Welcome to our Colossus Movie Guide for Ride Lonesome. This guide contains our detailed library of content covering key aspects of the movie’s plot, ending, meaning, and more. We encourage your comments to help us create the best possible guide. Thank you!
What is Ride Lonesome about?
Ride Lonesome is about how we find meaning and catharsis in an ever-changing world. The dauntingly boundless American landscape becomes an important character in the film, reflecting each characters’ sense of waywardness and isolation as they run from their ghostly pasts towards a more hopeful future. This creates a disorienting sense of limbo, where the present—long stretches of brown nothingness that are hauntingly visualized by Boetticher’s minimalist yet constricting aesthetic—is populated with the ghosts and demons of their past. Those demons either come in the form of their past actions, like Boone and Whit with their crimes or Carrie with her endangered husband, or what others have done to them, like how Frank killed Brigade’s wife. This journey illustrates the complexities of how we cope with past trauma and what consequences lie ahead for our future based on our actions.
Ultimately, Ride Lonesome becomes a tragedy about the seeming ecstasy of revenge. While Boone and Whit and Carrie can move on into the future, the final image of the film forever imprisons Brigade in his past trauma. As a result, the film profoundly displays the inescapable existential hurdles we must all jump on our path through life. Catharsis doesn’t always mean what we think it’ll mean. And sometimes it cannot be achieved at all.
Movie Guide table of contents
- Randolph Scott – Ben Brigade
- Karen Steele – Mrs. Carrie Lane
- Pernell Roberts – Sam Boone
- James Best – Billy John
- Lee Van Cleef – Frank J
- James Coburn – Whit
- Burt Kennedy – Writer
- Budd Boetticher – Director
Why is the movie called Ride Lonesome?
Existential isolation and the American frontier
Most of what you need to know about Ride Lonesome is right there in the title: Ben Brigade is a loner. Much like Budd Boetticher and producer Harry Joe Brown’s other collaborations, such as Comanche Station, The Tall T, and Seven Men From Now, this 1959 western focuses on a lonely man attempting to escape past trauma or guilt. This journey forces him to become isolated from others, and what we witness as a result is a contemplative character study of his ability to move on—if it’s even possible to move on.
But what exactly does the title mean for the themes and deeper meaning of this particular film? There’s actually quite a bit to unpack, as every bit and aspect of Budd Boetticher’s aesthetic that we’ll cover in this explanation goes towards defining just what Brigade’s loneliness symbolizes and says about the history of America, about the human condition. Before we even discuss the characters, it’s important to establish what “Ride Lonesome” means purely in the visual sense. By understanding the film’s cinematic vocabulary—the composition, the camera angles, the color palette, the movement—we’ll be properly situated to process the deeper story, emotions, and ideas.
As Martin Scorsese describes it in this discussion of the film, the “loner” is essential to the history of the Western. “He’s out there in the wilderness, he’s making his way on his own. So you have to ask yourself how central it is, really, as Americans, to the history of this country, the idea of a loner. Because it’s a big part of our mythology, our idea of ourselves as Americans.” Scorsese argues that in a country that’s constantly changing, it’s easier to feel alone, to feel as though you don’t belong. The vast, empty desert landscapes found in Westerns comes to reflect the American condition.
And it doesn’t just apply to the “Old West,” as Scorsese notes in the video, but in urban stories as well. You can essentially view Taxi Driver as a modern western that takes place in the city. “Most stories about loners are also about their struggle to fit into the community, to come to terms with the community, to overcome some kind of hurt or loss. That’s one of the elements that’s so powerful in Ride Lonesome.”
In this way, we must consider both the characters and the setting when we think about the true power of the film’s title, which ultimately offers a much more strikingly probing commentary with profound existential ramifications than meets the eye. The American landscape becomes just as important of a character as Brigade, as Carrie, as Boone or Whit, or even as villains Billy John and his brother Frank. The vast, unforgiving California terrain that surrounds these people symbolizes both the beauty and tragedy of the American frontier, constantly reflecting the characters’ physical and emotional states of isolation and emptiness.
The most important step in uniting the characters with the setting was the use of CinemaScope—an anamorphic lens series that revolutionized the way movies were shot, presented, and experienced. The lens would squeeze a wide image onto standard 35mm film, which allowed for a much wider aspect ratio of up to 2.55:1 (compared to the traditional 1.37:1). This dramatically widened canvas allowed filmmakers to explore not only new compositional possibilities, but, as Scorsese notes in the above discussion, narrative techniques and character insights. The use of CinemaScope didn’t make Ride Lonesome feel more epic like a John Ford film, but more intimate like a film noir. “[Boetticher] opened up to a wide screen, and it became even more precise. A lot of negative space was used so that the minimalism was emphasized even more.”
