Only the Valiant (1951) DVD May 1, 2010 12:32:21 GMT -5
Post by Erik Rupp on May 1, 2010 12:32:21 GMT -5
Two men are candidates for a suicide mission. One of them is the selection committee.
Well, that's the tag line on Lionsgate's DVD for the 1951 Western, Only the Valiant. It's fairly accurate and fairly dramatic.
Gregory Peck had been quoted as saying that this was his least favorite of all the movies he starred in, but that isn't reflected in the quality of the movie. It's really quite good. The film was obviously made on a fairly low budget, but it still looks pretty good (for a Western filmed largely on a soundstage). The script is well above average, and the cast is good as well. Beyond Gregory Peck the movie's got the great Ward Bond in a role that seems to have been written for him, as well as Gig Young, Lon Chaney Jr, Neville Brand, and the infamous Barbara Payton (look her up, it's a sad but fascinating case of self destruction).
The basic premise of the story is fairly simple - by the book Army Captain Richard Lance captures the powerful Apache chief Tuscos (rather than killing him) and must assign someone to take him to a nearby fort. It's a very dangerous mission, one with a high probability of becoming fatal as Tuscos' people will stop at nothing to get him back. Captain Lance and Lieutenant Holloway are the prime candidates to lead the small group. Holloway is very popular with the men, while Lance is not, so when Lieutenant Holloway is chosen the men believe that it's a personal grudge and Captain Lance just wants him out of the way (both men are vying for the affection of the commanding officer's daughter, played by Payton).
In truth, there's more to the story than the men know, but Captain Lance seems unwilling to justify his actions to anyone, creating conflict between Lance and the men he commands.
That conflict becomes a major issue when Lance decides to take a small group to defend a mountain pass that the Apaches have been using to attack nearby Army forts. It's considered to be a suicide mission, and to make things more difficult Captain Lance selects five men for the mission - all of whom have reason to dislike or outright hate him. It is in this difficult mission that much of the film's tension and conflict builds.
The use of a soundstage for night time shots of the narrow pass is passable, but not as effective as location shooting would have been. Producer William Cagney (James' brother) put together a competent team, but the movie never quite gets past it's lower budget look. It doesn't look bad, but it is a far cry form the kind of Westerns that John Ford and Anthony Mann were making during the same time period.
Ultimately, it is the strength of the script and the performances of the actors that makes Only the Valiant an above average Western. The dialogue is very good, and the plot is constantly moving forward at a good pace with just enough new information revealed to keep the story interesting. Director Gordon Douglas does a workmanlike job with the film, minimizing the soundstage look of the film as much as possible. Everything is filmed fairly well and the movie has a fairly interesting look as a result of the heavy use of night time scenes on a soundstage (it almost looks like a Western Film Noir at times).
Why Gregory Peck wasn't particularly happy with this movie is hard to say. It is a good movie - one that holds the viewer's interest throughout. It isn't a great movie, but it is entertaining and has a strong story. Peck gives a good performance (as usual), but occasionally seems uninspired by the role (which was unusual for him). Ward Bond is his usual charismatic self in this one, and he seems to be having a good time with his role. Lon Chaney Jr has one of the odder roles of his career. His character, Trooper Kebussyan, is referred to as, "The A-rab," but it's never clear exactly where he came from. Neville Brand gives a rather strong performance as an underachieving Sergeant who has constantly found his attempts at promotion thwarted by Captain Lance.
For fans of Westerns Only the Valiant is well worth watching.
Lionsgate's DVD, however, isn't up to the standards of the movie itself. It isn't horribly bad, but it is a very flawed DVD.
First, the print they used is not in great shape. There are frequently lots of speckles on screen (from dust, debris, and print damage). There are also several vertical scratches on the print. The movie can go for several minutes without much noticeable print damage, and then there will be several minutes where there are a lot of speckles showing up.
There is also excessive edge enhancement causing some of the edges in the picture to become slightly ragged. The mastering job isn't much better than the print quality.
There is also some occasional color shimmering (remember, this is a black and white movie) when Payton wears a dress with a pattern on it.
On the positive side for the picture quality, despite it's flaws it is still fairly clear and the contrast levels are almost perfect. The detail in shadows is very good.
The sound quality on the DVD is acceptable, but it's just as flawed as the picture. Everyone's voice is clear and reasonably full (considering the movie's age), but there is often a lot of crackling and/or hiss on the soundtrack. The print damage seems to have continued on to the audio portion.
Even with all of the flaws in the DVD presentation it is still more than watchable (I've seen a lot worse). Having realistic expectations about the print quality will certainly make watching the DVD a lot more enjoyable, though.
Movie - 3.75/5
DVD - 2.25/5