As a lover of Westerns, I've got to give Lionsgate credit for at least giving the genre a chance, like with the 3:10 to Yuma remake. Now, they've released Only the Valiant on DVD, a Western from 1951 starring Gregory Peck. The film is charming for its classic qualities, which also could make it relatively laughable to modern audiences. Regardless, the timeless feel of the film as a Western from the genre's golden era make it worth a purchase on DVD.
It's set in New Mexico, where Apache attacks have the US Cavalry on the defense. The ill-named Fort Invincible is overrun and all of its men slaughtered, and Captain Lance (Peck) leads the clean-up crew. The soldiers capture a powerful Apache leader, Tucsos, who had tarried too long there. After returning to the stronger Fort Winston, Lance is told that it is his responsibility to escort Tucsos out of the territory, which is tantamount to a suicide mission. But Lance is forced to send his friend, Lieutenant Holloway, in his place because of orders from above. The mission fails, Tucsos escapes, and Holloway, who was Lance's competition for the affections of the lovely Cathy (Barbara Payton), is killed. The rest of the soldiers Winston blame Lance, who is already unpopular for his sternness, for the death of Holloway and consider it a murder of jealousy. Lance then decides to lead a detail of unpopular men back to the abandoned Fort Invincible to hold off the inevitable Apache counterattack from Tucsos (Michael Ansara).
Only the Valiant is not a love story or even an action film; it is a film about seven miserable men and their leader. The movie is a character study of each of them, and we learn their histories and see how they react under the stress of facing insurmountable odds while serving under a man they universally hate. The crew consists of a sickly lieutenant, Winters (Dan Riss), an Arab trooper, Kebussyan (Lon Chaney), a cowardly young man, Saxton (Terry Kilburn), a miserable soldier looking to murder Lance, Rutledge (Warner Anderson), a drunk, Gilchrist (Ward Bond), a failed deserter, Onstot (Steve Brodie), and a cruel malcontent, Murdock (Neville Brand). These men make up a sort of anti-magnificent seven, men guarding a dysfunctional Alamo.
The film, shot in full frame, looks pretty good, but too much of it was shot on sets. It does not make good use of the spectacular terrain of the West, and the camera is too static. Director Gordon Douglas (Stagecoach, the remake) lacks the eye of John Ford, causing him to waste a lot of shots. A movie about the cavalry has a lot of potential, but lines of upright men on horses are wasted here. However, there is one excellent horizon shot that Ford would have been proud of, with the horizon in the lower half of the frame. (According to Ford, you never put the horizon right in the middle.)
Again, some of the ideas in the film are archaic. Just like in any Ford film, the Native Americans (or "Injuns") have their war whoops, and Kebussyan is a crazy Muslim and is called the "ay rabb." That being said, like the better Ford films, the story isn't really racist against the Indians. The filmmaking shows its age, too. One Apache charge ends ridiculously with the Indians halting in the middle of a bullet storm to pick up their dead. Two of the seven soldiers are lost about 90% into the film; Douglas apparently forgot to let us know what became of them. Did they die? Did they make friends and run away together?
Peck's performance as a strict, no-nonsense officer is very good. His physicality and deep voice demand that he plays a role like this, and the film is worth seeing for any fans of his. Bond gets third billing, and his performance as a (generally) good-natured drunk with an Irish acccent is just like what one would expect of a Fordian character.
The film was not remastered, but it still looks pretty good for a movie from 1951. There are lots of the artifacts that are expected with a film that old, like dirt and scratches. They are quite noticeable throughout. The polka dotted dress that Payton wears at one point shows a lot of cross coloration; it literally looks purple at one point. Horrible. Other than that, the image looks relatively sharp, especially upconverted. The black levels are pretty deep, and there are a lot of them, thanks to the cinematography by Lionel Lindon(The Manchurian Candidate).
The image is presented in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1, but I can't tell if it's actually 1.37:1, which was the film's actual original ratio. Nothing except the menu is enhanced for widescreen televisions, not even the 2.35:1 trailer for 3:10 to Yuma. This means that Only the Valiant leaves both edges of 16x9 TV's black, but those of you still using 4x3 TV's are in luck.
The 2.0 soundtrack is standard for an old movie. There are more snaps, crackles, and pops than a bowl of my favorite cocoa cereal. The explosions and gunshots sound fine, but they aren't at a level that'll shake your house. The dialogue isn't particularly clear and will probably cause you to keep turning up the volume. The disc does have subtitles in English and Spanish, and I watched a lot of the movie with them on.
The Special Features
There are no special features whatsoever on Only the Valiant. I wish a film historian or a Peck biographer had recorded a commentary, but I don't think this film's level of popularity warranted it. There are three trailers for other Lionsgate DVD's.
Despite some lazy filmmaking, Only the Valiant is a good Western in the vein of Ford's Cavalry Trilogy. The DVD is bare bones, but that's warranted by the popularity of the film. If you want a Western more about the characters than the setting or the action, this one's for you. Personally, I was just happy to be able to see another classic Western. DVD Talk is giving this one a strong "Recommended."