Jeff Arnold’s West

The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

Only the Valiant (Warner Bros, 1951)

 

Peck Invincible

 

 

In Only the Valiant, also known by its working title Fort Invincible, Gregory Peck plays Captain Richard Lance, Dick to his (precious few) friends, a by-the-book West Pointer who licks bad soldiers into shape out West. For Peck, this role came between being Horatio Hornblower for Raoul Walsh at Warners and King David for Henry King at Fox. Only the Valiant definitely wasn’t in that league. On one level it was just a rather static black & white oater shot cheaply on a studio set with a supporting cast verging on the mediocre. In fact Peck considered it the low point of his career.

 

 

That was maybe a bit harsh. The picture isn’t that bad, and the budget was $1.49m, not chicken feed. It was directed by Gordon Douglas, who himself admitted that he took whatever job was going, to put food on the family table, and the resulting films weren’t all great. But he was capable of good pictures: in our genre he made The Nevadan, Fort Dobbs and The Fiend Who Walked the West, for example, all excellent Westerns. But he churned out bread-and-butter stuff too. Actually, this film arrived in the theaters only a week after his previous picture, The Great Missouri Raid (another so-so Western, for Paramount, about Frank and Jesse James).

 

 

It is true that Peck had recently made some superb black & white Westerns, such as Yellow Sky with William A Wellman and The Gunfighter with Henry King, both at Fox, and Only the Valiant wasn’t a patch on those.

 

On the other hand, there’s a noir vibe to Only the Valiant, and there’s a good attempt at building tension (at times it’s almost a whodunit). Furthermore, a really good actor – and Peck was that – could ‘lift’ a mediocre picture, and that’s what he did here.

 

 

The producer was William Cagney, Jimmy’s brother. That may have been part of the problem: he only made two Westerns and the other was the distinctly stodgy Bugles in the Afternoon, a sadly plodding version of a great Western novel.

 

 

The Los Angeles Examiner reported that the Cagneys were going to reunite for this film the entire cast of their picture Time of Your Life, which included William Bendix, Wayne Morris, Broderick Crawford and Jeanne Cagney, but that never happened.

 

One reader of this blog, Stereosteve, suggested that maybe Cagney made Only the Valiant for Fox but that later it was sold to Warners. Steve says, “I noticed that the credits of this film used the then-standard corporate 20th Century-Fox type font; I wonder if Fox, to whom Peck was under contract at the time, didn’t make it, then consider the finished product beneath them and sell it to Warner’s, whose standard product it was more in league with.”

 

It’s a story of US soldiers vs. Apaches in New Mexico. The few location shots there are were photographed, by Lionel Lindon, near Gallup. Lindon was not one of the greats of Western cinematography. Probably A Man Alone was his best. But he didn’t have much to work with here because most of the action, and a lot is inaction, takes place at the fort of the title, one of those Hollywood wooden forts and clearly a studio set. It’s dark and claustrophobic.

 

Of course cavalry Westerns were all the rage at the time, most notably made by John Ford. Douglas started filming Only the Valiant in July 1950, exactly the same time as Ford was shooting Rio Grande in Utah, though of course the pictures are not comparable in quality.

 

Lance does remind one a little of Henry Fonda’s Colonel Thursday in Fort Apache. He’s as rigid as Thursday. But he’s more competent. Peck is the equal of Fonda in this part (and that’s saying a lot).

 

 

There’s a Dirty Dozen aspect as Lance, knowing his effort is doomed, recruits the dregs of the army to accompany him on what he thinks will be a suicide mission. At one point he tells his men why he ‘volunteered’ them: he lists their faults in a devastating way – cowardice, drunkenness, desertion and so on. He took them, he says, because they were the troops that could best be spared and who would be least missed if they were killed. Nothing like encouraging your men.

 

The troopers include Ward Bond, who does his stereotype Fordian drunken Irish corporal act and hams it up for all he was worth (which was quite a lot). Every so often he produces a malign, snide glance that shows real menace. But most of the time he sings drinking songs in a brogue. He probably wished he was up in Utah with his pals.

 

 

Jeff Corey is about the best as the tough old Army scout, Joe Harmony.

 

 

Lon Chaney is a curious Trooper Kebussyan in a big black beard, whom they call A-rab and who refers to Peck as “effendi”. You can see him building up for self-sacrifice a mile off.

