When it’s on: Wednesday, 13 June (1.10 pm)
Channel: Channel 4
Today’s update should have focused on Bigger than Life; unfortunately the DVD dispatched by LoveFilm didn’t play (it looked as though someone clawed the disc) and there wasn’t time to get my back-up film shipped out (The House on 92nd Street). I could have ‘winged it’ in both instances, but it’s a while since I’ve seen either movie and I would have been unable to do any kind of justice to them. To be honest, I wasn’t in the mood for the back-up of the back-up, John Woo’s Face/Off, so into the public domain I went for Choice No. 4, Only the Valiant.
Expect much I did not. The two-star review in the Radio Times wasn’t promising, nor the fact Gregory Peck considered it to be his worst project. Besides, the plot – plucky army misfits defend a mountain pass from thousands of bloodthirsty Indians – sounded like something I’d seen a thousand times, indeed it’s the classic tale of prevailing against huge odds that’s been reproduced since the Battle of Thermopylae.
The first portion of the film doesn’t convince. Peck plays Richard Lance, a straight shooting cavalry officer who’s respected by the men, but unloved for doing everything by the book. This includes his treatment of Tucsos, the captured tribal leader. Clearly, Lance should leave ‘the book’ to one side and ensure Tucsos meets a sticky end; instead he’s going to send him behind the frontline to a US prison. The Captain prepares to do the task himself, but his Commanding Officer advises him he’s needed at his post, so he hands it over to his Lieutenant. It’s a bad move. Tucsos is rescued; the man Lance sent returns minus a scalp and the soldiers’ dislike turns to open hate. Worse still, Lance has earned the enmity of his sweetheart, Cathy Eversham (Babara Payton), who believes he let the Lieutenant die to get rid of a love rival.
At this point, Only the Valiant plays like it wants to be a John Ford cavalry epic, only it’s in the hands of Gordon Douglas’s lesser talent. The shots are selected efficiently rather than with any sense of imagination. Some of the editing is terrible, leaving actors looking at nothing long after the cut should have been made. Barbara Payton*, clearly cast as eye candy, puts in an awful, histrionic performance. The chemistry between her and Peck is practically non-existent, which is strange considering the pair enjoyed each other’s company much more away from the set.
It’s here that Lance volunteers to defend the unmanned fort behind the pass, holding off the inevitable Indian attack until reinforcements arrive. He’s allowed to select his men and chooses the most unlikely bunch imaginable. They’re the regiment’s cream of insubordinate and useless soldiers, including those who might kill him before firing a shot at a Native American. Sure enough, potential attempts on his life are made. The men can’t be bothered to properly carry out his orders. But then the first Indian foray comes; then another. Lance’s men steadily dwindle, yet they hold their own. Slowly, they start to believe in their Captain, his leadership and tactical acumen winning them over until they begin to band as a fighting force.
Once the soldiers enter the fort, the splendidly named Fort Invincible, Only the Valiant becomes a very entertaining piece of viewing. Everything about it, all those elements that counted against it in the opening acts, start to work. A relatively low budget production that was filmed in black and white, the picture’s monochrome look turns into a very good thing. Fort Invincible, a virtual ruin, takes on a real claustrophobic feel, shadows and jagged building frames closing in on the men. The pass, wreathed in increasing darkness with each successive attack, becomes filled with portentous danger. All Douglas need do is point the camera at it, for moments showing us nothing but the inky blackness, and suspense is guaranteed. There’s no doubt the pass is filled with angry warriors, armed to the teeth and ready to pour out at any second, yet Douglas lets the tension mount.
It’s been suggested that Peck disliked the film because he’s given such a one-dimensional character to play. Lance is a fairly bland hero, only really worth watching because of the star’s natural charisma. Perhaps his problem was having to work with reliable character actors who walk away with the picture. Your choices begin with Ward Bond, the supporting actor’s supporting actor, someone who shines as Corporal Gilchrist. A boozy Irishman with a clear love for life, Bond’s happy go lucky performance is a joy. But even better is Lon Chaney Jr, here playing Trooper Kebussyan of Middle Eastern descent, referred to by his fellows dubiously as ‘the A-rab’ and calling Lance ‘Effendi’ as his respect for the Captain develops. Chaney hams his part deliciously, putting in a bellicose turn as the man who seems most likely to kill Lance but instead growing in affinity.
Only the Valiant isn’t a great film. The Native Americans are little better than mindless savages, present to be gunned down by the defenders. The relief force, when it arrives, expounds the virtues of the Gatling Gun, a clumsy Cold War allegory for the USA’s upper hand in the technology race. But it is good fun, a perfectly diverting piece of entertainment that has more going for it than first appears.
Only the Valiant: ***
*In my reading about this film, I couldn’t help but come across the cautionary tale that was Barbara Payton’s short life. Only the Valiant was her seventh film appearance in a career that appeared to be steadily on the rise; in reality it was already beginning to slide. Her off-screen lifestyle, which took in a string of affairs, heavy drinking and scandal, quickly overtook anything she did before the camera. By the mid-fifties, her tilt at stardom was over. A further decade of self-abuse and rough living followed, before she died from heart and liver failure in 1967. More information here.