Two nights ago in Brooklyn, New York, the wonderful BAM cinematheque screened Gordon Douglas' 1951 film Only the Valiant in the series J. Hoberman: An Army of Phantoms, programmed by the Village Voice critic in honor of the publication of his new book.
The film, by a director with whom I have no familiarity, was quite a discovery: a dark, morose, low-budget Western (and crypto Korean War film) that stars Gregory Peck as a "valiant" cavalry officer who leads a ragtag group of miscreant soldiers and non-coms on a suicide mission to defend a strategic pass from the Apache. The story and atmosphere is absolutely post-WW2; there's both a nastiness of the soldiers (anticipating films by Robert Aldrich, including the somewhat similar The Dirty Dozen) which reflects the more cynical attitude towards war and violence of the era, as well as an abstraction to the cause and ideology of the soldiers' fight that is common to Korean War era films (compare, for example, the vagueness of Anthony Mann's Men in War or Fuller's The Steel Helmet).
In fact, the film is so dark that even Peck's ostensible hero seems, in the rigid, lonesome night scenes that make up so much of the film, quietly villainous. His supposedly valiant motivation not just to defend the pass with all the undesirable soldiers (they all hate him for various reasons) but to see these unworthies through the fight alive, when expressed by Peck's restrained, borderline sneering assurances, really seems like a masochistic desire to make them survive a horrible gauntlet so he can hang them later. This film, like King Vidor's Duel in the Sun, is a revelation of how Peck's star persona, that sense of upright behavior, that condescending certainty of his self, when put in subtly different situations of violence and sexuality, is darkly tinged with a dangerous and disturbing egotism and malevolence.
This black heart of a man's genre movie may be old hat by the Peckinpah years of the early '70s, but to come out of the post-war boom of the 1940s and see such a caustically antagonistic and casually self-destructive film, one so bleak and isolated it resembles a horror film as much as it does a Western or war movie, is quite a shock. The only alleviation to the startling, idiosyncratic tone of the work is the near starring role by a marvelous Ward Bond, whose drunken soldier contains a hearty dose of pseudo-ethnic sentimental bawdiness that would have seem out of place in a John Ford film but here is a welcome relief from the hard-edged resignation the rest of the characters, as well as the movie itself, has towards the world.
It certainly is a downer, but a gem of a downer! I saw the film with two Notebook comrades, who I think were also surprised at the discovery, and I asked them to send me a few words.
Dan Sallitt shares this with us: "Douglas seems not to have the clout or the desire to fool around with the conception of his projects. But, when he's on, at least, he thinks like an artist, and not just an entertainer. He has a high tolerance for the discomfort intrinsic to dramatic conflict, and often enough he declines to smooth it over with an application of familiar genre signification. My favorite moment in Only the Valiant is that nighttime pan from a vigilant Gregory Peck into the nothingness that lies outside the fort—the hazy lighting and the failure of the camera movement to clarify could have come from a much artier, more modern film."
And David Phelps chimes in, too: "One line: 'I win your men with bag of water,' says the Chiefton. It's probably Only the Valient's sort of siege drama, very different from The Thing's (same year, '51) organism of anonymous men, that turns to travelogue in Mann's Westerns and springs modern war and horror films from Peckinpah on—no changing character relationships, just grotesques brooding on their mutual loathing as they're knocked off one by one. But the spaces, empty rooms angled at each other in giant walls, seem inherited from Universal 1930s horrors, the gloating bad conscience of the men is probably paced with the news, 1860s, 1950s, or now, and the camerawork, veering drunks and cowards in the foreground into face-offs with corporals and savages in the back, is maybe something new, as if Douglas has no need for dramaturgy when there's really no place for his movie to go but around. My favorite moment comes as piousness crawls up the neck, mouth, and eyes of Ward Bond's face one by one as he hears words of whiskey disposable off-screen."
Our very own Adrian Curry tipped me to the fact the film is playing for free at archive.org. Watch it there or above.