Someone once told me “I don’t watch Westerns and war movies. Too much blood and gore, too little character development, and no message to take home. Nothing but guts and glory.”
True, if (and this is a very big, very emphatic if) the only war films or Westerns you’ve ever seen are the straightforward action types (and even among those, old films tend to be far less gory than their newer counterparts—modern Westerns and war films like The Thin Red Line, Saving Private Ryan, True Grit, etc are, on the whole, far more graphic than their predecessors). But there’s nothing to stop a film—irrespective of genre—from also being well-written, from having good characterisation and character development, and from being something more than a battle of “let’s see who’s braver”. Some of the best films—in fact, even the films that I’ve found affirming virtues like humanity, peace, equality, and so on—I’ve seen have been war films or Westerns: Paths of Glory, La Grande Guerra, The Searchers…
My point being, there are films out there that may seem, at first glance, deceptively run-of-the-mill genre film. Then, at closer inspection, they turn out to be something more.
I watched a few minutes of the film back then, figured it was just an Apaches vs the US Cavalry film, and decided I wasn’t in the mood for that right then (yes, lover of Westerns though I am). I came back to the film the other day, and persevered, only to realise that this was a far better film than I had expected it to be.
The setting of the story is along a mountain range, stretching for many miles along the frontier. North of the mountains is Apache territory; the land to the south is held by the US Cavalry, with a few small forts dotted across the area. Through the mountains is only one pass, which is the route the Apaches had been taking to come south on their raids. To counter these attacks and to stop the Apaches, the Cavalry set up a post—Fort Invincible—next to the pass. The Apaches were held back.
Until now, when a sudden and unexpected attack has led to the destruction and burning of Fort Invincible [how ironically named]. The Cavalry has suffered huge losses—but have managed to take prisoner an important enemy: the Apache leader Tucsos (Michael Ansara). The local scout, Joe Harmony (Jeff Corey) is of the opinion that Tucsos should be killed off at once—keeping him prisoner will only attract the wrath of the Apaches.
Captain Richard ‘Dick’ Lance (Gregory Peck), however, who’s in charge, stops Joe. His orders do not allow this cold-blooded and deliberate killing, even of an enemy (especially an enemy who might be an important source of information, or could be kept hostage). No; they’ll head south, to Fort Winston, taking Tucsos with them. Meanwhile, Lance orders his men to clean up the ravaged fort and have it looking like a Cavalry post again.
And from that, we begin to discover something of Lance. This man is a stickler for the rules. A fine officer—the best, in fact, as Gilchrist himself admits grudgingly—but a hard man, and not one to accept anything but the best. Not a man who will bend the rules or be soft, either on himself or on others. This, naturally, does not make Lance popular with his men. Gilchrist isn’t the only one who hates Lance’s rigidity.
Not everybody hates Lance, though. That evening, when he arrives at Fort Winston, he’s greeted warmly by his friend and fellow officer, Lieutenant Bill Holloway (Gig Young), and by Cathy Eversham (Barbara Payton). Cathy’s father is an officer stationed at Fort Winston, and from the conversation in the room—and from the way Cathy greets Lance, by kissing him passionately—it emerges that:
(a) Cathy and Lance are very much in love, and while there’s nothing formal about their relationship, her father seems quite accepting of this match;
(b) Bill Holloway too is in love with Cathy; and
(c) There’s a joking camaraderie between Cathy, Bill, and Lance; Lance and Cathy humour Bill on, taking it in their stride when he promises to propose to Cathy, and he seems to equally accept the fact that Cathy is indubitably Lance’s, not his.
This love triangle, however, is put on the back burner for a while, because Lance goes to meet Colonel Drumm (Herbert Hayes), who commands Fort Winston. The colonel is of the opinion that it’s unsafe to keep Tucsos prisoner at Fort Winston; this fort, after all, is home to women and children as well. It will be best if a detail, commanded by an officer, were to escort Tucsos elsewhere—to Fort Grant, where he can be incarcerated without the fear of civilian lives being lost should the Apaches attack.
On his way back from the Colonel’s quarters, Lance decides (being the conscientious soldier that he is) that he will be in charge of escorting Tucsos to Fort Grant. He informs Cathy and Bill (both of whom are, unsurprisingly, anxious for Lance) and then goes off to make arrangements and pass orders for the journey, the next morning.
Bill uses this opportunity to propose to Cathy. They’re standing in her porch, and she—as Bill really expected—turns him down.
Bill teases Cathy, telling her that he should have known; and that, if he were Lance, and had proposed, she would have accepted him, wouldn’t she? If he had been Lance, and had kissed her—like this—she would have melted into his arms and said yes, wouldn’t she? [Cathy makes no attempt to dissuade Bill and seems perfectly happy to kiss him back, which doesn’t really endear her to me].
And, just as this kiss—long and deep and passionate—is in progress, who should walk by but Lance? He’s on his way to report to the Colonel that all is in place for Tucsos’s transfer to Fort Grant the following day.
Bill and Cathy spring apart, but Lance has seen them. And they have seen Lance. But Lance does not wait to hear explanations (or even ask for any). He goes on, and reports to the Colonel.
