With its swords-crossed Arthurian legend firmly established as a serialized comic strip originally created by Hal Foster in 1937 (and continuing on to this day in newspapers across the United States); its lavishly appointed art direction from Mark-Lee Kirk and Lyle R. Wheeler; superbly photographed by Lucien Ballard, and augmented with memorable bombast by Franz Waxman’s thrilling underscore; Henry Hathaway’s Prince Valiant (1954) is not only a…well… ‘valiant’ successor to Foster’s magnificent illustrated strip, but one of the most sumptuously produced ‘knights of the round table’ spectacles ever achieved for the expansive Cinemascope screen. Dudley Nichol’s deft screenplay manages the impossible feat of condensing nearly twenty years of Foster’s grand adventures into a manageable 100 minutes of flowing melodrama and chivalrous action.
The comic strip is generally regarded as one of the most visually resplendent ever syndicated. The movie deserved no less consideration, and under Wheeler and Kirk’s incredible stylization, Prince Valiant remains a lush and lurid evocation of that bygone era, devoted to fearless knights and their ladies fair, truly bringing Foster’s pubescent hero to life without a chink in the chainmail. That the movie failed to gel at the box office (it cost a whopping $2,970,000 and barely made back $2.6 in the U.S. on its initial release) was indeed a disappointment. For time, money and exceptional care had been bestowed to make this Prince Valiant a very noble changeling. Much has been made of the effeminizing wig worn by Robert Wagner’s Nordic gallant. I must admit – it’s atrocious; almost as emasculating as the tights, and twice as lethal when coupled with Wagner’s inimitably handsome, though toothy grin.
That said, Wagner wears the wig – not the other way around - and with honor and occasional distinction; his acting mostly competent; his swordplay more than convincing. Wagner was, by 1954, rapidly becoming something of a heartthrob with lurid and adoring fan mail to prove it, pushed to the head of the line by the studio’s PR department for consideration as Fox’s latest leading man. Alas, Wagner’s strengths as an actor would not rival Fox’s homegrown, Tyrone Power – and certainly, never even came within spitting distance of that immortalized template for the virile swashbuckler; Errol Flynn.
But Wagner’s Prince Valiant is a fairly pragmatic, enticingly energetic and goofily appealing pin-up; making the most of being surrounded by a stellar cast of supporting players that include the formidable Donald Crisp (barely glimpsed as his Viking father, King Aguar), James Mason (top billed as the thoroughly ruthless Sir Brack – a.k.a. the Black Knight), Sterling Hayden (Valiant’s mentor, Sir Gawain), and Brian Aherne and Barry Jones as Kings Arthur and Luke respectively.
To this eclectic mix of youth and experience is added a pair of lovelies as pure ornamentation: Janet Leigh (as the luminous Princess Aleta) and Debra Paget (underutilized, but supremely attractive as her sister, Ilene). The ladies really don’t have much to do in Prince Valiant except wait to be won by the knights of their choosing, or rather, the one who would claims them for their own. Valiant is in love with Aleta; Ilene desperately pining for Sir Gawain, who prefers Aleta instead. So does Sir Brack.
Popular girl, that Aleta – her father chagrined when she confides her preference for Valiant above the rest; an exile without a kingdom, whose parents live under Arthur’s protection but are in constant fear of being recaptured by treacherous forces loyal to Sligon (Primo Carnera); a Viking rival. King Aguar’s secret is kept safe by a devoted Christian warrior, Boltar (Victor McLaglen) who sneaks off to repeatedly visit the family in their remote castle hideaway off the coast of England. Aguar confides in Boltar he has lost all thirst for conquest – also, any desire to ever possess the throne for his own again. But he now places in Boltar’s care the future empire for his only son’s consideration. As such, the nubile Valiant will go to England in service to King Arthur and train with the Knights of the Round Table to become a great warrior for his own people.
The journey, alas, is hardly uneventful. For upon reaching the coast, Valiant observes the Black Knight in cahoots with Vikings loyal to Sligon who have already begun their search for Aguar, the Queen (Mary Philips) and Valiant, to recapture and take them back to Sligon’s court in chains for execution. Valiant clumsily topples from his secluded observation perch, landing with a thud at the Black Knight’s feet, quickly recovering and escaping through the forest on horseback; outfoxing the dark menace by cutting himself a breathing tube from one of the reeds and remaining underwater in a shallow lagoon until the threat of capture has passed.
A short while later, Valiant encounters another knight astride his noble steed and elects to take no chances; beaning the unsuspecting titan in the head with a sizeable rock. When it is revealed to Valiant the knight is none other than Sir Gawain – noble friend to his father – Valiant pledges his services and rides with Gawain to Camelot where he is introduced to King Arthur and the remaining knights including Sir Brack.
