Only the Valiant (1951)

Directed by Gordon Douglas
Written by Edmund H. North and Harry Brown

Coming off the success of The Gunfighter, at least in my eyes as I have no idea about box office numbers, Gregory Peck has become a serious player on the western scene for me, especially also considering Yellow Sky, another stellar outing by the leading man. So Only the Valiant brought some expectations with it considering the relative Western hot streak Peck found himself on, even if I knew very little about the film otherwise. It features Ward Bond as well, a name we’ve seen many times during this marathon, but is an actor I can either take or leave. He pops up a bunch, but I can’t really say I’m ever excited or disappointed when he appears. He’s simply a familiar face. Not a familiar face is Barbara Payton, however, who gets a starring role here. I can’t say I’ve heard of her before, but after reading a little about her, I can see why. Her’s is a relatively sad Hollywood story. It’ll be awhile before we see Peck again, so what a bummer that it’s not at the standard of his previous two western films.

Captain Lance (Gregory Peck) is an overbearing leader at a western outpost whom very few of his soldiers respect. They sit in an interesting setting, just at a mountain pass where the Apache nation rules on the other side. After capturing the Apache leader, Lance volunteers to escort him, but his commanding officer orders him to assign his close friend, Holloway (Gig Young), instead. As their shared love interest (Barbara Payton) has just decided to love Lance and not Holloway, Lance catches them kissing (a longing goodbye from Holloway), which starts a rumor that Lance assigned Holloway for revenge. The escort goes awry, Holloway ends up dead, and the prisoner missing. Lance then must assemble a ragtag team of soldiers who dislike him for a patrol at the pass were he intends to hold the battered fort in time for reinforcements.

I think one of the main reasons I disliked my time with Only the Valiant was simply how small the whole thing felt. It was a cheap production with very little in the way of ambition or vision. I’m not familiar with director Gordon Douglas and his work, but I would have expected a better selection from Peck, a story with some real teeth or at least a story where something happens. We slowly dribble our way through this narrative where it continually feels as though nothing is happening. Character-driven is one thing, but this is not even that. We get a rag tag bunch of soldiers paired with their hated captain in a confined space, and yet, there is not nearly the drama you would expect, not nearly the backstory you deserve.

The curtain is never truly pulled back on these men. Why are they there, why’d they join the army? What is the history with Lance, why do they hate him? I also found it surprising how much the film seemed to credit Barbara Payton, who in her moments made a good impression on me, just to leave her behind and end up to hardly be in the film at all. Such a shame, such a waste, like much of this film. They’re battling indians, a classic western trope, and even that dynamic seems flat, with very little in the way of exciting battles or heightened tension. Recently, it seems, the depiction of indians in these westerns has taken a turn for the worse. There were a few films already which felt progressive, but recently they are nothing but savages, including here, save calling them “smart” in passing at one point early on in the film.

There is no energy here, there is nothing to hold on to, to take from this film. Gregory Peck is, of course, fine in the role of Captain Lance, but I wish there were more for him to do. I wish there were better performers to play off of. The closest thing he has is Ward Bond, who is bizarrely doing his best Victor McLaglen impression (a silly Irish drunk). I really don’t understand this line at all. Bond is forgettable, but he’s certainly capable, and yet they have him imitating John Ford’s comic relief man. Such a shame, such a waste. The fleeting action is alright. The setting actually provides a decide setup for a solid story, but in the end, Only the Valiant is not very entertaining or interesting. This is an easy one to throw into the pile of disappointments from this marathon. Here’s hoping things start looking up again soon.

★★ – Didn’t Like It

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