All the Brothers Were Valiant (1953)

The second of the four films Robert Taylor made with director Richard Thorpe in the early 1950s and successor to their epic hit Ivanhoe (1952), All the Brothers Were Valiant is far less splashy, a mixture of Technicolor historical spectacle and character-driven melodrama. Based on a Ben Ames Williams novel that had been filmed before in the ‘20s, it anticipates John Huston’s adaptation of Moby Dick (1956) and sports more convincing special effects, this one doesn’t come anywhere near Huston’s film for recreating the salty, hardy atmosphere of period whaling. All the Brothers Were Valiant moves dutifully through its early scenes as Joel Shore (Taylor), having served as first mate of Captain Holt (Lewis Stone) for a lengthy voyage, returns to their home port of New Bedford to learn that his older brother Mark (Stewart Granger), captain of the Nathan Ross, has failed to return from his previous voyage. Talk about the town, spread by the Nathan Ross’s crew, suggests Mark criminally abandoned ship in the South Seas after a bout of drinking, rumours that drive Joel to break a flibbertigibbet’s jaw for repeating them. The Nathan Ross’s owner rewards Joel for his quality, and seeks to erase Mark’s disgrace, by handing command of that ship over to him, and Joel caps off his triumphant ascension by marrying the girl both he and Mark adored and left behind, Priscilla Holt (Ann Blyth), and taking her with him on his first voyage as captain.

Priscilla takes well to seafaring, but the bliss of her and Joel’s union, and the security of Joel’s captaincy, is disturbed when the ship picks up Mark from the same island where he vanished. Mark gives his lengthy account of how fever had exacerbated his drinking and finally drove him to leave the ship in a frenzy. He was nursed back to health by a beautiful island girl (Betta St. John), before she was kidnapped by a trio of sleazy pearl fishers, Fetcher, Quint, and Farrell (James Whitmore, Kurt Kasznar, and Alexander Pope). Mark swam to their boat, killed Farrell as he was trying to rape the girl, and entered into an uneasy partnership with the other two to travel to an unplundered lode of pearls and exploit it, but that adventure finally became a nightmarish procession of murders that finally left Mark as the lone survivor with the pearls lost, but still recoverable. Mark tries to get Joel to sail to the island, but Joel refuses, prompting Mark to termite his command and his marriage. Joel, responsible and sober, soon finds himself running a distant second to Mark in both appealing to the avarice of the ship’s crew and in wielding force of charisma. The men who had nothing but contempt for Mark when he jumped ship are suddenly his malleable pawns. But just how far Mark is willing to push things, in comparison to the greedy menace of some of the crew, like Silva (Keenan Wynn), soon proves an ambiguous point.

Thorpe, one of those pros who tackled every style of movie in his lengthy career, from war movies like Cry Havoc! (1943) to gangster films like The Black Hand (1950), was the kind of solid helmsman whose labours sustained old Hollywood. Thorpe’s two-dimensional, illustrative style served very well for the likes of Ivanhoe, but here he fails to keep a firm hand on proceedings: although the film is only a fraction over and an hour and a half, it seems longer. The material, with its claustrophobic setting and combustible themes - the propelling battle of wills and versions of machismo that underpins Joel and Mark’s combative fraternal relationship; the friction on everyday morals and mores that the thought of easily plucked riches works on human beings - might have kindled a grand melodrama in the hands of a director like Anthony Mann. But the bland lighting, pastel colours, unimaginative eye-level shots, and stodgy pace robs the film of heat. Thorpe fails to coax any sense of psychological intensity or erotic immediacy out of the heavily invested contest Mark and Joel enter into, with Priscilla and the pearls becoming equivalent prizes.

The actual story takes a long time to develop, and the plasticity of the first third, with the doll-like Blyth and the perennially flat romancer Taylor failing to generate much heat, is difficult to get past. Proceedings take a sharp turn upwards, however, when Granger enters the picture, however; although not an actor of much greater depth than Taylor, his act was better, taking over ship and film with his roguish, self-assured, insolent charm and ironic admiration of anyone who can stand up to him. His first scene, failing to shake Taylor’s hand and mocking him with probing, measuring care, immediately introduces just the right note of disreputable, infuriating charisma and undertone of aggressive purpose. Mark and Joel are the inheritors of a long family tradition – the title quotes the epigraph with which all the members of the clan sign off their log book entries – that has seen many of their lives claimed by tragedy at sea, as visualised when Joel flicks through the log, the ghostly shades of his ancestors reading out their salutary words. But Mark’s uneasy as the pillar of an institution, and he becomes a prototypical ‘50s rebel in facing off against his so-square brother, contradicting the sticky nobility with a bracing gust of ignoble but exciting virility, even going so far as to remind his wishy-washy sibling that in the full version of the eponymous epigram, it's the sisters who are supposed to be virtuous. To be fair, Taylor's squirming incarnation of Joel as he wrestles with dichotomous desires is pretty decent, but his Alpha Male uprightness is never in doubt, so whether or not Joel will prove to have the backbone to stand up to Mark and the crew is not really a source of tension.

The middle-act flashback that recounts Mark's pearling adventure is a fine film within a film, a kind of curtailed Treasure of the Sierra Madre that compresses the usual Darwinian decimation of a rude fellowship into a flavourful half-hour. As such, it's riddled with alarming displays of violence: Mark clubbing Farrell to death in vengeful fury for assaulting his woman; Fetcher ruthlessly stabbing Quint in the gut to claim his share of the loot and murdering their islander helpmates; the girl expiring from a spear in the back, hurled by natives driven to a frenzy by the hideous behaviour of the interlopers. The mini-narrative in this sequence is clich├ęd, but essayed with a brief severity that’s compelling. The evil seed of the pearls, sunk in the lagoon from which they came, proves however to still have sufficient potency to drive the Nathan Ross’s crew towards mutiny: the mere thought of such wealth drives men crazy. Joel stands up for the regular, honest labour that the ship is intended for, rather than the dangerous, roughneck fortune the pearls represent, making the film less a metaphor for the corrosiveness of capitalism than a warning against unruly entrepreneurship. Whilst the film’s drama never rides the wind, it is nonetheless a solid entertainment that’s grown on me, and Miklos Rosza illuminates the proceedings with a good score.

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