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Olive Films has released two films produced by William Cagney, James Cagney's brother. Their string of independent productions were an attempt by the big star Cagney to escape what he considered to be economic servitude to Warner Bros. Lured back to the studio for 1949's superlative White Heat, Cagney followed it up with his own gangland saga, 1951's Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, released by WB but independently produced by his brother. The other William Cagney show that year was Only the Valiant, a suspenseful and violent cavalry western starring Gregory Peck.
The film can boast a fine cast, but its main point of interest now is actress Barbara Payton, who stars in Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye as well. One of the saddest Hollywood hopefuls that ever caught and then lost the Golden Ring, Ms. Peyton shows real talent in these two William Cagney productions. Just four unhappy years later in Edgar G. Ulmer's Murder Is My Beat, she already looks worn and defeated.
The script by Edmund North and Harry Brown doesn't alter the anti-Indian stance of the novel by Charles Marquis Warren. Fort Invincible guards a narrow pass, preventing the marauding Apache savages led by the fierce Tucsos (Michael Ansara) from murdering the local white settlers. When the contingent of troops there is wiped out, scout Joe Harmony (Jeff Corey) tells the rigid, unpopular Captain Richard Lance (Gregory Peck) that the Apache might strike at any time. Tucsos is captured and Lance prepares to take a small detail to remove him for safekeeping, which is a likely suicide mission. At the last minute Col. Drumm (Herbert Heyes) orders Lance to send the well-liked Lt. William Holloway (Gig Young) instead. The troopers are convinced that Lance has substituted Holloway to save his own skin -- and to clear the way for his romance with Cathy Eversham (Barbara Peyton), the daughter of another officer. Cathy angrily rejects Lance, who is too proud to offer a defense. He eventually must assemble another squad to hold the crucial pass long enough for reinforcements to arrive. To everyone's surprise, Lance chooses the soldiers and officers that hate him the most: Corporal Gilchrist (Ward Bond), Sgt. Murdock (Neville Brand), Trooper Rutledge (Warner Anderson), Trooper Onstot (Steve Brodie), Lt. Winters (Dan Riss), and Trooper Kebussyan (Lon Chaney Jr.), an Arab who has already tried to murder Lance with his bare hands. The idea of killing Lance soon occurs to several others on this dangerous mission.
Only the Valiant is a smart production that adroitly mixes studio work and a minimum of careful location shooting to give a big-scale impression with a smaller budget. Watch carefully and you'll see that the outdoorsy footage both at the fort and at the besieged mountain pass is limited to 2nd unit work, while most of the material with the big stars takes place in controlled studio conditions. Lionel Lindon's B&W camerawork and Gordon Douglas's clever direction make the difference. Douglas a great deal of experience getting the most out of cheaply shot short subjects; after these two William Cagney productions he became a go-to Warners director for the next ten years.
The movie's rather harsh image of the military establishment basically says that ordinary soldiers are incompetent morons and psychotics that need to be kept in line by hard-line martinets. We've got a boozy Irish drunk (Ward Bond, of course), a hothead passed over for his brutality (Brand), a sick officer who doesn't give a damn (Riss), a deserter (Brodie) and Chaney's murderous A-rab psycho.
The film's central tension is established when Capt. Lance allows everyone in the fort to believe that he purposely sent Lt. Holloway on a death mission, so as to stay first in line with the luscious Cathy. We don't get the idea that Lance has any moral reason for allowing himself to appear to be an S.O.B., and neither does he have a martyr complex. It's just that he stubbornly refuses to explain anything not covered in the officer's rulebook. 1
The movie sets up the suicide mission's pack of misfits in a very entertaining manner. Bond's drunk fills his canteen with booze, only for Lance to order all canteens taken and guarded to conserve water. Brand and Brodie hate each other so much that, when captured by the Indians, they're more interested in fighting each other than escaping. Sickly Dan Riss discovers the spiked canteen, gets himself plastered and laughs in Lance's face. The hulking Kebussyan (I said Arab, but could he be a Muslim Armenian?) tries to kill Lance again, by dropping a giant stone onto him. This is some patrol. A guy would be safer guarding the Do Long Bridge in Apocalypse Now.
