Hollywood loves a good swashbuckler and if it’s not Errol Flynn as Captain Blood duelling a nefarious Basil Rathbone, then it’s Errol Flynn as Robin Hood duelling a nefarious Basil Rathbone — Hollywood is fond of sticking with what works — but no greater font of swordplay and action can be found than within the stories of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Most movies based on the exploits of King Arthur and company derived their source material from the tales that Sir Thomas Mallory had collected for his book Le Morte d’Arthur, but today we will be looking at a film that didn’t derive its subject matter from some dusty old tome but instead from a syndicated newspaper comic strip called Prince Valiant.
Sadly, Errol Flynn will not be found swashing or buckling anything in this 20th Century Fox epic adventure film; in this instance, we will have actor Robert Wagner donning a ridiculous Dutch bob haircut to face off against the nefarious James Mason. To say this was a bit of a one-sided contest is a vast understatement. The horribly miscast Robert Wagner as Prince Valiant didn’t stand a chance against the likes of James Mason. With an almost three million dollar budget, the studio provided lavished sets, rousing action sequences, and excellent location work in England, but none of that could surmount the complete lack of charisma of the film’s lead; even teaming him up with the amazing Sterling Hayden or the wonderful Janet Leigh couldn’t save this picture from being a bit of a cinematic dud.
The Prince Valiant comic strip spanned over 4,000 Sunday strips, so cutting that down into a movie under two hours was no easy matter — MGM had the property for years and failed to make this work — but in the mid ’50s, 20th Century Fox bought the rights to eight years of these published comic strip stories, but then only adapted a 1937 storyline. The basic plot of Prince Valiant deals with a Viking usurper called Usurper Sligon (Primo Carnera) forcing Prince Valiant (Robert Wagner) and his family to flee their kingdom of Scandia and seek refuge in Britain under the protection of King Arthur (Brian Aherne). Exiled Valiant is sent to Camelot to become a knight only to quickly find out that you actually have to earn a place at the Round Table, you can’t just ask for it because you’re a prince or something.
Valiant becomes squire to Sir Gawain (Sterling Hayden) and we spend a little time with him learning to wield a wooden sword and how not to fall off his horse, yet Valiant has also caught the eye of Sir Brack (James Mason) who says he wants to help Valiant become a knight, but as he’s being played by James Mason, we know he must have nefarious motives for doing so. Turns out, there is this mysterious Black Knight riding around Britain stirring up trouble; Valiant even spots the Black Knight parlaying with Vikings belonging to the usurper Sligon, and when Sir Brack takes our young hero to “find” this Black Knight, poor Valiant gets an arrow in his back for his troubles and is eventually captured by the Vikings.
This film isn’t all horseplay and knightly shenanigans (as it’s not a proper medieval adventure tale without a love interest), and in the case of Prince Valiant, we have the lovely Lady Aleta (Janet Leigh) who tends to our hero after getting that pesky arrow in his back. She quickly falls in love with him — apparently, the Florence Nightingale Effect was alive and well in the Dark Ages — but we also have her younger sister Ilene (Debra Paget ), who is secretly in love with Sir Gawain, to complicate things. This all leads to some lame Three’s Company level of misunderstandings with Gawain believing that Aleta is in love with him while her sister is in love with Valiant, and being a complete and utter twit, Valiant goes along with this misunderstanding because he doesn’t want to hurt his master’s feelings. It’s at this point we are praying for the Black Knight and his Viking compatriots to ride in and burn the place to the ground if only to ease our pain.
• The wizard Merlin makes no appearance in this movie even though he was a regular character in the comic strip.
• Prince Valiant’s family sword is The Singing Sword; sadly it doesn’t do any singing at all.
• The swords used by Prince Valiant and Sir Brack looked so clunky and cheap-looking I wouldn’t be surprised if they had been purchased from the local dollar store.
• This film upholds the Hollywood tradition of depicting Vikings with big dumb horned helmets.
There is some fun to be had in a viewing of 20th Century Fox’s Prince Valiant as the action sequences are fairly well-handled — Prince Valiant pretty much burns down his family castle to defeat the usurping Vikings — and the pomp and pageantry of medieval fiction is all wonderfully constructed by the Fox studio artisans. As much as a dud Robert Wagner was as Prince Valiant, it’s a pure delight to watch James Mason poor on the scintillating charm with a dash of malevolence as Sir Brack. This all goes towards making Prince Valiant an entertainingly fun ride, to say the least. This film may not be one of the better Arthurian-based movies, but the supporting cast has me give this one a passing recommendation.
Prince Valiant (1954) – Review
Movie Rank - 5.5/10
The film was capably directed by Henry Hathaway but the clichéd script and a lacklustre lead actor doomed this film to the pile of the forgotten.