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Prince Valiant started life as a serial comic in 1937. By the time this film was greenlit (1952 or 53, I presume), the comic’s storyline was so complicated that the screenwriter wound up simply choosing bits and pieces at random and producing a script from them.
It’s possible that that shows.
(Spoilers!) As the film opens we learn that the Christian king and queen of Scandia have been exiled to England and given a nice castle to live in by King Arthur. There they live with their unfortunately-behaired son, Valiant, played by a young and terrible Robert Wagner. (You probably know him as Number 2 in the Austin Power films.) We’re introduced to Valiant in a scene clearly meant to showcase his athleticism and bravery, when he, like, rappels down the castle wall then strips off and plunges into the sea to swim over to some friends (Christian Vikings) who’ve come a-calling in their little Christian Viking boat. (The clever viewer will infer that they’re Vikings by their horned helms, shaggy beards, and animal-skin loincloths. Also because the word ‘Viking’ is used about 3 million times in this film.)
Tangentially, Robert Wagner has a nice abdomen. I googled 'Robert Wagner shirtless' to prove it to you, but couldn't find a still of the scene in question. Sorry!
So, uh, the plot kicks in when Val decides to go to Camelot (?) and fight for Arthur as a knight of the Round Table. There’s some business about his father’s laughably anachronistic signet ring being unfakeable. (It is a piece of malachite with a horse-head carved into it, so unless it summons demons or something, it’s probably fakeable.) If the ring is sent to Val, that means his parents are in trouble! Got it? Good.
Then Val gets into a skiff and rows away (to Camelot?) Later (as he’s rowing to Camelot?) he gets into a fight with a knight dressed entirely in black (and his horse is all in black, too) after observing him talking to another Viking (this one with a winged helmet and, we begin to suspect, not Christian). After an extended chase scene where Val steals a horse to escape the black knight, Val then gets off the horse in plain view of the man who’s chasing him and climbs a tree. The black knight, like, sighs heavily and starts poking his spear at the not-even-trying-to-hide Val. Val eventually gets away by diving into a pond. Then, lo, another knight appears! Unlike the previous knight, who wore all black, this knight is wearing green and gold – a fact which escapes Val, who thinks his pursuer is back and brains the green knight with a rock.
This knight, however, is not the black knight. Who knew? This knight is, in fact, the gigantic Sterling Hayden, woodenly playing the famous Sir Gawain. Liking the cut of Val’s jib, Gawain takes Val to Arthur.
As an aside: not a single character in this film pronounces Gawain’s name the same way. Val’s the worst, with a groaning ‘Gwaaaane’ (rhymes with ‘Dwayne’) but everyone else is somewhere between that and ‘GAW-wane’ – which, oh my god, did they not at any point in preproduction ever do a table read and agree on a pronunciation? Moving on.
At the Round Table, Arthur laughs at Val’s wish to be made a knight and decrees that he has to start as a squire. (Which, by the way, is totally reasonable.) Gawain and another Round Table knight, Sir Brack, fight over who gets to teach Val's chisled abs the ways of the knightly world.
Brack, we learn, is the bastard cousin of Arthur and absolutely does not desire the throne. Not one teeny tiny little bit. He’s played by the only English actor in the entire production, as well as being the only character in the entire production with immaculate facial hair. Brack is brought to life by James Mason, who clearly thinks he’s got the greatest gig in all actordom, playing that revered legend of chivalry, Sir Brack. Ah, Sir Brack. He who scaled the walls of Jerusalem and single-handedly took out Saladin himself, knocking the infidel's head clean off in the infamous ‘splash-down of the first crusade.’ Brack, who stormed the Pictish stronghold of Scotterdom to defeat the nine-foot-tall Picktish king, Kong of Scotter. Brack, who descended to Hell itself to win back his fair bride, the lady Gwenavoe (sister of Gwenivere). Sir Brack the immortal, who parachuted behind enemy lines during WWII and infiltrated Hitler's bunker, taking out seven bodyguards and Hitler himself with nothing more than a fork and a stick of chewing gum before marching across the border and personally liberating all of France, in a single day. Why, no less a person than Geoffrey Chaucer called Brack his ‘favorite of all the great knights of legend.’
Anyway, eventually Sterling Hayden’s wooden delivery wins out over James Mason’s insinuating sliminess and Val is squired to Gawain. An excruciating training montage illustrates that Sterling Hayden was a really ferociously gigantic man, and hated making movies. Then they go off in search of the black knight.
Because Val’s an idiot, they get separated and Val is wounded. But he’s taken in by a local king (Arthur’s England is lousy with local kings, it seems) and meets the king’s two beautiful daughters, (whom he previously spied on as they bathed). Ilene has black hair and is secretly in love with Gawain, her blonde sister explains immediately. The chatty blonde sister, Aleta, is played by Janet Leigh in the most incredible wig, bullet-bra and corset combo this side of, god, I don’t know. Val and Aleta stare at each other for three minutes which means they're in love by the end of the scene. Then they meet clandestinely (in the middle of the day... in the castle’s garden...) to flutter their eyelashes at each other discuss their feelings because they are In Love.
