Wide Screen Movies Magazine
edited by John Hayes


I’ve collected together a fairly mixed bag of recent releases for this issue, comprising films from two different decades; the 50s and the 70s, and several widely differing genres, happily including a couple of my all-time favourite films.

We’ll start with the oldest and work our way forwards, which will be 1954's Prince Valiant (region 1), from 20 th Century-Fox, and the first of my all-time favorites. This splendid adaptation of Hal Foster’s beautifully drawn comic-strip, is given a terrific 2.55:1 anamorphic transfer from a very nicely restored print, revealing gorgeous Technicolor hues and a vibrant stereo soundtrack.

A young Robert Wagner is a dead ringer for Val, and his exuberant performance has him leaping about the screen with abandon, hacking and slashing at marauding Vikings in order to win a place at the Round Table of King Arthur, and the hand of the fair princess Aleta, played by a rather pointy-breasted Janet Leigh. Villain-in-Chief is the treacherous Sir Brack, played with sinister ease by the great James Mason, completely at home in any period film, unlike the unfortunate Sterling Hayden; completely miscast as Sir Gawain, who struggles manfully with the scurvy knave-type dialogue that the writers have inflicted on his character. In spite of that, veteran director Henry Hathaway keeps the action going at breakneck pace – right up to a spectacular battle in a blazing castle.

The only criticisms of this film that I could make is that it perpetuates the myth of Vikings with winged and horned helmets – but then so did the original comic strip, to which the film determinedly remains faithful. The other would be the ludicrously large, joke-shop swords that Val and Sir Brack wield in their final combat. Nevertheless, Prince Valiant is a long overdue and welcome DVD release of a much sought-after film (look at the prices of Prince Valiant film memorabilia on eBay), and here given the presentation it deserves. Wonderful stuff! - and here’s some trivia: the castle to which Val and his family have been exiled at the start of the film is the very same Scottish castle, which appears in the first flashback sequence in Highlander (Prince Valiant was shot in Britain).

Now last issue, you may recall, I had a dig at this year’s Troy, Wolfgang Peterson’s ‘re-imagining’ of the ancient Greek legend. Well I’m happy to report that the film is not a complete waste of time as it has prompted the DVD release of the proper version, Warner’s 1956 CinemaScope epic, Helen Of Troy (region 2), and all-time favourite number two.

Way back in issue 1 we looked at the making of this spectacular production in some detail, so I won’t go over the same ground again. Suffice it to say that you will not be disappointed by this disc. A pristine print, presented anamorphically at 2.55:1, with the stereo sound remastered to Dolby 5.1, Helen Of Troy is a treat for the eyes and ears.

Shot in Italy, and directed by Robert Wise, with a largely British cast who can handle the 50s type period dialogue with the same ease as James Mason in Prince Valiant, Helen Of Troy sticks to the generally accepted version of the story, with the characters of Helen and Paris at centre stage where they belong – at least until the siege begins. Continental stars Jack Sernas and Rossana Podesta acquit themselves well as the lovers – even though their voices are dubbed - against such stars as Stanley Baker (Achilles), Sir Cedric Hardwicke (Priam), Harry Andrews (Hector), Niall MacGinnis (Menelaus) and Janette Scott (Cassandra).

Director Robert Wise crafted one of the better CinemaScope epics of the 50s with no small thanks to the sumptuous sets created by Edward Carrere and (uncredited) Ken Adam and the fabulous armour and costumes of Roger Furse. All presented in proper colourTroy producers please note. Helen Of Troy also features an awesome wooden horse – unlike the more recent driftwood monstrosity featured in – well, you know which film I mean.

Also included on the disc is an ‘interview’ with Helen (Rossana Podesta in character), a brief TV ‘making of’ introduced by Gig Young (He did many of these for Warner Bros’ television promos) and some ‘sounds of Homeric Troy’. Great film. Great presentation – an absolute must-have!

For a complete change, we jump from ancient mythology to modern murder. Well, I guess A KissBefore Dying (region 2) was modern when it was made in 1956, with Robert Wagner as the murderous social climber, Bud Corliss. Originally made by United Artists, the DVD is now released by MGM with a very pleasing 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer of an equally crisp and colourful print.

Wagner puts aside the pageboy wig from Prince Valiant to play a smoothly sinister college graduate who murders his inconveniently pregnant girlfriend – an early role for Joanne Woodward – by pushing her off a tall building, and then resurfacing some months later as the boyfriend of her unsuspecting older sister (Virginia Leith), as he continues his attempts to worm his way into her wealthy mining family. Jeffrey Hunter is the college professor who smells a rat and begins to look into the past of the handsome Corliss – cue more murders as Corliss rushes around tidying up the loose ends, before meeting a suitably grisly end himself.

When transferring Ira Levin’s novel to the screen, the trick was to get round the fact that in the book you can’t see the face of each sister’s boyfriend, so it’s comparatively easy to prevent the reader from realizing they are one and the same person. Writer Lawrence Roman tweaks the novel’s plot enough to make it work nicely. They used the same trick in the 1991 remake, too. Director Gerd Oswald uses the CinemaScope frame to great effect, considering that the bulk of his career was in television, directing dozens of episodes of Bonanza and Twilight Zone etc.

Released as part of the MGM 80th Anniversary collection, A Kiss Before Dying is retailing for around a fiver – a very reasonable price for a nice little thriller, even with the mono sound. You also get the trailer – in ‘scope.

The next one I’ve chosen – to give you yet another change of direction – is producer Jerry Wald’s 1957 film of Grace Metalious’ steamy novel, Peyton Place (region 1). And I hope you appreciate the trauma that I subjected myself to in order to review this sordid tale of sin and sex on your behalf. Will I ever be the same?

