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Fox Home Entertainment presents
Prince Valiant (1954)

"The Singing Sword will only give its power to its rightful owners. It will never sing in the hands of a traitor."
- Prince Valiant (Robert Wagner)

Review By: Mark Zimmer   
Published: May 10, 2004

Stars: James Mason, Janet Leigh, Robert Wagner, Debra Paget, Sterling Hayden
Other Stars: Victor McLaglen, Donald Crisp, Brian Aherne, Barry Jones, Mary Philips
Director: Henry Hathaway

Manufacturer: DVCC
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (mild violence, jousting)
Run Time: 01h:50m:54s
Release Date: May 11, 2004
UPC: 024543111450
Genre: adventure

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
C- C+DB- D+

DVD Review

One of the longest-running comic strips is the epic tale of Prince Valiant in the Days of King Arthur, originated by Hal Foster. Still running today, it began in February of 1937 and was an immediate success due to Foster's rendering skills that brought medieval times to vivid life. This 1954 attempt to bring the tale to the big screen is a good deal less successful, however.

King Aguar of Scandia (Donald Crisp) and his son, Prince Valiant (Robert Wagner) have been exiled from their homeland by the traitor Sligon. Although they have been given refuge in a British abbey by King Arthur (Brian Aherne), Val seeks to become a knight of the Round Table. Taken under the tutelage of Sir Gawain (Sterling Hayden), Val learns the ways of knighthood, though he is pursued by the mysterious Black Knight, who is in league with Sligon. When Val learns Sir Brack (James Mason) is going after the Black Knight, the young prince tags along but gets separated from Brack and assaulted by brigands. Nursed back to health by the princess Aleta (Janet Leigh), Val quickly falls in love but finds things get complicated when Gawain falls in love with her himself.

Despite being handled by Henry Hathaway, a veteran director of screen adventures such as Lives of a Bengal Lancer, the picture has some serious problems. Primary among them is the fact that much of the cast is downright terrible. An impossibly young Robert Wagner isn't up to handling the lead, but he's nowhere near as terrible as Sterling Hayden, who declaims his lines as if he were reading them cold. Janet Leigh and Debra Paget don't really get much to do other than be pretty, though Paget manages a couple of good moments as Aleta's sister Ilene. On the positive side, James Mason is always entertaining, as is a woefully underused Donald Crisp. Victor McLaglen also shows up as a mysteriously Irish-sounding Viking, Boltar, but his screen charisma does shine through the massive beard and horned helmet.

The screenplay is pretty weak; only the youngest of children will have any problem guessing the Black Knight's identity. The story has a halting and disjointed feeling, though that's in a way consistent with the episodic style of the weekly comic strip. It's intermittently dull and unnecessarily talky, with the same bits of exposition being given over and over. The dialogue is poorly written and sounds highly unnatural throughout, especially given the wide variety of accents being heard. But the music score by Franz Waxman, one of his better efforts, is a thrilling and swashbuckling delight that deserves to be attached to a much more entertaining film.

DP Lucien Ballard makes excellent use of the Cinemascope canvas, with artful compositions. This would hardly be watchable in pan-and-scan. Although the costuming is fairly elaborate and faithful to Foster's art (yet Valiant's familiar blue costume is unaccountably absent), the set design has an unfinished look, as if the set dressers couldn't imagine what might be held within a castle other than the bare walls themselves. This paucity of imagination keeps this adaptation from creating a credible fantasy world.

The picture is an odd mixture of random elements from Foster's strip and new additions. While some of the basic points remain the same, such as Val's Scandinavian ancestry (though his home is for some reason renamed Scandia from its original Thule) and a few names (and of course the page boy haircut), other essentials, such as Aleta's background, are completely revised here. Some odd details from the original strip's early years (though no doubt forgotten by the 1954 audience) remain, including Val's stand-up dugout canoe that he uses to reach Britain. Indeed, his Scandinavian ancestry, seldom referenced in the strip, probably came as a surprise to viewers even back on original release.

Even though there's plenty of jousting and medieval action, it's not always carried off well. The climactic swordfight is one of the more poorly choreographed ones I've seen captured on film, and audiences used to Errol Flynn or even Adrian Paul will be disappointed in its clumsiness. Prince Valiant is in all a surprisingly weak effort, considering the talents that were responsible for it.

Rating for Style: C-
Rating for Substance: C+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio2.35:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The anamorphic widescreen picture looks fairly good in some respects, but wretched in others. On the positive side, the Technicolor is vivid and bright. Black levels are a bit weak but within acceptable range. But what is seriously problematic is a severe telecine wobble that runs throughout nearly the entire film. The picture rapidly vibrates from left to right, so that stationary objects appear to be twitching madly. I found this shakiness to be both distracting and headache-inducing. This effect may not be noticeable on smaller sets, and on them it may appear to acceptable. But this is unforgivably sloppy work from Fox, which usually does so much better than this.

Image Transfer Grade: D


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
MonoSpanish, Frenchyes
DS 2.0Englishyes

Audio Transfer Review: The original stereo track is included, and although it has a fairly prominent level of hiss, it's passably good. Waxman's score tends to sound a bit too bright, and serious bass is lacking, but for a 50-year-old audio track it could be a lot worse. Dialogue is clear throughout, while the soundstage is reasonably broad.

Audio Transfer Grade: B-


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 20 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
4 Other Trailer(s) featuring The Black Swan, A High Wind in Jamaica, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, Pirates of Tortuga
1 Featurette(s)
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL
Layers Switch: 00h:50m:54s

Extras Review: A brief Movietone News segment (:53s) features a promotional stunt for the film done in conjunction with the AFL convention, with Mitzi Gaynor prominently onscreen for no apparent reason. An anamorphic trailer in pretty decent shape is the only other extra connected with the film proper. Apparently someone at Fox believes this to be a pirate movie, since the other four trailers included all are nautical tales. Since Wagner and Leigh are both still active, a brief interview segment with either or both of them about this early step in their careers would have been nice, but no dice.

Extras Grade: D+


Final Comments

A rather disappointing Arthurian adventure is given a shockingly sloppy transfer by Fox, with little in the way of extras.


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