It’s possible I started to zone out at this point.
Gawain was also injured – I think by the black knight? – and also meets Ilene and Aleta. To Ilene's disappointment, Gawain falls for Aleta, too. After a lot of lash-batting, everyone goes back to Camelot.
Once there, Aleta gets mad at Val because he’s not paying enough attention to her. He’s not paying enough attention to her because he thinks Gawain is in love with her, or something, and is being noble and self-sacrificing. Or something. I have no idea, honestly. Anyway, Arthur throws a tournament, and then he and Aleta’s father decide that the best possible prize for whoever wins the tournament, as well as being the best way to deal with Aleta's fit of pique, is to promise her hand in marriage to the winner. Brack, who likes Aleta a lot, is all “score!” and proceeds to beat the shit out of everyone, handily winning the tournament and Aleta. But Val puts on Gawain’s armor and, even though Brack has already won fair and square, challenges him. Brack, despite having already won fair and square, beats him. But then Gawain puts on his armor and fights Brack and Brack, having now literally fought every knight in the entire country in a single day, finally loses. Gawain is declared the actual winner. As Gawain is, everyone in this film, in love with Aleta's bullet-bra, he's delighted. Val mopes.
Anyway, Val is punished for daring to wear the armor of a knight of the Round Table (and is sad because of the whole Aleta/Gawain thing) and mopes around in his tower cell until… his father’s unfakeable signet ring crashes through his window! I think a Christian Viking threw it? I don't remember. Trying to work out the logistics of the situation makes my head hurt. Val escapes and rushes off to save his parents. Val instead finds the black knight having a chat with the unchristian Viking. They fight and the black knight is revealed as... Gawain!
I seriously did not see that coming. I was certain the black knight would prove to be Brack. Certain!
Hah, no, it’s totally Brack. He’s in cahoots with the unchristian Viking to take the throne from Arthur, natch.
Somehow, Aleta also gets involved in this scene, and is captured. The unchristian Vikings, who don’t wear anything above the waist besides horned helmets, are astonished by her bullet-bra and worship it as a god.
Then “sometime later,” according to Wikipedia, the Christian Vikings (Val’s friends, remember) attack the unchristian Vikings and free our heroes. Val kind of fucks up the attack and sets half the castle on fire, but that improbably saves the day. Val and Aleta escape and run back to the Round Table to tell Arthur that Sir Brack is actually the villain. I still can’t believe it. Arthur also can’t believe it, and totally takes Brack’s word for it when Brack’s all “no way, bro. I’m loyal as fuck.” Stuck on the horns of a dilemma, Arthur, great statesman that he is, orders Brack and Val to hug it out. By which I mean, fight each other to the death. Whoever loses is the liar, obviously! They hack at each other with their very, very shiny swords for a while. (It's worth noting that the fight choreography is pretty awesome, and that they're actually beating the shit out of each other in this scene.) Brack is so clearly the superior fighter it’s not even funny. You can actually see the point where James Mason gives up and lets Robert Wagner just pretend to stab him, already. Brack dies.
Yay, the villain is dead and all is well in Camelot! The boring love-triangle thing is resolved with a minimum of fuss as Gawain realizes he’s actually in love with Aleta’s sister, Val and Aleta touch cheeks while staring vacantly into the distance, Val is made a knight of the Round Table (good thing a spot just opened up!), and the film ends. (Kinda end spoilers?)
Well, it was a movie. There were some good bits, like Robert Wagner’s abdomen and Janet Leigh’s incredible bullet-bra. There were two great bits – the siege with about 500 Vikings, each wearing a horned helmet, which made me laugh and laugh...
...and James Mason’s Rickman-before-Rickman performance as the villain (it’s still hard to believe that the only character in the entire film with an English accent and well-groomed facial hair might have been the bad guy!). There were a lot of really awful bits (the acting was, by and large, atrocious) and a lot of forgettable bits. The letterboxed CinemaScope production was really lovely, and must have been pretty glorious on the big screen. I have no idea what the reception was like in 1954, but Prince Valiant is very much a product of its time, and not the most compelling film in the world sixty years later. But it was fun, and I’m not sorry I saw it. Even if I never see it again. Plus, the final sword fight is well choreographed.
Hookers, Victims & Doormats: Val’s mother is a doormat, Aleta is a victim, and Ilene is on screen for, like, three seconds. This is a film entirely dominated by men. Vikings, Vikings everywhere!
Also, I love James Mason. North by Northwest? 20,000 Leagues? Journey to the Centre of the Earth? Lord Jim? Lolita? Although, really, I love Nemo. Nemo Nemo Nemo. It is really hard to take Kirk Douglas seriously when he’s up against James Motherfucking Mason, you guys. Jaaaaaammmmeeeessss Mmaaaaaaasssssooooonnnn.
Also also, the trailer for Prince Valiant is awesome and you should watch it immediately.