In both 1954 and 1997, attempts were made to translate Hal Foster’s seminal Arthurian comic strip into a live-action film, and both failed miserably, the one mainly due to catastrophic casting of Valiant (Robert Wagner) and Gawain (Sterling Hayden), the other due to just being incredibly horrible. The great superhero movie rewatch slogs through two versions of Prince Valiant.
Neither of these adaptations are able to capture Foster’s style. The 1954 film tries its best, using second-unit location shooting instead of stock footage in an attempt to look more realistic, and using the bold angles and colors of CinemaScope. Sadly, it’s done in by a flat performance by Robert Wagner in a silly wig as the titular hero, and an even more ridiculous performance by Sterling Hayden, whose Gawain sounds like he’s from the south side of Chicago. The movie feels like the comic strip, moving from set piece to set piece, but with a distressing lack of urgency.
The 1997 film doesn’t have that problem, but it’s okay, because it has every other problem. It’s too bad, because Stephen Moyer would have made a good Valiant in a proper adaptation—he has the earnestness and the charisma—but he’s saddled with Anthony Hickox going for goofy slapstick over serious drama, from Valiant telling Arn his fly is down during the joust to Ilene sneezing back Morgan’s pixie dust with a shrug and a modestly uttered, “Hay fever!” (Allegedly the original cut was even worse in this regard before the production company edited it without Hickox’s involvement.)