Capt. Richard Lance (Gregory Peck) is a strict, by-the-book cavalry officer, unloved but respected by his men for his leadership and survival skills. Leading an expedition to the ironically-named Ft. Invincible, which guards a narrow pass through the mountains, Lance finds the troops there massacred by renegade Apache chief Tucsos and his men. Lance captures Tucsos and insists on bringing him back to Fort Winston to stand trial, against the advice of crusty scout Joe Harmony (Jeff Corey).
Fort Winston’s ailing commander, Col. Drumm, worried that the fort is unprepared for an assault by Tucsos men, orders a detail to escort the Apache chief further north. Lance plans to lead the (likely suicidal) escort himself, and goes to bid farewell to his intended, Cathy Eversham (Barbara Payton). Lance’s best friend Capt. Holloway (Gig Young) also loves Cathy, and following the dictum "all's fair in love and war", is also making a play for her hand. Col. Drumm orders Lance to stay and command the fort and send Holloway in his place. Of course, Tucsos’ braves free him and torture and kill Holloway. Joe and a few other men return with Holloway’s body, and soon the whole fort thinks Lance sent Holloway to his death in his place out of cowardice. Cathy thinks Lance acted out of jealousy, and calls off their engagement.
I like it when a movie opens with a helpful map.
Lance comes up with a plan to possibly delay an attack on the fort until a complement of relief troops arrive in 5 days. He picks seven men, most of whom hate his guts, all men he thinks can be best spared from guarding Fort Winston. These include an alcoholic Irish sergeant (Ward Bond); bullying Sgt. Murdoch (Neville Brand), who Lance has kept from promotion; a former Confederate who is being held for desertion of his cavalry post; a disgraced former West Point officer who has followed Lance into service looking for his best shot at revenge; a wild trooper commonly referred to as “the Arab” (Lon Chaney, Jr.); a cowardly young bugler; and a consumptive officer. Together with scout Joe Harmony, they head for the abandoned Ft. Invincible, with the hope of holding the nearby pass against Tucsos and his men until reinforcements arrive.
It’s a daring and suicidal gambit that becomes increasingly hazardous for Capt. Lance. With the fort baking under a pitiless desert sun, a dwindling water supply, and the merciless Apache threat looming, the men begrudgingly come to realize that Lance is their best hope for survival. But will his plan be enough to stave off an attack against overwhelming odds? And will the men be able to put aside their hatred of Lance to work together as a team, or will they sacrifice their own lives to fulfill their revenge?
This is a mostly gripping, straightforward Cavalry vs. Indians western of the old school, served up clean and with no frills. It takes a while to get cooking, focusing instead on building up the relationships among the small squad and working up to a decent amount of suspense. When the action does come, it’s well-staged and surprisingly bloody for an early 50s western (including one brief shock moment of a man with a hatchet in his throat).
The movie’s strongest point is its cast. Gregory Peck plays his usual decent, noble character with a harder edge than usual; his Capt. Lance is not a particularly likeable figure but his integrity and toughness earn our respect. Peck strikes a commanding figure and easily dominates the movie. Ward Bond has fun doing the kind of broad, drunken “Oirishman” stereotype that was generally the province of Victor McLaglen. Neville Brand is good in a too-brief part as the hostile Sgt. Murdoch, and Jeff Corey is surprisingly believable as the laconic scout (the movie could’ve used more of his presence). I didn't even recognize Gig Young in this at first, he's so young and his role is so small. He's charming as usual in his few scenes, though. Lon Chaney Jr. makes a fine, formidable hulk, and gives a sympathetic, very physical performance. On the disappointing side, Michael Ansara is not as intimidating as one might expect as the war chief Tucsos, and Barbara Payton doesn’t do much with a thankless part, but generally, the acting here is fine.
A young Neville Brand
There are a couple of plot problems, however. The final fate of a few members of the ragtag band is left up to our imaginations, which is a bit unsatisfying. The film is too long and drawn out in parts; a judicious pruning would have tightened up the story. Some of Bond’s drunken antics near the climax come off as too jocular and jar against the seriousness of the overall situation. And the romantic angle is cleared up rather too neatly for my tastes at the end. The story (slightly reminiscent of the later and superior John Sturges' film, Escape to Fort Bravo) is a compelling one and works in some interesting diversions and twists, and despite the above-listed faults, remains interesting to the end.
While this film can’t compete in the cavalry movie sweepstakes against the terrific John Ford trilogy of Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande (which, to be fair, are working on an entirely different level) it’s a fine and diverting western tale in its own right, with some moody black & white cinematography by Lionel Linden and a full-blooded score by Franz Waxman.
Gordon Douglas was a prolific journeyman director who made many solid adventure films like this one in his 40-plus year career, including The Doolins of Oklahoma, The Charge at Feather River, Fort Dobbs, Rio Conchos and Chuka. He also directed several Frank Sinatra films, including Robin and the 7 Hood, The Detective, Tony Rome and its sequel, The Lady in Cement. His most beloved film is probably the seminal 50s giant bug flick Them!
Only the Valiant is recommended for fans of unpretentious, meat-and-potatoes westerns and, of course, Gregory Peck.
DVD Note: Lionsgate's transfer fares best in close-ups. There's frequent speckling and dirt on the image, but overall it's a welcome disc and worth picking up.
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