The early 90s saw an influx of cartoons produced solely with the intent to sell to cable networks. Previously, most cartoons were packaged from film or created for broadcast networks which would get the first run on major network affiliates and then gradually migrate to smaller stations. With cable becoming more affordable, it was fast becoming a home for original content and not just re-runs. In the early 90s, two of the biggest suppliers of cartoon programming for cable were USA and The Family Channel.
The Family Channel began as The Christian Broadcasting Network and was a satellite only option until 1981. Owned by Pat Robertson, the channel would grow in popularity and profitability through the 1980s, resulting in Robertson having to sell it or risk CBN losing its non-profit status. So sell it he did, but don’t weep for old Pat, for he basically sold it to his son who founded a new, for-profit, entity. They would eventually sell the channel again to Fox in 1997, and it was sold again to The Walt Disney Company in 2001 who still owns it to this day where it has been rebranded as Freeform. The last remnant of the old CBN Family Channel is that the network still carries Robertson’s show, The 700 Club, which was mandated as part of the terms of the sale. It now airs late at night at 11 PM on the east coast and contains a disclaimer before it that basically indicates the channel wants nothing to do with the content of the show, but apparently Robertson is satisfied.
In the early days of The Family Channel, when the CBN had been annexed from its name, one of the cartoons it acquired the rights to was The Legend of Prince Valiant. Based on the comic strip of the same name by Hal Foster, the show aired from 1991-1993 and followed the exploits of Prince Valiant: a young man who lost his home to invaders, but found new purpose as a member of King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table. It’s a story that starts off like a typical revenge fantasy, but becomes a story that’s more about emotional growth, friendship, and forgiveness. Being essentially an offshoot of The Legend of King Arthur, it’s not particularly hard to see why the show would be deemed suitable by the powers that be at The Family Channel. While the knights do not appear driven by Christ, there are plenty of opportunities for references to Christianity and the image of these fantastic knights certainly conjures images of The Holy Grail and the Crusades. Also not surprising is that it’s depiction of Merlin is as a man of science and the book who does not possess any actual magic.
What doesn’t stand out as particularly “family friendly” is the level of violence present in the show. In the early 90s, cartoons did start to get away with more as they moved away from over-the-top “toon” comedy and towards something a bit more grounded. In Batman: The Animated Series, which would premiere a year after this show, we started to see characters with realistic weaponry. Premiering shortly after that show was X-Men, and while that show went with lasers and such for weapons, it did famously kill off a character in the second episode while other characters openly used the words “die” and “death.” On The Legend of Prince Valiant, heroes and villains are routinely seen killing individuals. They rush into battle and bash each other with swords or fire arrows that actually hit their mark. The show does not get gratuitous with it though as there is little to no blood and most of the characters that die are nameless soldiers and barbarians. It’s always refreshing to see some level of realism in a show that involves violent confrontations (as opposed to a show like G.I. Joe), and the fact that this one was on cable likely allowed it to be as graphic as it was. The fact that it was on The Family Channel makes it a bit surprising, but hey, give credit where credit is due as I’m impressed the network was comfortable with the violence present. I’ve always felt it’s far more irresponsible to sell violence without consequences to kids, when not presented in an obviously unrealistic manner.
As part of the show’s second season we’re treated to a Christmas episode. Titled “Peace on Earth,” the episode is one about war, as the title implies. It’s not that different from the MGM short of the same name as far as theming goes, though obviously this one does not feature talking rodents. Many of the episodes in this show follow an arc, but several are also stand-alone. This is one of those stand-alone episodes which is not particularly surprising as many Christmas episodes of long-running series tend to do the same. This is good for me since I was not a regular viewer of this one. I recall the show’s existence, but something about it seemed dorky to me for some reason. Maybe it was just the title with the word “prince” in it causing me to think of the prince characters in Disney films, or it was due to my dislike of the other King Arthur themed show King Arthur and the Knights of Justice that came in ’92.
The episode begins with a look at space as a narrator tells us about Earth. In keeping with making The Family Channel’s Christian owners happy, the narrator refers to space as empty and desolate aside from Earth. He then starts musing about war and peace and how humanity risks destroying its home through war setting the stage for our story. I could not find a credit for this narrator, but it sounds like it could be Merlin who is voiced by Alan Oppenheimer. He sounds deflated as he refers to peace as a fool’s dream, but then triumphant as he refers to it as a dream worth dreaming about for there are heroes in our midst. We then see a young Arthur pulling the sword Excalibur from its stone and as the camera frames around it, it transforms!
