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Thursday, September 17, 2015

PRINCE VALIANT (1954)

Early CinemaScope swashbuckler is no classic, excepting Franz Waxman’s sumptuous score, but remains good lively fun from stem to stern. Wasp-waisted Robert Wagner makes an alarmingly pretty Viking Prince (page boy tresses in alt) who hopes to save his father’s Christian kingdom by joining King Arthur’s Knights of the Roundtable. Welcomed by Sir Gawain (Sterling Hayden with an appalling MidWestern accent), he’s suspicious of James Mason’s suave Sir Brack and wooing platinum princess Janet Leigh when not being stalked by the mysterious Black Knight. (Hmm, who could that be?) Naturally, the mix-ups get sorted out, but not before helmer Henry Hathaway puts everyone thru their action paces. Stirringly handled for the period, with a blistering broadsword battle at the climax (backed by some daringly weird scoring from Waxman) and a quaint painterly look to some of the vistas & matte shots where lenser Lucien Ballard matches the old Sunday Supplement comic strip this comes from. (Always the densest half-page graphic in the paper, scripter Dudley Nichols locates a clean narrative line out of the famous Hal Foster characters.) The 2004 DVD release only looks its best in the last third (from about reel seven on), but a newer digital restoration for Blu-Ray may have improved things.

DOUBLE-BILL: In sweep, pacing & unexpected emotional charge, the ‘50s WideScreen swashbucklers can’t match the older Errol Flynn/Michael Curtiz/Erich Wolfgang Korngold classics. Instead, play fair by comparing VALIANT with something contemporary like the inane KING RICHARD AND THE CRUSADERS out the same year. David Butler must have megged from a reclining position (was it Passover?), while his remarkably strong cast (Rex Harrison, George Sanders, Laurence Harvey) barely keep from cracking up. You, too.

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