NOTE: This is a story about the film ‘Lonely are the Brave,’ based on the book, ‘Brave Cowboy,’ by Edward Abbey and my efforts to find, in 2014, the original film locations from the 1961 production. In searching for those sites, I did not initially seek additional information from other sources; I wanted to find these locations–or at least attempt to–on my own. In most cases I was successful, but other scenes stumped me. If you know the Albuquerque area and can offer additional information, or corrections, I welcome your observations. Finally, this story will only have meaning to you if you’ve seen the film. If you haven’t…stop. Rent or buy the DVD and watch it. Then come back here for the rest of the story—volume one…..JS
I was a kid, maybe ten or eleven and at home alone one evening with a bowl of popcorn and the TV. I’d turned the channel to NBC to catch that week’s presentation of “Saturday Night at the Movies.” It was a western, a film I’d never heard of, ‘Lonely Are The Brave,’ starring Kirk Douglas and Walter Mattheau. As the opening scene played out, I assumed it was set in the Old West, that it was another ‘Wyatt Earp/Gunsmoke’ kind of movie. But when Douglas, as ‘Jack Burns,’ leans back to savor his hand rolled smoke and offer a few soothing words to his horse Whiskey, the desert silence is disrupted by something out of place. Burns reluctantly lifts his eyes to the sky, not out of surprise but bitter resignation, to the sight of a squadron of screaming jet aircraft, their contrails fouling a faultless New Mexico sky.
This story wasn’t taking place in 1882…this was 1962—the “Modern West,” and Jack Burns was trapped in it. The film was about a world he loved—his beloved West—but a world that was fast spinning out of control. Early in the film, Burns tries to explain himself:
“Basically you’re still an easterner…A Westerner likes open country so he has to hate fences and the more fences there are, the more he hates them…It’s true. You ever notice how many fences there are getting to be? And the signs they got in ‘em…No hunting. No fishing. Private property. Closed area. Get moving. Go away. Get lost. Drop dead…And they got those fences that say: ‘This side’s jail and that’s the street.’ Or ‘here’s Arizona and that’s Nevada.’ Or ‘this is us and that’s Mexico.’
But Jeri Bondi, the wife of the man Burns hopes to break from jail, sees Jack as an anachronism in a society that discourages anything resembling individualism…
“Jack, the world you and Paul live in doesn’t exist…maybe it never did. Out there is the real world and it has real borders and real fences, real laws and real trouble. If you don’t go by the rules you lose…you lose everything.”
Jack replies, “A fella can always keep something.” In the rest of the film, Jack Burns tries to do just that.
Why, as a ten year old, did all this resonate so deeply with me? For the next two hours, I sat transfixed by the story, by Burns’ loathing of a society hellbent on destroying everything he held sacred, and his solitary escape attempt over the mountain, by the film’s disturbing last scene. Somehow, for reasons I still can’t explain–except that maybe this is how my DNA was wired from birth—I came to identify with the film and Jack Burns in a profound way—it would shape my life. More revelations lay ahead…
A decade later, I had finally seen the West, first with my family, and later on my own. As a young adult, it was my obsession. I knew it would become my home. Along the way, I discovered the author Edward Abbey, and I read ‘Desert Solitaire’ again and again. Trapped for the time being in Kentucky, I still kept my watch on mountain time. And I sought out other Abbey books; I learned of a recent collaboration with the great photographer Philip Hyde.
I was as broke as I’ve ever been but somehow found the $23 I needed to buy Abbey and Hyde’s ‘Slickrock.’ I opened the large format book to the end piece, to the author biographies. There was a photo of Ed, the first I’d ever seen…I thought, ‘yep, that’s just how I thought he’d look.’ I scrolled down the text, which cited some of his novels. I read, “…including ‘Brave Cowboy, upon which the film ‘Lonely Are The Brave’ was based.” Of course…the complete circle. It was perfect.
* * *
In the years following that first viewing of ‘Lonely are the Brave,’ the only way to see it again was to keep a close eye on the tv movie listings; there was no chance then, that the film would re-appear in theaters. Even after the Age of VCRs brought films into our living rooms, it wasn’t until 1992 that Universal finally released the film as a video cassette, modified of course, to fit the small screen. ‘Lonely are the Brave’ was finally released on DVD in 2009, in its original wide-screen format.
