar where Burns goes to get liquored up alone. The one armed man (Bill Raisch, who actually played the One Armed Man on The Fugitive TV series) trips Burns and while he reacts without anger and sits down with his bottle of booze and is all smiles, One Arm continues to provoke Burns while Burns tries to ease the situation with wry humor.

This leads into a massive bar fight in which Burns is left undefended and then arrested. The police decide not to jail him and in defiance, Burns punches a police officer. It turns out, he wanted to be jailed all along as a plot to be reunited with his incarcerated friend Paul (Michael Kane) whose wife Jerry (Gena Rowlands) has decided both men, and the gender entire, are stupid. "Believe you me, if it didn't take men to make babies I wouldn't have anything to do with any of you!" Jerry exclaims.

Burns' eventually makes a break from prison which leads to a chase led by the local sheriff (Walter Matthau) and to Burns' end in a highway crash where he is hit by a trick, striking him and his horse.

Hud and Burns are men imprisoned by lifestyles that are meant to them as liberating and detached. Their compulsive actions committed in their seemingly all-in-good-fun, free wheeling nature are really dead ends that cause hurt. The difference between the two is, Hud ends with some sense of ambiguous hope for Lonnie.

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