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In the adventure/romance Prince Valiant (1954), the long running popular comic strip of the same name, comes to life in a colorful, lively production mounted by 20th Century Fox. In it, a very young Robert Wagner plays the title character, son of the King of Scandia during the time of King Arthur (Brian Aherne). With his family living in exile after his father's throne is forcefully taken, Prince Valiant (also known as "Val") travels to Camelot to seek help from King Arthur. When he gets wind of plans by the evil Black Knight to overthrow Arthur's kingdom, Val prepares for a to-the-death battle under the tutelage of the famous knights of the round table. Co-starring James Mason as the duplicitous Sir Brack, Sterling Hayden as the virtuous Sir Gawain, and Janet Leigh as Val's beautiful love interest Aleta, Prince Valiant is a colorful trip back to the Middle Ages as only Hollywood can do it.
Screenwriter Dudley Nichols (Stagecoach , For Whom the Bell Tolls ) wrote the screenplay based on the King Features Syndicate's Prince Valiant comic strip originally created by Harold Foster. First appearing in newspapers in 1937, Foster wrote and illustrated the strip until 1971. Since then Prince Valiant has remained in circulation to this day, having been continued under the hand-picked talents of artists John Cullen Murphy and Gary Gianni.
24-year-old Robert Wagner had joined 20th Century Fox as a contract player at age 18 and been steadily building his career for several years when he made Prince Valiant. The starring role in a high profile film was a great opportunity for the rising star. According to his 2008 autobiography Pieces of My Heart, Wagner had loved the comic strip as a child and was excited to make the film. "I was happy to be working for director Henry Hathaway; I thought the picture was good, and I loved the romance of the subject matter," said Wagner. "I was working with James Mason, another one of my favorite actors, and I thought I was sensational." What Wagner didn't realize at the time was that he would endure a great deal of good-natured ribbing over his role. "If I'd been paying a little more attention," he said, "I would have known something was wrong. Mainly it was the wig. One day Dean Martin visited the set and spent ten minutes talking to me before he realized I wasn't Jane Wyman. Then I sat in a screening with the guys in the studio doing impersonations of the Singing Sword, not to mention me as Prince Valiant. And then I had to listen to jokes about the wig, which I now think made me look more like Louise Brooks than Jane Wyman. And I got upset about the ridicule, so much so that I still have a block about that movie."
According to Robert Wagner's co-star Janet Leigh, her movie star husband at the time, Tony Curtis, had wanted to play Prince Valiant and was disappointed when he lost the role. Leigh, however, was happy to be working with Wagner and described him in her 1984 autobiography There Really Was a Hollywood as "probably one of the nicest human beings in this, or any, city. Well-mannered, straightforward, humorous, eager, he good-naturedly submitted to the indignity of being with the ladies in the hair department every morning to don his Prince Valiant pageboy wig."
Leigh remembered director Henry Hathaway as "an excellent director, a charming host, and a good friend," but he was also someone who "enjoyed being mischievous, goading someone, baiting, to get a reaction." Hathaway often grumbled about having to wait on hair and makeup people to work their magic on Leigh and co-star Debra Paget, according to Leigh, and he could be particularly hard on Robert Wagner. "My deduction," said Leigh, "was that Henry ragged R.J. [Wagner's nickname to friends] a bit much. But on reflection, I decided he was really helping him, protecting him, tugging on every string, pulling out all stops, making him better than he thought he was. Because R.J. was young, relatively inexperienced, and his was the demanding, pivotal role."
Prince Valiant was given a grand premiere at Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood when it opened in the Spring of 1954. It went on to be a respectable hit with the support of mostly favorable reviews. The New York Times called it a "lively adventure", Variety praised the "imaginative" action and the "dazzling" settings, and Time magazine said, "Producer Robert L. Jacks and Director Henry Hathaway have not only matched the museum-copied look of the well-known Sunday Viking and his cohorts; they have caught the panel's inner mood of stilted boyhood reverie as well."
Producer: Robert L. Jacks
Director: Henry Hathaway
Screenplay: Dudley Nichols (screenplay); Harold Foster (comic strip)
Cinematography: Lucien Ballard
Art Direction: Mark-Lee Kirk, Lyle Wheeler
Music: Franz Waxman
Film Editing: Robert Simpson
Cast: James Mason (Sir Brack), Janet Leigh (Princess Aleta), Robert Wagner (Prince Valiant), Debra Paget (Ilene), Sterling Hayden (Sir Gawain), Victor McLaglen (Boltar), Donald Crisp (King Aguar), Brian Aherne (King Arthur), Barry Jones (King Luke), Mary Philips (Queen).
by Andrea Passafiume