The film begins with Kirk Douglas, looking like the Marlboro Man, laying back and smoking a cigarette, his horse hobbled nearby. The panorama of the West lays behind him. Then a squadron of jets flies overhead, signalling we are not in the Old West, but in a rapidly vanishing frontier. Douglas mounts his recalcitrant mount and encounters fences and highways, which establish him as something of an anachronism.
This is Lonely Are the Brave, a 1962 film romanticizing a dying breed--the nomadic cowboy. Douglas had discovered the novel by Edward Abbey called The Brave Cowboy, and gave it to his friend Dalton Trumbo, who wrote the screenplay, and it was directed by David Miller. Douglas, a fine actor, can be credited with two additional things that altered film history: he gave Stanley Kubrick his big break, and he insisted that the blacklisted Trumbo write under his own name.
Douglas plays Jack Burns, a cowhand living in contemporary (at least for 1962) New Mexico. He hears an old friend (Michael Kane) is in prison for giving assistance to illegal aliens. He visits the man's wife (Gena Rowlands), whom Burns had a thing for, and he tells her he's going to visit him. When told visiting day isn't for a few days, Douglas replies he has ways of talking to a man. His plan is to break into jail. He does this by getting into a fight with a one-armed man in a saloon.
Douglas is arrested and jailed with Kane, and tries to convince him to bust out of jail with him. Kane demurs, so Douglas goes it alone, along with his horse Whisky, heading into the New Mexico mountains with a phlegmatic sheriff (Walter Matthau) and a sadistic cop (George Kennedy) on his tail. Meanwhile, we keep seeing unrelated scenes of a truck driver (Carroll O'Connor) hauling a load of toilets. The savvy viewer may figure out the connection, but I won't spoil it.
This is a fine film, primarily for the stunning black and white photography of Philip Lathrop and the sure-handed direction of Miller. The fight scene is expertly shot, and the camera always seems to be where we want it to be. I did have a problem with the character of Burns, though. There's really nothing brave about him, unless stubbornly insisting on living a life that isn't possible anymore is brave. He's more of a fool, if you ask me. Sure, there's a part of us who wants to go where we want when we want, and to hell with details like carrying identification or having a permanent address. But Douglas' character couldn't function in modern society. He's a tragic figure in that he was born about seventy-five years too late.
Still, it's a pleasure watching Douglas, who contributed to the interviews on the DVD, which was only recently released because Steven Spielberg, a big admirer of the film, hard a hard time finding a copy of it.