Only the Valiant is an early example of what might be called the
"impossible mission" movie subgenre. Flicks of this type have plots in which a certain number of men, ususally hard cases, are picked for a do or die mission in which there is a high degree of failure. Other notable films of this sort are The Guns of Navarone, The Dirty Dozen and Where Eagles Dare.
Gregory Peck stars as Captain Richard Lance who is a commander of United States Cavalry stationed in the Wild West. Captain Lance needs to send an Apache Chief Tuscos (Michael Ansara), who harbors violent hatred of Americans, to a prison at another fort. Captain Lance sends Lieutenant William Holloway (Gig Young) to escort the chief.
However, Indians attack the escort freeing the chief and killing
Lieutenant Holloway. The chief then goes on to lead an Indian uprising against the Americans. Captain Lance is held responsible for the debacle by both his men and his girlfriend, Cathy Eversham (Barbara Payton). This is especially serious since Holloway was widely beloved.
With the uprising, the fort that Captain Lance's troops are stationed at is vulnerable to attack. If the fort falls before reinforcements can arrive, then the territory and its settlers will be wide open to Indian attack. Captain Lance decides that the best course of action is to take a personally selected task force to a nearby fort that occupies a mountain pass that is a superior strategic position that was abandoned some time earlier. If that fort can hold out long enough for reinforcements to arrive, then the territory will be spared from
For this mission, Captain Lance decides that the only soldiers whose lives should be risked are the hard cases. These are the dregs of the army whose devotion to the cause is rather suspect. They include cowards, criminals, deserters and just plain malcontents. Among others, they are Corporal Timothy Gilchrist (Ward Bond), Trooper Kebussyan (Lon Chaney, Jr.) and Sergeant Ben Murdock (Neville Brand). The selected troopers, in turn, suspect that this is precisely why they have been chosen and they resent Captain Lance all the more for it.
Needless to say, Captain Lance's work is cut out for him. He must meld men who have severe character flaws together into a cohesive unit. He must work in a confine of responsibility and honor that is every bit as narrow and have the potential for being dangerously conflicting as the pass that the bloodthirsty Apaches have to move through to attack the fort.
Only the Valiant is a flick that could easily have been just another Western but in the hands of veteran director Gordon Douglas, it is a masterpiece of suspense. Douglas was one director who really understood just how to build suspense. This movie is atmospheric and intense and tells a story worth telling. It is filmed in stark black and white that only adds to the suspense. Douglas aimed to make a character driven Western and in that he succeeded admirably.