I never read the original novel – I was a Harold Robbins man myself – but I understand it was pretty controversial for its time. It’s actually a sort of variation on Frank Capra’s picket-fence American small towns, with incest, rape, suicide and murder instead of Clarence the Angel.

The action takes place just before the outbreak of WWII, and follows the intersecting lives of the inhabitants of a small New Hampshire town, as parents desperately try to cope with the raging hormones of their teenage children, while struggling to keep their own carefully hidden skeletons from falling out of the closet. It’s all done in the best possible taste, though.

Peyton Place was a kind of showcase for up and coming talent by providing roles for young stars such as Hope Lange, Terry Moore, Russ Tamblyn, Barry Coe and Diane Varsi, with veteran stars Lana Turner, Arthur Kennedy and Lloyd Nolan as the grown-ups. Directed by Mark Robson, it was a box-office smash and was nominated for an amazing nine Oscars, including Best Picture. The CinemaScope frame has seldom been used to better effect, which is complemented handsomely by this beautiful 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer, with stereo sound.

Extras include commentaries by Terry Moore and Russ Tamblyn, with a Movietone news item, Premiere and Photoplay Magazine awards.

A different genre again with my next choice; J. Lee Thomson’s North West Frontier (1959 and region 2), and another personal favourite, because it’s a ‘train’ film (Regular readers may recall that I have a weird fascination for films that are set on trains). Quoting from the back of the case: “Kenneth More keeps his upper lip stiff in this colourful adventure set in colonial India. Captain Scott (More) is sent to rescue a five-year-old IndianPrince and his American governess, Catherine Wyatt (Lauren Bacall), when a rebellion breaks out amongst the tribesmen. Scott and his men take them into the hills in order to bring the young Prince to safety in Kalapur, 300 miles away, because while the Prince lives, no rebellion can succeed. But the last convoy has left, and their only chance of escape is a temperamental old train, called “Empress Of India” ‘.

A simple and effective story with a great cast of supporting characters, such as Wilfred Hyde White, Ursula Jeans, Eugene Deckers and the splendid Herbert Lom as the sinister journalist who is not all he seems. A special mention too, for I.S. Johar’s splendid turn as the Indian engine driver – absolutely priceless!

More is terrific in these kinds of roles, and the slowly developing, but unlikely, relationship with Lauren Bacall’s governess is surprisingly convincing. Plenty of action, too in this CinemaScope film, presented here in a disappointingly non-anamorphic 2.35:1 transfer, with clear, but mono, sound. The print is far better than the one they usually show on TV, though.

I bought mine for less than a fiver in Woolies – an absolute bargain for a little gem of a film.

On to 1970 for this next region 2 release, which is a decent enough action thriller from the pen of Alistair Maclean, When Eight Bells Toll. Although it must be said that this is not in the same league as Where Eagles Dare (1969),or The Guns Of Navarone (1961), whatever the producers may have been hoping. This is Sunday afternoon stuff that is interesting only insofar as it provides an early role for Anthony Hopkins as Phillip Calvert, a sort of James Bond without the gadgets, and his attempts to foil gold bullion thieves, or pirates, or something. It all happens in the Hebrides, anyway, so we get plenty of Panavision sea and island scapes as a backdrop for the quite decent action scenes. Many of the outdoor sequences take place in dull light against overcast skies, and if they had been shot in black-and-white, they might have been far more effective than they are in colour, which just makes them, well, dull.

A good supporting cast, including Robert Morley, Corin Redgrave and best of all, Jack Hawkins, who was sadly nearing the end of his career – and his life - having already lost his vocal chords due to cancer. Hawkins’ familiar and distinctive voice is dubbed here by Charles Gray.

Anamorphic 2.35:1 with mono sound, and a naff trailer, but it’s another budget-priced disc, so that’s not so bad.

My final selection is another Sunday afternoon favourite, The Eagle Has Landed (1976 region 2), now, thankfully, re-released in a splendid 2-disc special edition, which contains a fully restored and extended version as well as the original theatrical print – and it is quite interesting to compare the two.

The excellent cast includes Michael Caine, Robert Duvall, Donald Sutherland and Jenny Agutter, with the veteran action director John Sturges at the helm (Bad Day At Black Rock 1954, The Magnificent Seven 1960, The Great Escape 1963)

It tells the story of an attempt to kidnap Winston Churchill, which has been devised by German Colonel Radl (Duvall) and to be carried out by Colonel Steiner (Caine) and his highly experienced team of paratroopers. They infiltrate an English village disguised as Polish soldiers, but a courageous rescue of a drowning child soon reveals them to the villagers, and brings US soldiers from the nearby army camp. Donald Sutherland plays an IRA man working with Steiner and Jenny Agutter is the naïve local girl who falls for his Irish charm.

A great – and allegedly true - story (from the book by Jack Higgins) with plenty of action and effortless performances all round, presented in a handsome 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer. Strangely, the restored and extended version on disc one is claimed to be in mono, while the original theatrical version is in stereo, but they both seem to be in surround to these ears.

Extras include interviews with Caine, Sutherland and Sturges made at the time of filming, theatrical trailer and two location reports from the 1970’s, plus biographies and stills gallery. There’s supposed to be a split-screen restoration demo, too, but wherever it is, it’s well hidden because I couldn’t find it – maybe one of you readers can let me know if you discover its whereabouts?

A very nice package from Carlton, generally retailing for an inviting £10 or so, which more than makes up for the shoddy full screen version that’s been lurking around for some time.

J. H.

Copyright © 2002-2005, John Hayes/Wide Screen Movies Magazine

Last revised: 11 May, 2008

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