This creates a sense that the characters exist outside civilization where rules and authority command the proceedings. Here in the West, you are existentially isolated, you struggle for survival in an indifferent universe. As Sean Axmaker poetically phrases it in his analysis of Boetticher’s films, “Completely isolated from society, it’s as if Scott’s leathery heroes live in a perpetual state of wandering, a prisoner of the desert.”
Axmaker specifically notes the opening scene as a table setter for this exploration. As you can see in the image above, we are introduced to Brigade as if he is indeed a “prisoner” of the desert. “Scott makes his entrance into each film walking through a sheer crevice, hemmed in by walls of rock on either side, and this image is the defining state of his world: barren deserts, rugged plains where the rocks jut out of the earth instead of trees, and featureless valleys, all ringed by distant mountains that are as much fences as borders, trapping them in a domain far from civilization.” Boetticher begins to use much longer takes with Ride Lonesome, only further emphasizing the overwhelming sense of loneliness that afflicts this opening scene (and, of course, the rest of the film).
While constricting moments like the opening scene create a sense of imprisoned isolation, often the use of wide space suggests a much more meandering, wayward sense of solitude that viewers might find even more unsettling. In this way, as Tom Gunning notes in his analysis of the Ranown cycle, the western landscapes that never disappear from Boetticher’s films—no matter how intense the inevitable confrontations that plague Randolph Scott’s lonely characters become—reveal a specific view of American life. “Rather than constantly cutting his scenes into large-scale close-ups, Boetticher exploits the western genre’s sense of expansive space, bringing out its depth through carefully layered compositions, as contrasting groups scatter across the frame. Too often, widescreen westerns rely on the horizontal expanse such aspect ratios supply; Boetticher, in contrast, casts our gaze into the distance.”
In summation, Ride Lonesome‘s visual language, its attention to framing our characters in the colossal desolation of America, comes to encapsulate the core themes of the film: the pursuit of redemption and closure, the trying existential journey of the individual, and the longing for connection in a country that’s leaving the way things used to be behind.
The themes and meaning of Ride Lonesome
The painstaking search for redemption and closure
All four of our heroes are looking for redemption or closure from past traumas. Brigade, Boone, Whit, and Carrie are all caught in a state of perpetual limbo that feels achingly pervasive and insurmountable given Boetticher’s stringent focus on the Old West’s far-reaching barrenness: Boone and Whit are two outlaws seeking amnesty through Billy John, hopeful to receive a fresh start and build a new life; Brigade is seeking to find closure in the wake of his wife’s death, to transcend the anger and grief that torment him; while Carrie hopes to reconnect with her husband, fearful that he has been killed and may never return.
In each case, they are caught between confronting the past and moving towards the future. The past, especially in the case of Brigade in regard to Frank who killed his wife, is often treated as a demon that needs to be exorcised. These ghosts haunt the vast planes of their slow, meandering journeys in the most terrifying way possible: the demons may be miles away, but thanks to Boetticher’s minimalist, CinemaScope approach to personifying the desert, they are always within frame—an inherent part of the frame, an inescapable part of the setting. These characters are running away from what they are running directly into—they are both escaping and confronting as they navigate and search for catharsis.
Which creates an arresting dynamic. These characters are both driven by the past and can’t stop talking about the future, yet the film invariably feels of-the-moment at all times. It reveals the painstaking process of living, of managing existence when your past is in shambles and your future is in question. You’re racing to patch things up and achieve catharsis, yet your reality is sluggish and wandering. It requires tenacity and discipline to navigate such eerie waters, to remain afloat when the threat of danger endlessly lingers in those troubling waters. This alarming sense of exposure and insecurity is, once again, all thanks to Boetticher’s minimalist approach.
The ending of Ride Lonesome explained
The tragedy of revenge: Brigade’s solitary path
There might seemingly be no connection between Ride Lonesome, a 1959 American Western, and The Revenger’s Tragedy, a darkly comedic Jacobean play from the 17th century. Yet during that discussion of Ride Lonesome linked above, Scorsese (whom I trust above all) claims he heard that screenwriter Burt Kennedy was heavily inspired by Cyril Tourneur’s satirical play (although many attribute authorship to Thomas Middleton these days). And when we evaluate the ending and observe the astounding level of loneliness that beleaguers Brigade’s life, we can start to see, despite a seeming uplifting ending, Ride Lonesome is, indeed, a tragedy.
