Dracula with music by Philip Glass and the Kronos Quartet at Arlene Schnitzer Center, Portland, OR

Monday, February 21, 2011

Prince Valiant (1954)

As much as I like the Sunday comics as a kid, I never really was a Prince Valiant comic strip fan. I tended to read Peanuts and Doonesbury and later, The Far Side and Calvin and Hobbes. But you couldn't help but notice cartoonist Hal Foster's colorful Prince Valiant in the comics section, usually with his sword drawn against a gargantuan lizard and a beautiful damsel behind him. Oh, and that page boy haircut he wore. If PRINCE VALIANT were made today, the studio wouldn't dare make Shia LeBouef or Channing Tatum wear that terrible haircut. But director Henry Hathaway and 20th Century Fox did make young Robert Wagner wear the signature page boy wig.  At least 20th Century Fox pulled out all the stops for their motion picture version of the comic strip, filming it in Technicolor and Cinemascope.

PRINCE VALIANT takes place in a weird time warp where Vikings and Knights of the Round Table live in the same time period. The film opens with Prince Valiant (Robert Wagner), his father King Aguar (Donald Crisp) and Queen mother (Mary Phillips) living in a remote castle in northern Britain, exiled from their home land of Skandia, hiding from the Viking tyrant Sligon (Primo Carnera).  A friendly Viking ship carrying their friend Boltar (Victor McLaglen) lands to warn the family that Sligon is hunting for them. Fearing for his son's safety, King Aguar sends Valiant to King Arthur's court at Camelot to train with the Knights of the Round Table.

On his journey to Camelot, Valiant comes across the mysterious Black Knight with Sligon's Viking marauders. Valiant barely escapes with his life and soon crosses paths with the noble Sir Gawain (Sterling Hayden). Gawain likes Valiant's courageous demeanor and invites him back to Camelot to be his squire. Valiant is introduced to King Arthur (Brian Aherne) as well as many other knights including Sir Brack (James Mason), who also shows a keen interest in Prince Valiant.  Arthur agrees to let Gawain keep Valiant as his squire and Gawain begins to teach the young prince the fundamentals of becoming a knight.

But Valiant is headstrong and restless and soon embarks on a quest to find and capture the Black Knight on his own. He meets up with Sir Breck who's also searching for the Black Knight but they get separated. Valiant is ambushed and wounded by the Black Knight's archers but manages to ride to a nearby castle inhabited by King Luke (Barry Jones) and his two beautiful daughters, Princess Aleta (Janet Leigh) and Ilene (Debra Paget). Sir Breck arrives later to the castle and after Valiant recuperates, they all return to Camelot for a jousting tournament with Princess Aleta to wed the winning knight.

The remainder of PRINCE VALIANT is mostly action with an extended jousting tournament followed by Valiant being lured out of Camelot to rescue his imprisoned parents from Sligon's castle. Valiant and Aleta are captured but Valiant manages to escape his cell and assist the good Viking Boltar and his men as they lay siege on Sligon's castle and army. The film concludes with a well-staged sword fight to the death between Valiant and the traitorous Knight from the Round Table who has betrayed King Arthur and Camelot.

Just as PRINCE VALIANT has a strange  mix of Arthurian and Viking mythology, the casting for the film is also a weird combination of  American and English actors.  The American side is represented by the young Robert Wagner as Prince Valiant and Sterling Hayden as the comical Sir Gawain. Both seem a bit miscast, at least in dialect, for a film set in medieval England. At times, Hayden sounds like a cowboy in shining armour. But British actors James Mason as Sir Breck and Donald Crisp as King Aguar lend more realism in their portrayals.  And then there's the utter waste of the talented Victor McLaglen as Boltar. McLaglen, well known for his Irish character roles in John Ford's FORT APACHE (1948) and THE QUIET MAN (1952) both with John Wayne, is entirely obscured in Viking garb and thick beard as Valiant's Viking ally. The Viking costumes in general are a bit hokey. The Vikings in PRINCE VALIANT all seem like rejects for a Minnesota Vikings mascot audition.

Now, I often complain that today's films rely on too many close-ups of actors but if there was ever a film that screamed for more close-ups, PRINCE VALIANT is that film.  Perhaps because he was trying to be epic and grand, director Hathaway films much of the story in wide shots to fill up the Cinemascope screen. But he loses the intimacy between the audience and the characters.  We never get a good close up of the handsome Robert Wagner or the beautiful Janet Leigh. With all the knight head gear and Viking helmets and thick beards, it's hard to tell who's who at times. A few more close ups would have helped.

Wagner does an able job at the athletic part of playing Prince Valiant as he spends a lot of time climbing up and down ramparts and trees and leaping over tables and walls. But his performance is a bit stiff not uncommon for young actors in the 50's and 60's. Wagner's Valiant needs a bit more cockiness. Wagner will become better known in the 1960's and 70's playing slick, romantic leads in television shows like IT TAKES A THIEF and later HART TO HART. Janet Leigh is a wonderful choice as the Princess in distress Aleta. Leigh would star in another Viking themed film with her then husband Tony Curtis in THE VIKINGS (1958). Besides the character of Aleta, Leigh played other strong female characters in other films such as PSYCHO (1960) and THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (1962). As the villain, James Mason has a good time as the sneaky Sir Breck. He's always just a breadth away from catching Valiant or usurping Arthur's throne but his nefarious schemes are always disrupted. Even when he seemingly wins Aleta's hand in the jousting tournament, the last second entries of Valiant (disguised as Gawain) and then an injured Gawain thwart even Breck's wedding plans.

Director Hathaway does understand that a film filled with Knights and Vikings needs action and he stages some impressive action scenes including an exciting jousting tournament with knights somersaulting off of horses, the fiery attack on Sligon's fortress, and a fierce sword fight between Prince Valiant and Sir Breck.  Screenwriter Dudley Nichols makes sure to include humor throughout the film and my favorite subplot involves an injured Gawain mistakenly believing Princess Aleta loves him when in fact Aleta is in love with Prince Valiant and it's Aleta's sister Ilene who loves Gawain. Actor Sterling Hayden may not sound like a typical English knight but he hams it up nicely as the lovesick Gawain.

A pleasant surprise of PRINCE VALIANT are some nice special photographic effects and matte paintings of Camelot that enhance the grandeur of the film. 20th Century Fox also shot 2nd Unit footage of various real castles throughout the British Isles such as Alnwick Castle and Warwick Castle to give PRINCE VALIANT a more authentic look. However, most of the film was shot in Los Angeles. Having lived in southern California for several years, it's always fun to see movies that mix the Santa Monica mountains or the California coast with shots of actual English castles.  Edit it all together and it works.

We should be thankful that the filmmakers chose to make a live action version of PRINCE VALIANT rather than that other Viking comic strip Hagar the Horrible. PRINCE VALIANT is meant to be a big colorful spectacle and it achieves that with its production design and lavish sets. But it makes a bit of a spectacle of itself with a young hero with an awful haircut that we never quite wrap our arms around and embrace.

1 comment:

  1. Yes I agree about the close ups!! I couldn't see Debra Paget at all, and I seriously had no idea it was Sterling Hayden playing Gawain! Enjoyable enough though