Thursday, November 14, 2013

Prince Valiant (1954)

Prince Valiant is a spectacular adventure based on the popular comic strip of the same name. 20th Century-Fox clearly spared no expense in this 1954 production and the results are richly rewarding.

Prince Valiant (Robert Wagner) is the son of a Christian Viking king, King Aguar (Donald Crisp), whose throne has been usurped by the traitorous Sligon. The king and his family are living in exile in a remote monastery under the protection of the King of the Britons, Arthur. Prince Valiant is sent to Camelot to become a knight. He finds it’s much harder work than he expected. A chance encounter with one of Arthur’s bravest knights, Sir Gawain (Sterling Hayden), proves to be a lucky one for the young Viking prince. Valiant becomes Sir Gawain’s squire.

On his way to Camelot Valiant had encountered the mysterious Black Knight. The Black Knight is rumoured to be a ghost although Gawain is inclined to believe he is a man, and a villain.

Sir Brack (James Mason) is one of Arthur’s most trusted knights although he and Valiant seem suspicious of each other. When Sir Brack sets off to find the Black Knight Valiant tags along. This almost costs him his life. Grievously wounded by brigands he is nursed back to health by Aleta (Janet Leigh), the daughter of a minor king. Valiant and Aleta fall in love. Aleta’s sister Ilene (Debra Paget) is in love with Sir Gawain. This should all work out neatly but a series of misunderstandings threatens to wreck the happiness of Valiant and Aleta. There is a further complication - Aleta’s father is determined that his daughter should wed the knight who wins the upcoming tournament at Camelot. And to add a further complication, Sir Brack is determined to be the one who wins Aleta’s hand.

Prince Valiant soon lands himself in strife, but there is even bigger trouble brewing for him. He must break his word to King Arthur in order to save his father’s kingdom.

The script by Dudley Nichols is serviceable enough but the real attractions here are the pageantry and some spectacular action scenes. Director Henry Hathaway pulls off some impressive set-pieces. The climactic sequences at King Aguar’s castle are a major highlight.

There are some problems here though. You won’t have any trouble guessing who the villain is. Robert Wagner lacks the charisma needed for a swashbuckling hero and Sterling Hayden is ludicrously miscast. Janet Leigh and Debra Paget are fine but they get very little to do and the supporting players in general are a little on the dull side although Victor McLaglen livens things up somewhat as a Viking faithful to the rightful king. Fortunately James Mason is on hand to rescue the movie with a delightfully over-the-top performance.

Franz Waxman’s score helps keep the excitement bubbling along. Location shots and matte paintings are integrated quite well to create the settings. The costumes and sets are as you’d expect in a major studio release.

Of course the movie makes absolutely no sense historically with some of the anachronisms being enough to give a history buff apoplexy. But it’s based on  a comic strip and the producers, quite correctly, were more concerned in remaining faithful to the spirit of the comic strip rather than to history. If the armour is nearly a thousand years too late for King Arthur’s time I’m prepared to overlook that. After all King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table have a much stronger basis in legend than in historical fact.

Sadly the Region 4 DVD is rather sub-standard. This is a movie that relies a great deal on its visual impact, being shot in Cinemascope and Technicolor. The transfer is anamorphic but the colours are slightly faded and fluctuate quite a bit which can be irritating and distracting. The colour balance just seems to be slightly wrong. The picture could also be a bit sharper. These same flaws are apparently present in other region releases and even in the UK Blu-Ray release.

If you tried to take this movie seriously you could find plenty of flaws here but why would you want to take a movie based on a comic strip seriously? Treat it as harmless fun and you’ll enjoy it.

1 comment:

  1. It really is a fun movie to watch,very enjoyable, more so than some of the other medieval epics made at the time. It makes no pretensions to be anything but an escapist adventure movie, and at that it succeeds very well.