 

 

Neville Brand is enjoyable as an odious and bullying Sergeant Murdock.

 

 

We also get Gig Young as Peck’s rival in love, Steve Brodie and John Doucette.

 

 

Habitual ‘Indian’ Michael Ansara is quite imposing as Apache chief Tucsos and there is an improbable 1:1 duel at the end in which he cashes in his Apache chips. OK, so I’ve spoiled it for you but I haven’t really: you knew that.

 

 

There has to be a woman, naturally. Barbara Payton (with whom Peck is said to have had an affair on the set) as Cathy jumps to an enormous conclusion and assumes Peck guilty of a base act, spurning him. Like all good Western heroes, Peck does not lower himself to self-justification. If she wants to think that, let her. Of course, later she realizes she was wrong and wants him back. I would have told her where to get off but Peck ends up in her arms with Bond drunkenly serenading them both. It won’t last. In fact the happy ending rings false.

 

 

Variety said, “In this cavalry yarn unfolding in the wild Apache country of the old west, great pains have been exerted to provide interesting characters.” I’m not sure about that. The screenplay was written by Edmund H North (Colorado Territory) and Harry Brown (The Fiend Who Walked the West), based on the 1943 novel by Charles Marquis Warren. I haven’t read the Warren book but the script of the movie is occasionally plodding, at least in the second half.

 

There’s an action climax involving a Gatling gun (Gatlings were never in fact used in the Indian wars) which is quite well staged. The Apaches bite the dust in droves. We have kinda seen it before.

 

According to Warner Bros accounts, the film earned $1.79m domestically and $1.63m foreign, so that wasn’t bad.

 

Critically, it wasn’t such a great hit. The New York Times said, “Thanks to Gregory Peck’s physical authority and his ability as an actor to imbue a synthetic character with a degree of conviction that would be lost to a lesser performer, the spectator is not, at least, overwhelmed by the banality of the plot.” The reviewer added, “This does much to cushion the absurd impression of soldiering that is created by the actions of Ward Bond, Lon Chaney, Neville Brand and Steve Brodie in particular. But don’t blame the actors; they just read dialogue and, presumably, conduct themselves according to the wishes of the scenarists.”

 

The picture has been pretty well forgotten since. It isn’t even included in The Encyclopedia of Westerns, for example.

 

Only the Valiant isn’t bad. It isn’t terribly good either, and it’s certainly not in the top league of Gregory Peck Westerns, Gordon Douglas Westerns or cavalry Westerns in general. But it has its qualities and would repay at least one watch.

 

 

7 Responses

  1. I remember that Nelson Miles had Gatling Guns during the Red River war in 1874 and Oliver Howard used two, when chasing the Nez-Perces in 1877. Besides, Fort Invincible is not a masterpiece but it is an interesting “military” western. Do you think that Peck did not have the possibility to select and chose the films or had he to obey and follow his studio contract ?

    1. Hi Jean-Marie
      It’s possible that Peck was obliged to do Only the Valiant. There were examples of contract players being suspended for refusing to do a picture they felt wrong for them, for example, Bogart and Bacall (separately) at Warners. But I don’t know in Peck’s case one way or the other.
      Re the Gatling gun, I find what you say interesting. What evidence do you have that Miles had Gatlings in his Red River campaign or OO Howard in ‘77? I’d like to see that. I have always understood that the Gatling was not generally favored by the US Army. Such Gatlings as were used in the Civil War were purchased privately by commanders, and the Army didn’t buy any officially till 1866. Custer refused to take Gatlings with him on the Plains and Maxims, not Gatlings, were used at Wounded Knee. Many Hollywood Westerns featured the Gatling and Indians, such as Siege at Red River, but I had always understood they were entirely fictional. I’d be happy to be proved wrong though, so would be glad to know your source for Miles and Howard using them.
      Jeff

  2. I do remember having read something about Miles campaign when visiting the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum (PPHM) in Canyon, Texas, close to the Palo Duro Canyon and the Adobe Walls site among other various Red River spots.
    On Texas beyond history Web site pages dedicated to the Red River war, it is said :
    “During the campaign, the Army employed various kinds of artillery as well. Colonel Nelson A. Miles, for example, had two Gatling guns that fired a .50 caliber bullet. The Gatling gun was capable of firing up to 300 rounds per minute. At the Battle of Red River on August 30, 1874, Col. Nelson Miles used the Gatling against the Southern Cheyenne—the first time the gun was used in combat west of the Mississippi River. Miles also brought along a 10-pounder Parrott rifle, which was actually a small cannon. The Parrott rifle fired a shell that measured 8.8 inches long by 2.86 in diameter. The shell exploded upon impact and the shell casing became the shrapnel. The maximum range of the 10-pounder Parrott rifle at five degrees elevation was about 2,000 yards.

