Judge Mike Rubino would never name a military base "Fort Invincible" because that's just asking for it.
Two men are candidates for a suicide mission…one of them is the selection committee!
Gregory Peck stars in this complex and melodramatic Western about a group of rag-tag soldiers facing off against an army of Apache warriors. Only the Valiant is a familiar story with some well-worn archetypes. While everything points to this being a standard Modernist Western, the skilled acting of a couple big names help it stand out.
Facts of the Case
The ironically-named Fort Invincible is ambushed by an evil Apache chief and his gang of indians. The fort is preserved, thanks to the due diligence of Captain Richard Lance (Gregory Peck, To Kill a Mockingbird) and a band of soldiers from a nearby fort. Lance is able to capture the chief, but instead of killing him, he follows orders and returns the prisoner to the fort. The captain's insistence on following the rules has consequences, however, and the military soon decides the Apache chief needs to be transferred elsewhere in order to save their fort from vengeful indians. It's a dangerous job, so Lance decides to handle it himself—that is until his superior makes him send his best friend, Bill Holloway (Gig Young), instead.
After Holloway is killed on the mission, the other soldiers begin to resent Lance because they think he ordered the switch on purpose. In the meantime, Lance receives word that the Apache indians are planning a major attack on the fort. He handpicks a rowdy group of soldiers (many of which want to kill Lance personally) and embarks on a suicide mission to protect Fort Invincible from the onslaught of Apaches.
If the Facts of the Case are any indication, there is a lot going on in Only the Valiant. The main plot, about a small group of men holding down the fort against waves of attackers, isn't anything new; it would be perfectly executed three years later in Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai and even later in the historical epic Zulu. But on top of this simple and usually awesome premise is a load of subplots: Capt. Lance and Holloway are in a love triangle with a military gal named Cathy (Barbara Payton, Run for the Hills); one soldier is still dealing with being a Confederate soldier, years after the end of the Civil War; and another soldier is filled with violent envy after being denied a promotion three years in a row. Needless to say, this otherwise simple Western is crammed with little stories and characters that keep things interesting.
The main focal point, amidst all the chaotic jumping around, is Captain Richard Lance, who is constantly being pulled in different directions. He plays the classic straight-laced man's man who refuses to compromise his military values and follows orders at all costs. He's also a clever guy who never shows his hand too early. One of the more interesting aspects of the film is that he hand picks a squad of soldiers who hate his guts. There is a scene before the final battle where Lance reveals why he chose each man to leave the fort and accompany him on the mission. The scene not only gives Peck a chance for a great monologue, but also reveals that this clean-cut soldier may be a bit more cunning than he lets on.
I'm always a fan of films that involve a "rag-tag team" of soldiers. That's why Aliens, Mission: Impossible, and Dawn of the Dead are all awesome. The same goes for Only the Valiant, which features many of the usual rag-tag archetypes: the hot head, the traitor, the secretly-sick guy, the mysterious foreigner, the over-eager rookie, and the drunk comic relief (who is played wonderfully by Lon Chaney Jr., The Wolf Man). The acting skill amongst them does vary, but they all add up to make an interesting team forced to work with a man they hate in order to live.
Sadly, the Apache indians in the film aren't given such depth. They are merely there as the whooping, hollering, spear-chuckers who spill out of the mountain passes waiting to get gunned down. A key factor is the dangerous nature of the Apache chief that Lance captures in the beginning of the movie, but the character never speaks and shows up at the end just in time for a little one-on-one showdown. In fact, the most interesting and exciting moments don't even occur during the battles with the indians; instead, they involve the tense relationship between Lance and his soldiers (like when one tries to kill him with a boulder!) The inadequacy of the battle sequences is largely due to the unoriginal and bland way they're filmed. Aside from a couple gruesome deaths, not a lot happens. There's also a strange number of fight sequences that begin by someone leaping Superman-style off of a horse; neat the first time, but not the fifth.
Only the Valiant does pay off in the end, carried by the great acting of Peck and Chaney. It's not as memorable as other classic Westerns like High Noon or 3:10 to Yuma, but if you're a fan of the genre, it's definitely worth checking out.
This is the first time this film has been available on DVD. Unfortunately, its quality in the audio/video department is pretty awful and the complete lack of special features doesn't help. The transfer, which is slightly cropped down to 1.33:1 full screen, is a grainy mess. There are plenty of scratches and film marks that sometimes run through an entire scene. The sound is stereo, but features some hissing and general deterioration that isn't great. The image is not so bad that it's unwatchable, but it's clear no one spent any time cleaning this thing up when it was digitized.
Only the Valiant is a decent Western about a captain caught between Apaches that want to kill him and soldiers who also want to kill him. It's an interesting story filled with some classic characters and decent acting. As expected, Gregory Peck and Lon Chaney Jr. are fantastic. The large-scale battle sequences are brief and kinda lame, but the character-driven scenes keep things entertaining. If you like Westerns, you'll probably like this one.
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