ONLY THE VALIANT (Gordon Douglas, 1951)

Vapid, wooden Gregory Peck gave some of the most execrable performances in Hollywood history, in Duel in the Sun (King Vidor et al., 1946), Gentleman’s Agreement (Elia Kazan, 1947), Moby-Dick (John Huston, 1956), The Big Country (William Wyler, 1958), Beloved Infidel (Henry King, 1959) and To Kill a Mockingbird (Robert Mulligan, 1962), among others. Sometimes he was okay, however, if the roles did not tax too heavily his severely limited, school-level abilities, and on rare occasion Peck was quite all right: Yellow Sky (William A. Wellman, 1948), The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (Nunnally Johnson, 1956) and, in between, Only the Valiant, an immediately post-Civil War western in which U.S. Cavalry Captain Richard Lance attempts to defend Fort Invincible in the American Southwest against an onslaught of vicious Apaches. It is a sacrificial mission for Lance and his hand-picked batallion, which aims to forestall the savages, led by Tuscos, thereby protecting the area until the arrival of supplemental Cavalry forces.
     It is interesting to note the principle on which Lance based his selection of soldiers: they are the ones that the Cavalry can most easily afford to lose: criminals, cowards, malcontents. For this reason, some feel that Gordon Douglas’s film, from a script by Edmund H. North and Harry Brown adapting a Charles Marquis Warren novel, prefigures works such as The Dirty Dozen (Robert Aldrich, 1967); but, as Lance’s group is killed off one by one, it is more the case that the film’s inspiration comes to the fore: John Ford’s The Lost Patrol, about a doomed British batallion in the Mesopotamian desert in the First World War. One of the most brilliant American films ever made, it also inspired Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954), which paid homage by evoking one of Ford’s most powerful images.
     Like Peck’s General Frank Savage in his all-time best film, the haunting 12 O’Clock High (King, 1949), Lance is disliked by his men. Their feeling has been exacerbated by an ill-serving contrivance: Lance, upon orders that the men do not know about, substituted William Holloway (Gig Young) for himself on a preliminary mission that took the life of the popular lieutenant, who was also—wouldn’t you know—his romantic rival. The film defines as Lance’s no-nonsense maturity that he sits on the truth. (Ironically, Lance is ordered to stay behind because he is the least expendable officer at the fort.) One has cause to find this dubious, though, since Lance’s silence risks undermining the integrity of his command of the group of soldiers. It is especially laughable, and disgraceful, that Cathy Eversham would think even for a moment that his motive for the substitution is that Lance, as she puts it, saw Holloway kissing her. For the record, Peck and actress Barbara Payton had an affair during the shoot—much as Peck had had an affair with Ingrid Bergman during the filming of Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945).
     If we were talking Ford and actor John Wayne, the pair would have mined guilt over Holloway’s death as the reason for Lance’s silence. But Douglas and Peck are not so interested in the complexity of human emotions. Indeed, theirs is a superficial western from start to finish, one in which the racial conflict is granted no tragic dimension, the Apaches are all rotten-evil, and the Civil War is summoned for a sight gag of two of Lance’s men fighting. Still, the action is fairly absorbing, and Peck, as I’ve said, is much, much, much better than usual.

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