Central to these two stories’ connection would be their tales of revenge and justice. In The Revenger’s Tragedy, Vindice seeks to avenge the death of his betrothed, who was poisoned by the Duke. In both works, there’s a lingering questioning of the morality and consequences of seeking such revenge. Also, Vindice is heavily isolated because of his relentless pursuit. Part of both Vindice and Brigade’s isolation stems from their ability to deceive. While Vindice literally wears disguises, Brigade manipulates people and situations with his silence and games. In a sense, they abandon the ability to connect and foster companionship, and instead use people as a means to an end.
All in all, the main takeaway these two pieces of art share is the tragedy of revenge. The fact that Kennedy may have inspired by a renowned Jacobean revenge tragedy for his commercial Hollywood script just goes to show that Ride Lonesome was no ordinary Western; that Brigade’s plight didn’t inspire ecstasy in the end; that Boetticher’s pinnacle achievement isn’t an epic, but an intimate and grim tale that captures a wayward spirit wandering a ghostly representation of the American landscape. Beneath the typical genre veneer, the film feels deeply philosophical and intellectual in ways many may not expect, and that final image of Brigade standing in front of a burning hanging tree—the very tree where his wife was hung—speaks volumes about what exactly our main character is incinerating. In the end, he has chosen to forever lead a solitary path.
The sheer weight of Brigade’s solitary path can be observed in relation to the film’s other characters. The outlaw Sam Boone, while loyal and noble and hopeful to right his wrongs, is in many ways a walking antithesis to Brigade. Where Boone struts and openly speaks his mind about what he wants and what he believes, bounty hunter Ben Brigade keeps silent, carefully choosing his words and often disguising how he really feels. Boone and Whit are hopeful to start a new life, while Brigade seems intent on continuing to sail his long, lonely passage through the desert. Similarly, Mrs. Carrie Lane owns a path forward where Brigade does not. While she does not know if her husband will be waiting for her in Santa Cruz, the possibility is there. For Brigade, his wife is dead and no murder or sense of justice can change that.
We must also consider that Carrie is the sole female character in a movie filled with lonely men. Where Boone brazenly proclaims his desire for Carrie, Brigade dutifully keeps his distance from the emotionally distraught woman longing for her husband. The contrast between Boone’s willingness and Brigade’s abstinence cannot be ignored, especially because it’s the most pronounced a woman’s sexuality has been pronounced in a Boetticher film. As Sean Asmaker notes, “Never has a woman been reduced to such a pure sexual object in a Boetticher film – Steele’s arch performance doesn’t help humanize her, but that hardly explains the body-hugging costume and torpedo-breast blouse – yet there is a strange, powerful expression of loneliness, of lust, of desire in his dialogue.” Yet, all Brigade can offer up is, “She ain’t ugly.”
Carrie may be a beautiful woman, but she holds no power over Brigade like she does over Boone. As Tom Gunning states when writing about the Ranown cycle, “Although clearly drawn to these women, Scott keeps his desire to himself and usually leads them to another man. More than the women who become spectacles for all the men, dead or missing wives truly drive Scott’s actions… Female phantoms hover over the male-dominated action of these films, obsessing Scott and sealing his isolation.” Carrie’s alluring sexual power is incomparable to the mirage of a woman that haunts Brigade’s desolate life on the range, that becomes an intrinsic component of the frame as much as Frank’s killer savagery.
The true power of the ending lies in both its simplicity and its ambiguity. Let me offer a quick bit of insight that demonstrates my point: In the documentary Budd Boetticher: A Man Can Do That, which offers a retrospective of the director’s upbringing, his entrance into Hollywood, and the establishing of his timeless aesthetic, Boetticher speaks of the profound sense of adoration expressed by French film fans back in the 1960s. The director would visit France and people would come up to him and want to talk about the deep metaphors at play at the end of Ride Lonesome. They believed things like the burning of the hanging tree, which resembled a cross, represented the burning of his religious principles, of any belief of a power higher than what man is capable of finding. Which…made Boetticher laugh. “No,” he would say, “it represents Brigade moving on from his wife’s death!”
Ultimately, Boetticher was a no-nonsense director. He spoke his mind much like Scott’s characters would speak their minds. They might not say much, but they mean what they say. This informs Boetticher’s aesthetic for the Ranown cycle, which is emotionally accessible and completely unpretentious. In the end, we understand that Brigade burns the cross as a tribute to his wife, as a means of exorcising the demons that have haunted him since her death.
