Thursday, July 28, 2011

MOVIE REVIEW: "Prince Valiant" 1954

With all the talk going on in geekdom about the new CAPTAIN AMERICA feature being possibly the best film treatment of a comics character ever [I can't wait to see it in a few months at the "dollar" theatre!], some "slightly-on-the-geeky-side" co-workers and I were just discussing today what our all-time fave "four-color-to-silver-screen" adaptations are. 

Some chose Raimi's SPIDERMAN cycle for its remarkable [for Hollywood, anyway] fidelity to source material; some went with Chris Reeves' turn in SUPERMAN I for starting the whole blockbuster-from-comics trend; and one even went with the oddball choice of last year's JONAH HEX for [he said] sheer over-the-top entertainment value [still haven't seen it so I can't fairly offer any jibe here...  even though I feel tempted. :) ]

My choice, however, was easily the most obscure and certainly the hardest to explain: 1954's PRINCE VALIANT... starring Robert Wagner... in a wig. 

Yikes!  Try defending that choice to the geeks at the water cooler!

But Alas,  I will just admit it...  if I am to be truly honest, this creaky old Technicolor CinemaScope Swords-and-Sandals nonsense epic does indeed top my list.

Mostly it's just nostalgia, I suppose-- I first saw it when i was about 9 and it took me away like no movie ever had before, and, on some levels, like none ever would again.  I can't explain it, really, but even seeing STAR WARS about 3 years later in it's first run did not match my exhilaration upon first seeing PV.  I would view it again many times throughout childhood and well into my adolescence, never missing a TV showing afterward if I could help it.  It was truly high adventure to me, and captured my young imagination so purely I still feel some of the gusto even today when I occasionally pop the letterbox disc into the DVD player.

The worst part about my choice is that it is, above all, simply a terrible adaptation.  Released in lavish style back in '54, the film must have frustrated many diehard fans of Hal Foster's original classic strip. While it carries over much of its source material's spirit and enthusiasm, as well as its visual grandness, the plot is WAY off... not even close... and most of the characters even emerge as entirely different beings from their newsprint namesakes (e.g. Princess Aleta, Gawain, even Val himself.)  

Then there's the cast.  While Janet Leigh and Debra Paget are both amazing eye-candy, their performances here are somehow only adequate at best.  The great Sterling Hayden is completely miscast as Valiant's mentor Sir Gawain.  Now, I actually like Hayden's work a lot, but I find his stiff acting style only effective in certain stern hard-boiled roles [such as, for 2 examples, his fascinating turns as the head hood in Kubrick's THE KILLING and the show-stealing walk-on as abolitionist John Brown in the 80s TV mini-series THE BLUE AND THE GRAY.]   In Valiant, his delivery of lines like "Unhand the lad, varlet!" is almost unbearably funny.

Still, it all works surprisingly well. In fact, this film is actually much more enjoyable than the far more faithful '90s remake. This surprising fact is attributable, I believe, to 2 things.

First, the script for the '54 version, written by a highly paid pro named Dudley Nichols, ably manages to transform Foster's lusty picaresque strip into a glorious send-up of Victorian boy's books and blood-and-thunder dime novels. In fact, fans of the now-revived juvenile fiction of G.A. Henty could easily view this film as almost a tribute to that great author, complete with relentless Victorianisms and a theme of paganism versus emerging "muscular Christianity."

Second, two of the performances are downright brilliant. James Mason, as the villian of the piece [the mysterious Black Knight] gives his role a depth that is engossing and rewarding to watch.  In the story, the Black knight is driven to treachery by his second-rate,  adopted status to the man who raised him:  King Arthur himself.   A lesser actor would have probably just grimaced his way through, but Mason turns every line and facial expression into a glimse of a truly tortured soul.   Mason is amazing here.

The other thespian praise I will hand out may surprise some.  Robert Wagner himself brings a vigor to the title role that completely propels the movie.  I must say I have come to really like Wagner as an actor.  He was extremely popular at the time [Fox gave him starring roles in at least a dozen of their highest budget production through the 1950s] and I long thought of him as a pretty boy actor...  but his undersatatement and intensity in films like STOPOVER TOKYO, THE HUNTERS, and the great western epic WHITE FEATHER [must see for any western buff] has never, to my knowkledge, been appreciated in print.  In Valiant he takes a downright silly role and gives it all he has, and he upstages a bunch of hardcore veterans in process.

So... The action is great-- well-done, and stunt-heavy;  the color and widescreen processing is luscious; and the scenery is breathtaking.  [Also worth mentioning: a marvellous political incorrectness reigns throughout! e.g. "The cross is our salvation!", Wagner screams at one point to scoffing villian Mason...  NICE!]

But all in all, my vote comes straight from my culturally over-fed inner child.  It is he who just won't let it go.

Who knows? Maybe in 40 years  even Rogan's GREEN HORNET could be some old guy's oddball choice for "best comic movie ever."

[By the way, as a note to other parents...  your kids-- even if they are jaded techno-junkies-- WILL love this. They may just have trouble admitting it.]


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