Brack is most interested to learn the whereabouts of Valiant’s father and mother, repeatedly inquiring, then apologizing for his inquisitiveness when Val falls silent; having sworn to protect their secret whereabouts to his grave. Brack attempts to make Valiant his charge; a commitment deferred when Sir Gawain campaigns and wins Arthur’s right to claim Valiant as his apprentice in training. Nevertheless, Sir Brack manages to garner Val’s respect, initially appealing to his ego and vanity; offering Val the opportunity to lead him back to the area where he first witnessed the Black Knight’s clandestine rendezvous with the Vikings. This, however, is a deliberate trap; Sir Brack pretending to become separated from Val, thus affording his bowmen – hidden in the forest – a chance to surround Val. The ploy goes badly, however; Val staging a daring escape using an old Viking trick; wounded in the shoulder by one of the bowman’s arrow and lumbering off, barely conscious, to a nearby lagoon where Atela is bathing.
Taken into the family’s care by Atela’s father, King Luke, Val recovers from his ordeal in a few days and is reunited with Sir Brack, who claims to have spent all his time desperately searching for him. Unaware Brack is behind the deception and responsible for his near demise, Val elects to return with him to Camelot; the romance between Val and Atela already hot and heavy, despite Luke’s desire his eldest should marry a knight of quality instead, and – ideally – Sir Brack, who is most enthusiastic and receptive to this idea. Atela confides in Val that her sister, Ilene is desperately in love with Sir Gawain; a love match Val promises to encourage once he has returned to Camelot.
King Luke and his family have intended to leave their castle within a few days to attend a jousting festival at Arthur’s behest. Now, Atela finagles an invitation to return to Camelot with her family and Brack and Val – Brack reluctantly agreeing to the arrangement, even though he is quite aware it means he cannot finish off Val in the forest on their return home as planned. Upon returning to Arthur’s court, Val discovers Sir Gawain severely wounded; having been ambushed in the forest while searching for Val himself.
Vowing not to leave his mentor’s side again, Val introduces Gawain to Ilene. Alas, there is no spark of romance between them, but more than flint and a few embers upon Gawain’s chance meeting Atela; much to Atela and Val’s chagrin. Val lies to Gawain about his own interests in Atela, encouraging Gawain’s pursuit of the girl he so obviously loves and would prefer as his own. At the jousting match, Sir Brack manages to maim and/or cripple virtually all of the competition, much to Atela’s dismay. For her father has bequeathed her hand in marriage to whoever proves the victor in this event. Determined to prevent Brack from winning Atela’s hand, knowing he shall never possess it himself, Val dons Sir Gawain’s armor and colors, preparing to do battle with Brack in Gawain’s stead.
Alas, Val’s lack of training betrays his nobler intentions and he is easily defeated by Brack, revealed as a fraud once his helmet is removed on the battlefield. Now, a mysterious knight emerges on the horizon, also challenging Brack; the wily fox rising to meet the foe, but knocked from his mount, thus, losing the match. When the rogue knight collapses and topples from his steed, Arthur’s physicians attend and quickly realize it is none other than Sir Gawain who has disobeyed his doctor’s orders to remain in bed, and reopened his dangerously infected previous wound.
Arthur charges Val with the severity of the crime of impersonating a knight; Val confessing he knew beforehand the penalty would be extreme – if not, in fact, lethal. Sir Brack cunningly pleads for Arthur to reconsider the charges; affording Val the freedom to confine himself to Sir Gawain’s quarters while Arthur deliberates the appropriate punishment. Alas, Brack’s motives are once again corrupt; a mysterious stranger dropping King Aguar’s jewel-encrusted ring into Sir Gawain’s bedroom late at night to alert Val to the reality his family have been taken prisoner by forces loyal to Sligon.
Sacrificing his own freedom to return home and save his parents, Val’s escape from Camelot is momentarily prevented by Atela, who mercilessly pleads with him to reconsider what will happen if he leaves without Arthur’s permission. It’s no use, however. Val is headstrong and departs on horseback; alas, ambushed by Sligon’s Vikings in the forest, along with Atela, who has chased after him; the pair carted off, but not before the Black Knight reveals himself to them both.
Stunned to learn Sir Brack is actually the mysterious traitor, Val vows to avenge the injustice. But Brack gloats how he has made a pact with Sligon. In exchange for delivering King Aguar and his family to their doom, Sligon has agreed to provide military assistance in Brack’s campaign to overrun Camelot and become its supreme dictator. Val and Aleta are taken by force to Thule; placed in separate dungeons where Aleta is united with Val’s parents and begins to explain the situation of their capture. On the outskirts, Boltar quietly observes this turn of events and vows to gather his opposing Christian forces in a plot to sneak into the castle, assassinate Sligon and reclaim the throne for King Aguar and his Queen.
Val escapes the dungeon using his wits; reunited with Boltar, who has already managed to enter the castle undetected. Boltar orders Val to the tower, instructing him to light a torch: his signal to the waiting army outside that Sligon has been killed in the throne room. Alas, before Boltar can act, Val is discovered by Sligon’s forces; an impromptu and fiery battle ensuing all around them. In the resulting chaos, Val and Sligon exchange swords, Val defeating his father’s arch-nemesis and freeing his family and Aleta from the dungeon with mere moments to spare before a good portion of both it and the castle are engulfed in hellish flames.