Colonel Drumm, however, upturns Lance’s decision to lead the detail himself. No; Lance is Drumm’s most trusted officer; with Drumm being in the condition he’s in (he’s quite ill, having suffered cerebral hemorrhage from which he’s still recovering), he depends on Lance to keep Fort Winston secure. Another man must lead the contingent. Lieutenant Holloway, says Colonel Drumm. Lance’s attempts to insist that he go, as planned, go unheard. Bill it will be.
This means, of course, that Lance has to hurry back to tell Bill to prepare to leave. And, being upright and dedicated as he is, Lance does not tell Bill (or Cathy, who’s also there) that this order comes direct from the Colonel. Bill obeys, and does not show any sign of either fear or resentment, but Cathy is coldly furious. She accuses Lance of having backed out of the unsavoury (and dangerous) task of escorting Tucsos because Lance saw Bill kissing Cathy.
…and only one man, Trooper Kebussyan (Lon Chaney) returns alive, bringing Bill’s mutilated body slung across a horse. Kebussyan is so mad with rage and fear that he leaps impulsively on Lance, trying to strangle him, as soon as he sees the captain. This death—and the death of all the others who were in the detail—is Lance’s fault, says Kebussyan. They were all sent to their deaths because of Lance; because he didn’t kill Tucsos in the first place. Now the Apaches—who were lying in wait, and ambushed this little company three hours outside Fort Winston—have rescued Tucsos, and will soon be amassing their forces for another, more ferocious attack. Kebussyan is quickly overpowered and locked up.
With the status quo having changed once again, Colonel Drumm must reassess the situation. The Apaches have retreated behind the mountains, but can be expected to attack within the next three days or so (the scout, Joe Harmony, has been keeping an eye on them). Drumm has sent an urgent request for relief troops and has been assured that they’ll arrive three days from now, 400 men, enough to hold off the Apaches. What if Tucsos attacks before the troops arrive?
Lance offers a suggestion: go back to Fort Invincible with a small detail—six or seven men—and hold the pass. Just a handful of men can hold Fort Invincible for the couple of days it will take the relief column to get to them. And he, Lance, will lead them. Drumm is initially reluctant, but soon realises this is their only chance. Lance puts forward one condition: that he will be allowed to pick the men for the mission.
Gilchrist, not just disgruntled, but also an inveterate drunkard, who—when given the task of filling up the canteens to last them for the time they’ll be at Fort Invincible, fills up each canteen with whisky:
Kebussyan, released from his temporary confinement for this mission, is still seething with rage at what he thinks was Lance’s way of getting rid of his rival. Sergeant Murdock, resentful of Lance’s blocking of his ambition to be a commissioned officer.
Trooper Onstott (Steve Brodie), a former deserter, who is quite capable of deserting once again, given the chance.
Trooper Rutledge (Warner Anderson), adequate but not exceptional, yet certain that he’s destined for higher things—and simmering with resentment that his talent (as he imagines) hasn’t yet been acknowledged.
Young Trooper Saxton (Terry Kilburn), the trumpeter, who keeps whining for a carbine, but knows deep in his heart that he’s a coward, who probably won’t even be able to summon up the courage to pull the trigger on the carbine if he’s given it.
And the lone other officer on the detail, Lt. Winters (Dan Riss), ill and aware of it.
How can Lance hope to hold Fort Invincible—even if it’s for only a couple of days—with such an ill-matched, incapable bunch? What is his motive in picking these men? And will it work? Will they be able to hold Fort Invincible long enough for the relief column to arrive?
Only the Valiant doesn’t go down a totally different path from the usual Western. It does bow to some conventions and those who’ve seen sufficient Westerns (or war films, actually, since Only the Valiant is both a Western and a war film) are likely to not be surprised at how it ends. The journey to that end, however, is what makes this film worth a watch.
What I liked about this film:
The characterisations. True, as in a lot of other films that deal with a disparate group of people having to lay aside grudges and mutual enmities to work towards a common goal (or, as in this case, just to survive a common enemy), there are the somewhat predictable turnabouts, the incidents that make one person begin to respect another, or lay aside a grudge for just that crucial moment—and then decide to let go of it forever.
What does make Only the Valiant a little different is that not all ends are neatly tied, not all grudges and enmities cast aside so easily (one particular case of animosity, in fact, comes to an end I had not expected). And, along the way, there are some interesting insights into the lives and characters of these men, especially the characters played by Gregory Peck, Lon Chaney, and Ward Bond.
Secondly, the suspense. The story has some interesting twists and turns along the way, making the last half-hour of the film not just a question of a battle for Fort Invincible, but more. Will Lance and his men manage to hold off the Apaches? Is the message that Tucsos sent true? Lots of pretty gripping suspense here.
What I didn’t like:
Not much, actually. Yes, had Only the Valiant taken the path less travelled and tried something completely new when it came to the end, it might have been more satisfying. As it was, though, I still found it entertaining, so I can’t really crib.
And a Peck film? I’m always ready for that.