Once I could watch the film on demand, the landscape of that film became as familiar to me as my own backyard. I had learned years earlier that the setting of the film, in and around Duke City, New Mexico, was and always has been, in fact, a moniker for Albuquerque and environs. But I always had to remind myself that the ‘West” Jack Burns longed for, and the changes that had chased him up the side of the Sandia Peak occurred years ago. I first laid eyes on the American Southwest years after Burns lamented its death. If Burns feared all was lost in 1962, what would he think of the land now in 2014? And more specifically, what had happened to the very ground Burns had sought refuge in, and even employed as his ‘escape route’ from civilization and the long arm of the law, so many years ago?
I decided to go back to New Mexico and have a look.
LONELY ARE THE BRAVE…SCENE 1…Camp
The opening scene of the film unfolds on the scrub desert below The Volcanoes, or the Three Sisters, on the far west edge of town. Finding them is easy—they’re visible from practically any point in the valley. Finding the exact location is more difficult.
For years, I’ve been photographing ‘Then & Now’ or ‘Before & After’ images. It’s always a matter of finding two or more geographic features, at varying distances from your vantage point, and aligning them in relation to each other and to the photographer. This scene led us north of the Three Sisters, up Unser Blvd to Rainbow Blvd and the Volcano Vista high School complex.
Just beyond the parking lot, Tonya and I spotted a very old dirt road. At a point a quarter mile west of the pavement, we found a junk yard of sorts. It was near here that the first scene of the film was shot. The view to the Volcanoes is still remarkably the same. It is perhaps the only part of the landscape, however, that is still intact. On all sides, housing projects are moving in, getting closer by the month. Our Google street view map, in fact, failed to show some of the new paved roads that have been added in just the past couple of years. Soon jack Burns’ campsite will be lost to suburbia…
SCENE 2…the Volcanoes.
Still, just east of The Volcanoes, this film location lies within the boundaries of Petroglyph National Monument, a 12,000 acre federally protected area on the west side of Albuquerque and south of the opening scene by a couple of miles. We parked at the Monument parking lot and followed a heavily marked designated trail that, in fact, was edged by a steel barrier. The trail clung to the bottom of a rocky talus slope and seemed determined to keep us from getting on top of the mesa where we needed to be. We had no choice but to duck under the railing and pick our way through the rocks to the mesa above. As we faced the Volcanoes, it became apparent that the film site we sought was on the far side of the mesa, on the other side of the horseshoe, as it were. An hour later, as we studied images from the film that I’d printed before we left, we finally came within inches of the spot. On this day, Tonya filled in for Kirk Douglas.
We made our way back to the road via the far side of the horseshoe mesa. When we ducked under the fence on the park boundary we realized we’d been in a ‘CLOSED AREA,’ and that entering the monument at this point was restricted by the National Park Service. We couldn’t miss the irony here. Had it not been for its national monument status, parts of this area might have been developed commercially, or for more residential sprawl. But even with the protection, Burns would have found himself in even more legal hot water for entering a national monument closed area—pursued, not just by the sheriff, but by eager law enforcement rangers from the NPS.
SCENE 3…The Mystery Highway
If there is one scene in the film that stumped us, at least while we were there, it was the highway crossing by Jack and his horse. Pulling stills from the film, we could identify a busy four lane highway, the Sandias in the background and a truck stop in the middle distance. A prominent irrigation ditch bordered the highway and it appeared to bend right as it went north. We considered both 2nd and 4th streets as possibilities, but could never get the foreground to align properly with the Sandias.
We pursued one clue that offered an interesting side note. As Burns attempted to cross the highway, a billboard is visible in the background. We could make out the words ‘Cavalier Motel,’ and a Google search found an image of an old post card of the motel in its heyday. The card provided us an address and we discovered that the motel had long ago been torn down. But as we looked more closely at the business that resides there now, we incredibly found a remnant of the original sign.
Another clue to the location was a cemetery that appeared in the same scene, adjacent to a dirt road that Burns followed after he’d made his dangerous highway crossing on Whiskey. But we could not find the cemetery. Later, after we were home, I may have found it after all, via a Google street view. We’ve included a Google image of the cemetery and a still from the film for comparison. If they’re one and the same, it may be that our mystery highway was once US 85 and has been so completely consumed by I-25, that no trace of the original road survives.