    Another piece of artillery that was used by the Army during the Red River War was the mountain howitzer. The howitzer was a short-barreled cannon designed to fire projectiles with relatively small powder charges at short ranges. The howitzer was capable of firing either the spherical shell or the cylindrical canister.”

    It reminds le that the guns used at Wounded Knee were Hotchkiss breech loading cannons having a high rate of fire but not Gatling or other revolver multi barrelled guns (also manufactured by Hotchkiss…) These Hotchkiss guns had been also used against the Nez-Perces.

    My trips along the Nez-Perces trail are older but I might find back something maybe in some of the National Parks leaflet or Web sites. I’ll keep you posted.

  3. Jeff,

    I have found this
    “Gatling guns were utilized at the Battle of the Clearwater in Idaho during the Nez Perce War of 1877, but they really only served to alert the Indians of the morning attack on their village.”

    See also
    https://books.google.fr/books?id=pbSdCwAAQBAJ&pg=PA36&lpg=PA36&dq=battle+of+clearwater+gatling+gun&source=bl&ots=iiJIZCGvXd&sig=ACfU3U3Fbfn0aSnUu7E-csM0UfX3HinNLQ&hl=fr&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjdjcmTvJT5AhVIgM4BHbgSCHUQ6AF6BAguEAI#v=onepage&q=battle%20of%20clearwater%20gatling%20gun&f=fasse

    Having the guns and using them on the field were 2 different things… reason why most of the historians today agree on Custer choice not to take them with him. But maybe Benteen and Reno would have been happy to get them at the end of June 25th and on June 26th, 1876…

    I am sure to have seen photos showing the guns carried on mules at one or several of the visitors centers along the NEZ-PERCES trail.

    1. Very interesting, and these sources sound pretty convincing. I think I’ll have to revise my beliefs!
      Robert Utley says that Custer refused the Gatlings because they were wheeled and he feared they would reduce his mobility and speed.
      Jeff

  4. In Soldiers West, biographies from the military frontier (university of Nebraska Press 1987), in the chapter about N.Miles, Robert Utley writes p 217 in a passage about the 1874/5 Red River War “Miles bombarded the Indians with howitzer and Gatling-gun fire, then charged.”
    Also in Idaho for the curious by Cort Conley ( 1982 Blackeddy books), p 125 about the battle of Clearwater ” a howitzer and Gatling guns opened fire from the rim.”
    I might find more detailed informations related to the type or model of the Gatling… it might sound curious to use both together howitzer and Gatling considering for instance their respective useful range. The Gatling was announced with an effective range of 1000 yards only.
    About the mobility of the artillery in the field (if we know this opinion attributed to Custer, adding one more question to this huge subject), it is also well known that the French design Hotchkiss two pounder mountain gun adopted by the US (at Miles request or suggestion…) in replacement of the 1841 howitzer because of its light weight, mobility and efficiency, was used extensively in the West during the later Indian conflicts. Less than a year after the Little Big Horn lesson, artillery was heavily used against the Nez Perces specially at Bear Paw, the final battle, and then on, until Wounded Knee. It seems that Miles, à good friend of Custer, did not have the same opinion…

  5. Jeff, just found this Web site you might be interested in
    https://www.indianwars.org/Frontier%20Army/Articles%20on%20Life/howser.htm

    Where it is said

    “Two of the more unusual artillery weapons employed against the Indians would be the 24 pounder Coehorn mortar and the 37mm Hotchkiss revolving cannon. In the Modoc War of 1873 the Coehorn mortars were used to bombard the lava beds where Captain Jack had holed up. And during the Milk River Campaign of 1879, a IIotchkiss revolving cannon was used against Sitting Bulls warriors.

    The Gatling gun was introduced to the west in 1867 and was to see wide use. It’s combat record include the Red River War, Nez Perce War, Sioux Wars, and Bannock War.”

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