Returning a full-fledged knight of his own realm to Camelot, Val confronts Sir Brack for his treason in Arthur’s presence as the other knights look on. Brack is chagrined, demanding immediate satisfaction at the point of a sword. Although Arthur encourages Val to accept Sir Gawain as his substitute champion for the duel, Val instead throws down the gauntlet on his own terms and, in a heroic display of swordsmanship, manages to mortally wound and defeat Sir Brack. Victorious, Val feebly reunites Atela with Sir Gawain who magnanimously returns her to Val; confiding in the pair, that in their absence, he has since been seeing quite a lot of Ilene who has made her own amorous intentions known to him. The two are betrothed to one another in fact. Val is ordered by Arthur to kneel before the throne; knighted for his valor with Arthur’s trusty Excalibur.
Prince Valiant is a nonstop spectacle of immeasurable charm, action and chivalry. Hollywood has, for some time, had a great affinity for these courageous days of the Arthurian legend; perhaps never better realized than in this movie. Fans of the Prince Valiant comic strip ought to have been hard-pressed to find fault with such a glowing tribute. Alas, critics were less kind, chastising the production for its endearingly laughable pseudo ‘olde worlde’ dialogue and pantomime cardboard cutout villains. Viewed today, Prince Valiant harks back to a decidedly different era in movie-making; but with a magnificent flair for its sprite adventure yarn, where good predictably triumphs over evil every time, and, no hero worth his weight in armor is ever left without a reconnaissance of kisses levied at him by the token fair maiden of the piece; well-paid remuneration for bravery against seemingly insurmountable odds.
Is Prince Valiant perfect entertainment? Hardly, its acting is mostly theatrical and often clunky; its characters drawn with broad strokes and little appeal beyond their one-dimensional cartoony feel. Robert Wagner’s sugar-bowl haircut not withstanding; it’s the actor who is present and accounted for on the screen in this adventure yarn – not the character as conceived by Foster. We can never set aside Wagner’s presence and become absorbed in his alter ego.
That said, Robert Wagner is almost always appealing; fresh-faced, clean cut, briefly showing off his taut torso in a wet, shirtless scene, and thereafter giving us a blistering display of his physical agility as he leaps from tree branches to castle turrets with the ease of a jungle cat let loose on this cobblestone Arthurian landscape to suffer the slings and arrows – and hot cauldrons of oil, no less – but always coming out on top and virtually unscathed for having endured these perilous ordeals.
Viewed today, Prince Valiant speaks to two glorious – if wholly fictitious – pasts; one, centuries in the making and endlessly mythologized on the screen before and ever since; the other, appearing almost centuries older still; the fanciful legend of King Arthur and the even more allegorical glories of that ancient system in old Hollywood, tragically relegated to the annals of history for all time. We shall not see the like of a Prince Valiant again; or, if so, not one nearly half as fanciful, disarming and full of passion. Pity that. I know I do.
Eureka! Home Video’s Blu-ray release is ‘region free’ but decidedly a grand disappointment; fraught with a barrage of age-related problems that continuously manifest and distract throughout this 1080p presentation. Prince Valiant is superbly staged and photographed by one of the cinema’s true artists – Lucien Ballard; this hi-def transfer giving us a wan ghost flower of what those visuals must have looked like in 1954. The Technicolor elements utilized are in a bad way. It isn’t only transitions between scenes that exhibit a momentary and garish exchange of those originally lush and vibrant hues, since turned to chalk with alarming frequency. The image toggles between moments where the color snaps together with almost remarkable resilience, and, other instances, when it all but implodes with severe fading and the onslaught of vinegar syndrome.
There’s also some built-in flicker and a slight, though nevertheless obvious, gate weave throughout, more noticeable in projection than on smaller monitors. Age- related artifacts plague, although I must admit they’re not heavy or even very distracting for the most part. Film grain waffles back and forth; from practically nonexistent to severe and heavy in spots. Ugh – and ugly to boot.
The DTS 5.1 audio is another reason to weep; though sharp and with clearly represented dialogue, there is a noticeable hiss and occasional pop happening throughout. Quiescent moments are just awful; so much distortion and background noise it’s like listening to the ocean in a seashell. If this transfer has been officially sanctioned by 2oth Century-Fox (as opposed to a bootleg) then the studio ought to be ashamed over what’s happening herein. Prince Valiant is a veritable disaster; a text book example of everything and anything that can go wrong when a movie isn’t properly archived/restored and remastered for future generations to admire and appreciate.
I would have liked to recommend this classic swashbuckler to a new generation as well as to older fans who remember the movie in its prime. But Eureka!’s presentation is among the worst Blu-rays I’ve had the misfortune to screen. Pass – and to be used as a Frisbee or coaster for your highball only! And the studios continue to question why there’s no renewable market for classics on Blu-ray?!? Well, duh!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)