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August 13, 2005

Prince Valiant

Henry Hathaway - 1954
20th Century Fox Region 1 DVD

Is it possible that Dudley Nichols was a teeny bit subversive in his screenplay for Prince Valiant? Keep in mind that the screenwriter has an interesting history beyond the films to his credit. Nichols was key in organizing the screenplay writers in Hollywood in what eventually became the Writers Guild of America. Because the conflicts between the writers and the studios had not been resolved, Nichols was the first person to refuse an Academy Award, which happened to be for The Informer. In Prince Valiant, Robert Wagner is held prisoner by Sligon, a Viking trying to overthrough the rightful Viking king, Valiant's father. Several times, Valiant is asked to name the enemies of Sligon. After Valiant refuses, Sligon mentions that he already has a list of the names of traitors. Taken out of context, it is not too big a stretch to imagine that Nichols was making a little dig at both Joseph McCarthy and the Hollywood Ten trials.

Prince Valiant was made at a time when it was far more unusual to make a film based on a comic strip or comic book. It's more likely that the film was made primarily as a response to the success MGM was having with films like Ivanhoe and Knights of the Round Table. I'm not sure if the film would have been visually better had the compositions and lighting more resembled the work of the comic artist Hal Foster. What is fairly obvious is that director Henry Hathaway and the cast seem lost in the CinemaScope screen.

Released in April 1954, this was only the seventh film in CinemaScope, made during the first year that the new format was imposed on virtually all 20th Century Fox productions. An interesting comparison to make would be with Sam Fuller's Hell and High Water, the fifth CinemaScope film. Made as a challenge by Darryl Zanuck to have a widescreen film that was primarily shot in a confined space, Fuller proved adept at handling both the new screen shape and color. Until the final swordfight at the end of the film, Hathaway is too distant from the action, making the film less involving then it should be. The only other time that Hathaway and cinematographer Burnett Guffey have figured out what to do with the wide screen is in scenes of jousting with the shots of the long lances in action.

The film is an entertaining trifle with Robert Wagner looking awkward with his pageboy wig. Nichol's script pretty much gives away the identity of the mysterious Black Knight early on. Among the other actors lost under their wigs are Sterling Hayden as Sir Gawain and the title character of The Informer, Gypo Nolan himself, Andrew McLaglen as a big, blustery Irishman in Viking warrior drag. Janet Leigh seems to basically marking time between films with then husband Tony Curtis, and those films that made use of her acting talents. Prince Valiant isn't boring or badly made, but even compared to similar films of its time it is not particularly memorable. Compared to John Boorman's Excalibur and the under-rated Antoine Fuqua's King Arthur, Prince Valiant is just another Knight at the movies.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at August 13, 2005 04:30 PM


Wow, I hadn't even HEARD of this one. Robert Wagner in a pageboy? May be worth a rental at some point. Hathaway was a hack but he could tell a good story on occasion.

Posted by: Campaspe at August 15, 2005 09:15 PM