Saturday, November 14, 2009


“Only the Valiant” (***1/2 out of ****) qualifies as a gritty good western. This Gregory Peck cavalry versus the Indians oater is a solemn suicide mission without a trace of humor. Veteran director Gordon Douglas has helmed a grim, harrowing outdoors epic with an ideal cast of tough guys under considerable pressure; even Lon Chaney, Jr., registers superbly as a powerful Arab trooper. Ostensibly, “Colorado Territory” scenarist Edmund H. North & “A Place in the Sun” scribe Harry Brown drew their screenplay from western film maker Charles Marquis Warren’s taut novel about a group of die-hard cavalrymen cut off from any escape route who must prevent murderous redskins from launching a devastating raid against helpless white settlers. North and Brown stick to Warren’s novel for the most part and the last minute revelation--when it seems that there is no way that our heroes can survive another onslaught of Native Americans—is a corker! This turn-of-the-century tale develops an effective claustrophobic feeling in the second half of the action. Douglas and company take studio bound sets and make them look convincing during the nocturnal hours. The crisp black & white photography of “Going My Way” cinematographer Lionel Linden imbues this western a grim look that accentuates its tension and atmosphere. Actor Michael Ansara, who later played the chief villain in “Guns of the Magnificent Seven,” is extremely effective in a small role as the hated Indian leader Tucsos.

“Only the Valiant” opens with over-voice narration by Army Scout Joe Harmony.
“This is my stamping ground. I’m a scout for the Army. Had my work cut out for me for a long time. Behind that pass there is the whole ‘Pache nation. (There is a graphic of the territory with the Flinthead Mountains stretching across the screen with a bottleneck pass.) They used to come swarming out of the pass killing everything in sights. Then we built a fort—Fort Invincible. It plugged up the pass, just like a cork in a bottle. Things was fine for a while. But them ‘Paches is pretty smart. One day the bottle blew the cork plum apart.” We are shown the burning remains of Fort Invincible with a dead man pinned to a stockade wall and a lance sticking out of his belly. Captain Richard Lance (Gregory Peck of “12 O’Clock High”) and his men boil in on horseback and capture Tucsos (Michael Ansara), and Joe Harmony (Jeff Corey of “True Grit”) wants to shoot him on the spot. Harmony points out Tucsos is “the fella that started this whole business.” Captain Lance intervenes, “The Army doesn’t shoot prisoners, Joe.” Predictably, Harmony is aghast at this prospect. “He’s no common injun. He’s just as near to a god as a fella can get. If you shoot him now, things will quiet down. Without Tucsos stirring them up, the rest of those Indians will get reasonable, just as fast as they can. You take him in alive, you’ll have every ‘Pache in the territory coming after him. We have had three years of this, you can stop it now.” Just as predictably, Captain Lance refuses to execute Tucsos and Lance’s fateful decision to take the Indian warrior back sets into motion nothing but trouble.

Ironically, Fort Winston Commandant Colonel Drum (Herbert Heyes of “Union Station”) surprises Lance when he tells him he should have shot Tucsos. As things stand, Drum wants to get Tucsos to another post. Everybody from the troopers to Joe Harmony knows that escorting Tucsos to Fort Grant is begging to get their hair lifted. The Apaches are poised in the mountains and the fort is under strength. Meantime, we are introduced to the daughter of Captain Eversham, lovely Cathy Eversham (Barbara Payton of “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye”) and young Lieutenant William Holloway (Gig Young of “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?”) and they play a part in a major narrative complication. You see, Lance and Holloway both want to marry Cathy. Clearly, Cathy wants Lance. Colonel Drum refuses to let Lance take Tucsos to Fort Grant because Drum cannot spare Lance. Drum alters the orders and Holloway is given the mission at the last minute, and everybody is shocked. Lance has never changed an order. Furthermore, Lance saw Cathy and Holloway kissing in public, and everybody thinks Lance has reassigned Holloway out of jealousy. Indeed, one officer observes that rewriting orders is about a possible as rewriting the Bible. Predictably, Tucsos escapes and the surviving troopers and Harmony bring back a dead Holloway.

Although Drum expects a relief column of 400 troopers to arrive any day, Harmony points out to Lance that Tucsos will attack. Tucsos has seen the fort and knows their lack of strength. Lance requests to take 6 or 7 men of his choosing to man Fort Invincible and prevent Tucsos from assembling a war party. The bottleneck in the mountains keeps the Indians from riding through in strength; instead, they must come through one-at-a-time. Lance believes his men can thwart them until the relief column arrives. Drum gives him permission and Lance picks the worst men. All of them hate him and would willingly kill him. Foremost among the men are Trooper Kebussyan (Lon Chaney, Jr.), Sergeant Ben Murdock (Neville Brand of "D.O.A."),
Cpl. Timothy Gilchrist (Ward Bond of "The Searchers"), Trooper Rutledge (Warner Anderson of "Objective, Burma!"),Trooper Onstot (Steve Brodie of "Return of the Bad Men"), and Trooper Saxton (Terry Kilburn of "Lolita"). Douglas builds up some scalp-itching suspense, especially after dark when Lance has ordered torches placed on the bottleneck in the pass.

“Only the Valiant” exemplifies the new breed of military western that emerged after World War II. This is not a gung-ho John Ford cavalry western, even if it does have perennial Ford actor Ward Bond. Indeed, Lance’s own men want to kill him and this foreshadows the attitude of troops during the Vietnam War when they fragged their own officers. One tries to topple a heavy rock on him while another tries to shoot him with his carbine. One of the few moments of levity in "Only the Valiant" occurs when they move into Fort Invincible. Sgt. Murdock puts the troops in the old barracks, but establishes Lance's quarters in the guard house. Lance bears the onus of all—except the few who know about the circumstances that brought about the change of orders putting Holloway in charge of the detail. The black & white photography enhances the dire nature of this western. “Only the Valiant” amounts to a last stand western until the last minute reprieve. Reportedly, Peck hated this movie, but then this is not a spit-and-polish western in Technicolor. If anything, “Only the Valiant” lives up to its Warner Brothers origins. It is small but significant and it is grubby with loads of drama and unsavory characters, virtually a “Dirty Dozen” western. "Only the Valiant" just falls short of being a masterpiece because it is such a compact western about one tiny operation. Anything that came between Cathy and Lance no longer assumes any importance when he returns to the fort to discover that she now knows the truth.