In the movie's most unlikely scene Captain Lance lines his men up and publicly tells each of them point blank why he was chosen -- it's because each is a total loser who won't be missed if/when they're wiped out by the Apaches. It's sort of a Dirty Dozen scene -- Neville Brand is told in front of all the others that he's there because he's a lousy Sergeant unfit for the promotion he keeps whining about. I would have to call this a rather radical executive motivation technique. The movie assumes that anyone not already in a position of authority is an undeserving ingrate. 2
Naturally this reviewer spots, or thinks he can spot, situations that Sam Peckinpah cherry-picked for his eclectic cavalry epic Major Dundee. In one scene an Apache pretending to be dead springs from the ground to shoot a soldier. Warner Anderson's Trooper Rutledge was drummed out of Lance's West Point class for an infraction of the rules. He's joined up out West in the hope that Lance will help him to redeem himself and his Army career. Nope, Capt. Lance still considers Rutledge a defective and unworthy soldier. That's pretty close to Amos Dundee's relationship with Captain Tyreen in the Peckinpah film. 3
Only the Valiant is a bit long winded at 105 minutes but it has interesting characters, good dialogue and a fair share of suspense. Gig Young is charming in a brief role and the lovely Ms. Payton enlivens what are really stock scenes. Star-billed Gregory Peck is well cast as the uptight and vindictive Lance, who is nevertheless a brilliant commander in a crisis. Wailing in his jail cell, Lon Chaney Jr. reminds us for a moment of his tortured Larry Talbot. His exotic character has a nice final scene.
Western fans will see plenty of action and a couple of surprising bits of gore, as when a trooper is hacked in the throat with a tomahawk. The bullet hits are especially gooey, too. As one would expect from a Charles Marquis Warren story, the Apaches are thoroughly kill-worthy scum. The late Michael Ansara is effective as their leader. They're still conceived as dim-bulb savages, charging rifles while armed mostly with spears and arrows.
By the final kissing scene, complete with drinking joke, all is right with the U.S. Cavalry. Captain Lance not only has the girl, he's rid the company of most of its troublemakers, turning deadwood into the honored dead.
Olive Films' Blu-ray of Only the Valiant is an excellent B&W encoding of this exciting, eccentric '50s cavalry "actioner." Lionel Lindon's fine cinematography matches location work to studio sets, and gives the scary nights a good there's-an-Indian-in-each-shadow feel.
There are no extras. Savant will be back with the other half of the William Cagney/Barbara Payton collaboration, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye in the near future.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Only the Valiant Blu-ray rates:
1. Spoiler: This is another movie where the lovely romantic interest gets away with being a complete jerk. For a while we think that Cathy's spiteful rejection of Lance over an assumed sin will have a righteous resolution: Cathy watches Lance ride out on his perilous mission with a look that says she hopes he'll die. When he comes back in one piece all she says is, "I found out you weren't a stinker after all" and gives him a big hug. Does Capt. Lance really want a wife who will withdraw her love and affection every time she disagrees with something he does? He'd do better taking up with some other officer's widow.
2. Lance very publicly tells the baby-faced soldier Trooper Saxton (Terry Kilburn) that he's a coward, and that his assignment to a suicide mission will give him a chance to prove himself. Gee, thanks, Captain. Twelve years before Kilburn was the little British boy with the creepy face who had a big close-up to read the iconic dialogue line, "Goodbye, Mr. Chips." Heck, Saxton still looks a little creepy here.
3. Jeff Corey's tough civilian cavalry scout Joe Harmony seems a possible template for Major Dundee's James Coburn character. A loner, Harmony repeatedly questions Lance's judgment, but volunteers for one perilous solo scouting mission after another. It's interesting to see Jeff Corey and Ward Bond in the same movie at this particular time. In a couple of months Corey's busy career would be interrupted for 9 years due to the blacklist. Ward Bond was at the time an unofficial head inquisitioner for the very real blacklist. Although a talented actor I suspect that the power Bond wielded had something to do with his constant employment. The early 'fifties seem to have been a rotten time for many working in Hollywood - you needed talent, timing, luck - and then you had to pass through a merciless political gauntlet.
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