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Prince Valiant (1954)

Amazing as it may sound, the Arthurian legend went largely untapped as a Hollywood resource until the success of the 1949 version of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. The '50s saw the floodgates thrown wide open on this previously untapped public domain source, to mostly mediocre results. Prince Valiant (1954) was a shoo-in as a movie property during this brief knights-and-ladies craze, Hal Foster's adventure comic being one of the most popular and long-running newspaper strips in history. Most Americans growing up in the last few decades have seen the "Valiant" strip on Sundays in passing, but they don't bother to read it any more than they do, say, "Mark Trail." This was not always the case; believe it or not, the first several decades of "Prince Valiant" make compelling reading, especially in the bound volumes of the entire run released by Fantagraphics in the '80s and '90s. The artwork is glorious, the writing and dialogue best, by far, of all the weekly adventure strips of the period, the storylines are captivating, and Valiant himself is a surprisingly rounded and interesting character. Naturally, the one filmed version of the strip flubs all of this — the design and cinematography are adequate at best, the dialogue and writing is sub-par, even for a '50s swashbuckler (the decade wasn't a very good one for high adventure, which didn't really make a decent cinematic comeback after its WWII-era decline until the '70s), the story's thin, and Valiant is… well, Robert Wagner. It's not that the movie's bad — it's simply uninspired. There are some jewels to be found, if one cares to look. Brief plot recap: Valiant is the son of the deposed king of the Vikings, who was given refuge by King Arthur. Reaching manhood, Valiant sets out to Camelot to seek his fortune as a member of the Round Table, but he must start as a squire like everyone else, which he isn't particularly happy about. His pique entices him into all sorts of mischief, and when said mischief isn't throwing him into danger of banishment or imprisonment, it stumbles him into princess and kingdom-saving adventure. Along the way, the ultimate goal of taking his Christian father's throne back from the heathen Vikings who ousted him keeps rearing its head. Wagner's as boring in Prince Valiant as he is in just about everything else except the Austin Powers movies, but far better actors, one hysterically miscast, keep the movie rolling along. James Mason makes a swell villain, as always, and it should go without saying that Deborah Paget and Janet Leigh were born to play spunky princesses. The one to watch, though, is Sterling Hayden as Sir Gawain, a piece of "What the…?" casting on a level with William Holden in Sabrina. The movie's short, the pace is brisk, and there's a fantastic sword-fight at the climax between Wagner and Mason. You could do a lot worse with a bored Sunday afternoon. Fox's DVD release of Prince Valiant offers a decent anamorphic transfer (2:55:1). Audio options include English, Spanish and French soundtracks. Extras include a newsreel promo, trailer and selection of other Fox swashbuckler trailers. Keep-case.
—Robert N. Lee

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