SCENE 4…The Bondi Hacienda
To find the location of the Bondi home, we realized it was far closer to the Sandias than we’d first imagined. In fact, the small adobe home was near the Tramway Road. Someone once told me that the tram was under construction during the filming and the crew was able to gain access to several film locations that would have previously been impossible to reach. The area, like most of ABQ is fast filling with new subdivisions. The ‘before & after’ view we offer here is as close as we could get, though the actual spot might very well be in the middle of somebody’s Great Room. We could find no trace of the little Bondi home as it appeared in the film, but we did spot one adobe home, very near the “Bondi place,” that bears some resemblance to the original, though it has been greatly expanded and ‘improved.’
SCENE 5…The Foothills, the Abandoned Cabin & the Sandia Peak
This is where things really got depressing. In the film, Burns escapes from jail, after breaking in to it and is unable to convince his pal Bondi to escape with him. Hearing the news, Sheriff Bondi stares east to the Sandias and speculates, “Cowboy, I bet you’re above the foothills already.” And that’s exactly where Burns rides to make his escape–up the foothills to the top of Sandia peak, where “a carpet of pine needles, all the way to Mexico,” awaits him.
In the 1961 production, Burns and Whiskey ride across open land and pinyon-juniper forest toward the mountain. The view is wide-open and in the distance, Albuquerque clings to the river valley below.
Today, the open space is disappearing fast. The open plain, the long rise from the river to the rugged terrain below Sandia Peak, is a maze of homes, and clearly many of them have been built in the last five years…Albuquerque’s east side is exploding, almost as rapidly as the sprawl to the west.
But while the topography of the long sloping plain toward the mountain offered little resistance to development, the complicated, boulder strewn geography below the peak should have made the construction of new McMansions more difficult…
What a foolish statement, and I should know better than that by now. The difficulty of the terrain only makes it more desirable for the wealthy few who can take on the challenge of building a home where none should be allowed. Albuquerque’s most extravagant—some might say obscene—residential structures now mark–or mar– Jack’s escape route.
It seemed like such a quiet place in 1962. And in the film, he pauses near an abandoned adobe and stone cabin to water his horse and pause for reflection. Burns finds a comfortable place in the shade, already showing relief as he moves farther and farther away from the city. And despite signs that the law is getting closer, there is comfort in being back in the wilderness, as it was meant to be. As Jack saddles his horse, he sees a cougar perched on a boulder above him. He eyes the mountain lion with respect and appreciation. It’s the human predators that worry him.
In 2014, a mountain lion wouldn’t stand a chance here. The old derelict cabin is gone, replaced by a rash of trophy homes, some gated, and all of them ridiculously over-built and seemingly in competition for a page in ‘Architectural Digest.’ A quick Zillow check showed several homes in the area for sale, ranging in price from $800,000 to $1.25 million. I don’t think many of Sandia Height’s residents would look at Jack Burns as anything more than riff raff…a saddle tramp trespassing on their property.
Between the McMansions, up in the foothills, is a recreation area and on the day we were there, the parking lot was full. A bulletin board listed those pesky rules and regulations that Burns despised. And a road sign warned each approaching vehicle:
PARKED VEHICLES MUST DISPLAY
VALID RECREATIONAL PASS.
I wonder if Whiskey would count as a vehicle.
Duke City has changed since 1956, when Abbey wrote the novel, or 1962 when the story came to the screen. If Jack Burns found the city uninhabitable then, what would he think of Albuquerque and the American Southwest now? And what happens to people like Jack in 2014? Where do they go to escape the world today?….
“…over the great four-lane highway…the traffic roared and whistled and thundered by, steel, rubber, and flesh, dim faces behind glass, beating hearts, cold hands—the fury of men and women immured in engines.”
That’s Abbey and ‘Brave Cowboy’ in 1956. He was always ahead of his time. But it must have never given him any comfort.
POSTSCRIPT: We call this ‘volume 1′ because there are other film locations we’d like to visit in the future that we were unable to see on this visit. A late afternoon dust storm that reduced visibility almost to zero and shorter days cut our time short. So look for ‘volume 2′ at some point, hopefully by next summer…JS
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