Kirk Douglas plays a man out of his time, a wandering cowboy in a world where jet planes streak across the sky and big trucks belt along concrete highways that slice through the sagebrush. Dalton Trumbo's screenplay is concerned with the virtues of freedom and individuality, a pertinent theme for him in that he was one of the "Hollywood Ten", persecuted for holding anti-establishment views that displeased HUAC, the notorious House Un-American Activities Committee.
Altruistically, the cowboy tries to spring a friend from a New Mexico jail, and then finds himself a fugitive on the wrong side of the law. He takes off on horseback for the mountains, ahead of police vehicles and even an air force helicopter. His chief pursuer, a wise and sympathetic sheriff played by Walter Matthau, has an understanding of what Douglas represents, and would not be unhappy to lose him. There is an air of impending tragedy, with the frequent cross-cuting to shots of a huge truck driven by Carroll O'Connor eventually making a kind of sense.
The performances are strong. Matthau and Gena Rowlands are particularly memorable. But it is Douglas' film. He is a great screen actor, and exerts his presence and believability in the role of the man who wants to keep his soul free. The director David Miller never did anything better, and although it was not particularly successful at the box office, it has come to be regarded as one of the American classics of the 1960s.
"Lonely are the Brave " is on BBC2, Thursday 28th December 2000, at 2.50pm.