March 1, 2011

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The next few months promise an embarrassment of film criticism riches. On March 15th, J. Hoberman’s An Army of Phantoms drops, the second entry in his breathless and exhaustive cultural history of Cold War cinema. In April, the long-overdue first collection of Dave Kehr’s writing, When Movies Mattered, will grace bookshelves. I’ll have cowed reviews of both near their release, but for now I’ll stick to a title Hoberman singles out in Phantoms, and which he programmed for his series at BAM: Gordon Douglas’ despairing cavalry Western, Only the Valiant (1951, also available on a DVD from Lionsgate).

Based on a novel by Charles Marquis Warren, it stars a visibly strained Gregory Peck as Captain Richard Lance, a by-the-book commander tapped to escort an Apache warrior, Tucsos (Michael Ansara), to another fort, an invitation for an attack on the unsettled frontier. At the last minute his assignment is given to his lieutenant, William Holloway. Holloway is killed, and even Lance’s girlfriend Cathy (Barbara Payton) believes he begged off of the mission.

Tucsos escaped, and is planning an attack before re-enforcments arrive to the Captain’s Fort Winston. So, in a suicidal rear-guard action, he brings a small detail of men to hold off the  Apaches at a narrow pass at the sarcastically named Fort Invincible. Taking only men Fort Winston can spare, it’s a group of drunks and brawlers, who resent Lance for the death warrant he signed for them.

It is unrelentingly grim, with each set designed to look like a graveyard. Even the relatively protected Fort Winston is haunted, here by the ailing commanding officer Colonel Drumm, who lays on his deathbed as he sends his troops to theirs. This necrotic atmosphere further decays in the move to Fort Invincible, with the detail divided on whether to fight Apaches or kill Lance. This sense of hopelessness creeps into every frame. At Fort Winston, there is an opening lineup of troops at Fort Winston, welcoming Lance’s return, which extends to the vanishing point of the shot. Once the detail gets to Fort Invincible, the lineups get smaller as troops get picked off one by one, and soon the graves outnumber the living.

Hoberman places the film both in the context of the cavalry Western and the Korean War. John Ford’s Fort Apache is one of the touchstones of An Army of Phantoms, artfully reflecting the siege mentality of the cold war, presenting a “vision of total mobilization with an appropriate emphasis on order and eternal vigilance: militarized suburbia. The bombing of civilian populations in World War II suggested that the next war might have no front – or, rather, that the front might be in America’s living room.” While the cavalry posts of Fort Apache, Rio Grande and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon are functional mini city-states, with space for romantic subplots and ritualized dances, Only the Valiant takes place in a world without leisure time. As Hoberman reported, Only the Valiant was released soon after President Truman dismissed General Douglas MacArthur from his command,  and the war entered the stage of a long, bloody stalemate, as fears of WWIII continued to percolate. People were dying and no ground was being gained. This is the desperate situation of the men in Only the Valiant.

The shambolic, pained performance of Gregory Peck adds another shade of dread to the film. Peck wanted nothing to do with the project. He was loaned out by David O. Selznick against his wishes, but the great producer was in financial trouble, and netted $90,000 in the deal. Peck felt it was a cut-rate script made by an undistinguished director, but he showed up for work anyway. Biographer Gary Fishgall claims that Peck was taking Seconal to help him sleep, while also drinking heavily throughout production. There are also widely reported stories that he had an affair with his lead actress, Barbara Payton, although he later banned her from the set unless she was in a scene, at least according to Payton’s autobiography, I Am Not Ashamed (the title refers to her later career as a prostitute). He suffered a physical collapse a month after shooting, during a costume fitting for David and Bathsheba. The doctors at Cedars of Lebanon diagnosed “nervous anxiety”, and told him he did not have a heart attack.

Bitter and out of sorts, Peck is magnetically unsympathetic in Only the Valiant, distressingly passive in the face of slander and death threats, and seems to have vengeance on his mind in his selection of the Fort Invincible detail. There is a powerfully disconcerting scene where Peck’s Captain walks down the line of his rag tag crew and tells them why he chose them. It’s a scene of chilling vindictiveness, and not unlike an impromptu HUAC hearing. Gordon Douglas was a staunch anti-communist, having already directed the nuclear commie spy film Walk a Crooked Mile in 1948, and would line up I Was Married to a Communist in the FBI later in 1951.

All of the characters’ fears coalesce in the mountain pass near Fort Invincible. Shot in sequences of lantern-lit flickering darkness, this gaping maw brings out the worst in the men. They splinter and attack each other, warring within and without. The further they descend into primal violence the more it feels like a gothic horror film or monster movie. One of the young recruits,  a cowardly bugler, creeps through the pass on a pitch black night, and in the bottommost portion of the frame a bloody hand jumps out to a jolt of strings on Franz Waxman’s score. One expects a Mummy or Wolfman to reveal its wretched face, but no, it’s just another dead man.


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