Between 1948 and 1958 Gregory Peck forged the more psychologically complex “adult western” genre (“adult” not in the sense of sexually explicit but as dramas for adults rather than white hat/black hat adventures for boys) in five films conemporaneous with Howard Hawks’s “Red River,” John Ford’s “The Searchers,” and the original “3:10 to Yuma” (written by Elmore Leonard, whose work would be adapted into some of the grittiest later westerns, such as “Valdez Is Coming”).
The 1950 “The Gunfighter” in which Peck played the title role (with a notorious mustache) is the prototype, though “Yellow Sky” (1948) has plenty of ironies. Peck had dramatically cracked up as General Savage leading bombing missions in “Twelve o’clock High” (1949) and had been traumatized in Hitchcock’s “Spellbound” (1945), Peck played a series of very tough-minded individuals during the 1948-51 periods, including Captain Ahab in John Huston’s adaptation of “Moby Dick” (1956), the relentless hunter of his wife’s killers in “The Bravados” (1958) ,, battling Charlton Heston in William Wyler’ “The Big Country,” holding a Korean hill in “Pork Chop Hill” (1959), taking out “The Guns of Navarrone” (1961,”and the extremely straight-laced Captain Richard Lance in the 1951 cavalry melodrama filmed in black-and-white “Only the Valiant.”
At the start, Capt. Lance refuses to let his scout, Joe Harmony (Jeff Corey) shoot the captive Apache chief, Tucsos (Michael Ansara, the future Mr. Freeze, who, btw, was born in Syria). The army does not shoot prisoners Lance avers. Harmony points out that he is a civilian, but very reluctantly accepts Lance’s decision.
Back at the main fort (Fort Winston), Col. Drumm (Herbert Hayes) is bedridden. He tells Capt. Lance to select a detail to escort Tucsos further away. Harmony tells Lance that this is a suicide mission, that Apaches are all around, flush with having overrun the fort that guarded the pass through which they swoop down (Fort Invincible).
Col. Drumm is annoyed that Lance has chosen himself to lead the detail, and designates Lt. William Holloway (the every ingratiating Gig Young) to lead it. The soldiers and the surgeon’s daughter Cathy (Barbara Payton), who has spurned Holloway because she is in love with the Alpha Male (Capt. Lance), thinks Lance has chosen Holloway because he saw Holloway kissing her, believes that Lance asked to be replaced by Holloway. The audience knows that this is untrue, but as W. I. Thomas famously wrote, “If men [human beings] define a situation as real, it has real consequences.”
The garrulous drunkard, Cpl. Timothy Gilchrist (Ward Bond, borrowed from the John Ford repertory company) looks at the list of the detail and remarks that it has everyone with a grudge against Capt. Lance. Before the Last Stand, Capt. Lance will explain the rationale for choosing the misfits he did. One might wonder if Capt. Lance is deficient in sense and motivating those he is leading. If so, the psychological ju-jitsu seems to work.
“Arab” (Lon Chaney, Jr.) goes from trying to kill Lance (when he returned from Holloway’s failed expedition and again at the start of the posting to the waterless Fort Invincible guarding the pass) to twice saving Lance.
The early 1950s began to portray Apaches (the last pacified indigenous peoples) as something other than bloodthirsty savages (Broken Arrow, Apache, Taza – Son of Cochise. “Only the Valiant” doesn’t portray them much at all. The attackers are brave and Tucsos is a bit arrogant, but mostly the Apaches are shown attempting to push white invaders back.
The movie reminded me of some later movies with small bands of misfits meshing (The Dirty Dozen, Seven Samurai, They Came to Condura), and even more explicitly uniting Confederate and Union soldiers against Indian attacks (Return to Fort Bravo and Major Dundee) with plucky last stands (Return to Fort Bravo, Zulu, Seven Samurai). Capt. Lance is not a megalomaniac in the mold of Gen, Custer, Lt. Col. Thursday (Henry Fonda’s martinet in “Fort Apache”) … or Capt. Ahab.
Although his mission is to buy time for relief troops to reach Fort Winston, Lance is not suicidal, has plans to close the pass, and genuinely aims to return with as many of his misfit detail as possible.
Peck is really, really good as the straight, straight arrow officer with savvy as well as inflexible rectitude. When Cpl. Gilchrist is asked why he didn’t kill the captain, he replies that without him, they have no chance to survive the mission. The respect the captain inspires is very grudging but very real, and Peck makes it credible.
The supporting cast is also good (except for the wooden Payton as the only marriageable woman around). Bond runs with the opportunities provided by the role of the roguish drunk (who can shoot and prevail in hand-to-hand combat even when under the influence), the kind of role the alcoholic John Ford often assigned to Victor McLaglen.
I thought that the black-and-white movie was shot in a studio. The pass did not look at all right to me, and the movie’s Chiricaua Apaches were not in anything resembling the Chiricauha Mountains of northeastern Arizona. The location shooting (of which I think there was not much!) was somewhere in northeastern New Mexico (Galllup) — Navajo country.
Though the location looked wrong (fake) to me, a lot of the movie takes place at night. There is none of the visual splendor of John Ford’s westerns (black-and-white or color ones) in Lionel Lindon’s (Going My Way, I Want to Live!, The Manchurian Cndidate) serviceable, rather noirish cinematography. Franz Waxman (Rebecca, Sunset Boulevard, A Place in the Sun) provided a varied and solid musical score.The print transferred to DVD (with no bonus features other than some trailers for other westerns) is not very good, I’m glad to have been able to see the movie, which George Chabot long ago recommended to me, but wish that it had been remastered. As a pioneer tough-minded western, it deserves better than Lions Gate has provided. I’d give the DVD two stars, but the movie is a solid and interesting 4+ stars.
©2018, Stephen O. Murray