6 October 2019 | Cineanalyst
Of what interest "The Valiant' may be of today is probably mostly due to its receiving a couple of nominations from the second Academy Awards (Paul Muni for Best Actor along with one for Writing) and for those interested in surveying Hollywood's transition to talkies or Muni's career, with this being his first picture in an oeuvre that would include six Oscar nominations and one win. Three years later, he would star in two of his best roles, "I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang" and "Scarface" (both 1932). Here, thankfully, he's relatively restrained, although the line readings for most of the cast tend to be very stilted, which isn't helped by the creaky and primitive sound-recording technology. Being based on a one-act play, however, "The Valiant" is an interesting adaptation that "opens up" the play to about-an-hour-long feature-length film, while commendably leaving much of its story unexplained, or open. Looking beyond its primitive deficiencies, it's even a subtly powerful picture in its treatment of war.
Technically, "The Valiant" is superior to some other talkies from this period; although, silent cinema was at an artistic peak and remains better than these early sound pictures. The first scene makes good use of off-screen action as indicated by sound (a gun shot) and shadows. There are also a few crane and dolly shots throughout the picture. A hold-over from the silent era, the film is divided by five title cards that set-up the proceeding acts. The lack of a musical score is probably beneficial here, as it would surely be overly mawkish otherwise; what music there is consists of three diegetic musical scenes: a Jazz band in prison and a dance party and piano playing in the country house. I've seen quite a few films from 1929, and it seems that even the "silent" ones included such diegetic musical scenes. At least two other 1929 prison pictures, "Thunderbolt" and "Weary River," also include the playing of musical instruments. Evidently, it was a popular notion for exploiting the new synchronized film-sound recordings. Fortunately, the dialogue is clear, too, and the picture, overall, is relatively restrained. Even the hokey superimposed flashbacks and thoughts of the mother are forgivable compared to the over-the-top melodramatics of some other contemporary films, and they play well into the film's implications about war and the perceptions of it.
The narrative has a John Doe (he uses the false name "James Dyke") sentenced to be executed for murder after he turns himself into the police. But, he refuses to admit his true identity and, eventually, invents a story of himself dying in WWI. He also writes articles for the newspaper "warning the youth on the folly of crime." From the press coverage he receives, his mother and sister suspect that he's their long-lost Joe, with his sister traveling to meet him setting up the scene from the one-act stage version. Although rather creepy, their past of quoting "Romeo and Juliet" to each other is central to his identification.
There's the clichéd theme of the corrupting city contrasted with the idyllic country, with James/Joe killing a man in the city, while his mother oversees the wholesome coupling of her daughter, Mary, with an upstanding young man named Bob (who's so dull he spends the entire picture staring at Mary like one of her dogs waiting for attention). More interesting is the past of the Great War. The protagonist hasn't seen his family since it; at one point, he openly wishes he'd died a soldier. "The Valiant" doesn't answer every question raised in the plot. We never discover why he abandoned his family, the reason he murdered a man, or what his true involvement in the war was. It's as though the war did take away his life.