Yet…someone like Brigade isn’t as open as he seems. Which reveals another component of Boetticher’s aesthetic: its ability to both unequivocally express and silently brood. When those French film fans offered their various theses on the ending of Ride Lonesome, they were both right and wrong. Did Boetticher or Kennedy consciously visualize Brigade’s evisceration of religion and ultimately speak to the power of the individual? Perhaps not. But the lack of explanation from our main character and the weight of Boetticher’s minimalist approach forces us to assign meaning in ways that make sense to us. In this way, Boetticher’s aesthetic makes his films both universal and timeless—a profound expression of loneliness, of the search for meaning in a world that constantly feels like it’s leaving us behind. Brigade’s lack of expression, his inability to foster lifelong romance or companionship is undoubtedly linked to his trauma and grief. His wife’s death caused intense, arguably self-inflicted isolation for life. And because he’s so tight-lipped, we never explicitly understand what he feels in the wake of Frank’s murder, or why he burns the tree, or where he plans to ride next—all we know for sure is that he’ll ride lonesome.
Important motifs in Ride Lonesome
Actions speak louder than words
As discussed elsewhere in this piece, the contrast between silence and communication throughout the film between characters speaks to the complexities of human interaction and the ways in which we cope with existential pains. Boone is open about what he wants and how he’s going to get it, and Carrie openly expresses the longing she feels for her potentially endangered husband, while Brigade keeps his intentions and plans close to the vest. While Boone (who is seeking amnesty) and Carrie are looking forward, Brigade is inevitably gripped by his past. This speaks the ways in which each party chooses to communicate.
Ultimately, the biggest takeaway from this motif is that actions speak louder than words. No matter what Boone openly dreams about, he cannot achieve amnesty without working together with Brigade to arrest Billy John. Likewise, Carrie will not reach her husband until Brigade is able to move past the demon known as Frank J and open the pathway. Their hopes and longings mean nothing in word form, and only Brigade’s undying commitment to action will bring their dreams to fruition. Carrie tries desperately to understand Brigade through words, saying things like, “You just don’t seem like the kind that would hunt a man for money.” Of course, as we’ve come to know and understand Brigade’s statuesque and incorruptible presence, he simple answer speaks volumes: “I am.” Those two words are enough to express his way of viewing and living life.
Perhaps the most beautiful moment of “actions speak louder than words” is when Brigade chooses to stay up all night with his injured horse. While Brigade is tired and needs his rest for the following day, he cannot deny his duty to the only true companion he has left in this life. More important than sleep is to “let him know he’s not alone.” This speaks to Brigade’s character, his ability to keep his morals and goals firmly intact at all times. As we observe throughout the movie, he doesn’t say what he means, but simply lives by those ideals in his every waking moment. When Frank expresses that he almost forgot that he killed Brigade’s wife, our hero’s response of “a man can do that” once again succinctly demonstrates his philosophy. Brigade has spent his life observing what men can do, and has chosen to live the opposite, to always adhere to what he believes to be true and just.
Poker as a metaphor
My favorite part of Tim Gunning’s analysis of the Ranown cycle is his section on how poker is used metaphorically in westerns, but especially in Boetticher’s films. To demonstrate his point, Gunning quotes the critic Andrew Sarris, who says that Boetticher’s westerns are “constructed partly as allegorical Odysseys and partly as floating poker games where every character took turns at bluffing about his hand until the final showdown.” While poker games are literally a common component of many westerns, making them a visual motif that openly speaks about a given film’s deeper intentions, they exist only in metaphorical form in Boetticher’s films with Scott. “The contests of masculinity in these films,” as Gunning writes, “may culminate in moments of violence, but such dramatic shoot-outs remain relatively brief. It is the lead-up to these final showdowns that creates suspense throughout the narratives and brings out the core values of the films. The men size one another up; with jabs of dialogue and anticipatory challenges, they probe the strengths or weaknesses of potential foes or partners.”
You can observe these metaphorical alludes to poker throughout Ride Lonesome. You must play your cards close to the vest, as Boone and Whit do while they both help Brigade and form a plan to capture Billy John; you must maintain a poker face, as Brigade does with his constant delays on their way to Santa Cruz; you must bluff, as Brigade does with Frank as he tempts him to charge and shoot, or as Boone does when Billy John holds a shotgun to Brigade’s belly. Like poker, we’re never sure who has the winning hand. Yet, as we know, it doesn’t actually matter who has the winning hand. If you can get somebody to fold, you win. It’s all a test of wits, durability, strength.
Gunning illustrates the poker metaphor most beautifully with this passage: “The restraint that poker calls for defines the classic western hero that Scott embodies so well. Although quick on the draw, he is slow to anger or violence. More than an action hero, Scott projects a strangely contemplative figure, watching and sizing up situations in silence. He remains impassive, like the landscape that surrounds him, confident that in the end he has the winning hand.” That is exactly how the ending of Ride Lonesome plays out.
Now it’s your turn
Have more unanswered questions about Ride Lonesome? Are there themes or motifs we missed? Is there more to explain about the ending? Please post your questions and thoughts in the comments section! We’ll do our best to address every one of them. If we like what you have to say, you could become part of our movie guide!