It transforms because it needs to transition to a new shot as it takes the form of Prince Valiant’s blade for he’s stuck battling barbarians. He wears dark blue armor and actually looks the part of a villain as he rides atop his horse hacking at men who apparently can’t afford armor or swords. They attack with spears and mace as Valiant (Robby Benson) is knocked from his horse, but saved by his companion Arn (Michael Horton) and Rowanne (Noelle North) retrieves his horse. Valiant thanks Arn for the help as the trio note the fog in this forest is so dense they can hardly keep track of each other. The other knights, Bryant and Gawain, are missing while the barbarians they were battling have fled. Rowanne decides they should regroup as well as she dismounts her horse and gives the beast some oats. She bemoans that she can’t believe they’ve been away from Camelot so long and notes she’s lost track of the days. It’s at this point Valiant informs us that it’s December 23rd providing Arn the opening to sarcastically remark, “What a lovely place to spend Christmas.”
We then turn to Camelot, a far more joyous location. Townsfolk appear to be gearing up for the holiday as a couple kisses beneath a red plant of some kind (miss-colored mistletoe?) and the camera pans past a manger display, the most secular image we’ll see in this one. A little boy looks delighted by the sight, but his mother tugs him away as she must be raising him to practice something other than Christianity. We then see King Arthur (Efrem Zimbalist) and Queen Guinevere (Samantha Eggar) welcoming a priest followed by Lady Daniella (Sarah Partridge). It would seem the lady has arrived as an emissary from the region of the Misty Isles where a Princess Alita dwells, a romantic interest for Prince Valiant. It would seem Daniella is to spend Christmas at Camelot and she has a special message from the princess to deliver to Valiant and no one else. When she requests an audience with the knight, she’s informed by the king that he and the other knights are away assisting the people of North Gallis who are at war with Lindem. The queen remarks she’s hopeful that Valiant and the other knights will return in time for the Christmas celebration and then offers to show Daniella to her quarters. As the two women walk away, a young boy named Denys (Edan Gross) runs up to Arthur asking if it’s time to ring the bells. Arthur informs him that the Christmas bells shall not ring until Valiant and the knights return home safely. Denys seems rather disappointed by this, but Arthur encourages him to make merry and sees him off. He then grows a bit more melancholy himself as he remarks out loud that he hopes, and prays, for a safe return as the camera lingers on a church steeple. See, this show doesn’t need to expressly reference Jesus to get in plenty of Christian stuff.
The image of the church fades to one of gray skies as we return to North Gallis. Valiant and Arn sit musing on the futility of war. Arn gets all poetic and remarks he believes the people of this region see the futility of it all as they lay dying at his feet. Cheerful stuff! Rowanne has walked off and returns with a helmet full of blackberries. It would seem they’re out of season and Rowanne refers to them as their own Christmas miracle. The knights eagerly eat the blackberries which must be saturated in Rowanne’s sweat and taste just delightful. I feel like I should point out, that this is definitely one of those shows that looks okay when no one is moving. Once the knights undertake even simple gestures, it basically looks like shit.
The knights are soon interrupted by the sounds of battle. They run to their steeds while Rowanne dumps their Christmas miracle on the ground so she can wear her helmet again. To just add a little extra drama, as they ride off to battle the horses trample the remaining blackberries on the ground. They should have just went all the way and made them raspberries so the juice left behind would better resemble blood. After a transition, the music grows more foreboding as we see a young kit emerge from its burrow. The mother fox quickly pulls it back into the burrow as five men go marching past. Elsewhere, Valiant remarks things seem too quiet to his companions as they slowly ride through the foggy woods. They approach a line of bushes that turns out to be a blind, for it drops and some barbarians emerge from behind it throwing rocks. Despite the rocks looking fairly harmless for a man in armor, one seems to hurt Valiant’s arm as another nearby blind drops and more men come running out wielding swords and sticks. Valiant discards his shield so he can switch to his left arm to wield his sword as he clumsily fends off attackers. He gives the order to retreat, and Arn and Rowanne seem happy to run away. As they do, Rowanne’s horse trips and throws her from its back. Worse, it lands on her leg leaving her trapped. As the tide of battle quickly turns, their fellow knights Gawain and Bryant finally show up to drive away the barbarians. We even see a flash of what appears to be pink blood as a barbarian gets cut down. As Rowanne reaches her sword, a man approaches and stands on her hand. As he raises a club he advises that she “Prepare to die,” but one of her fellow knights shows up to crack him in the skull with a club. As he slumps against a nearby tree, I notice the attacker had a sword on his belt, so why the club?
We’re then taken to a camp setting where Valiant and his companions are licking their wounds. Valiant informs Bryant (Dorian Harewood) that his arm feels limp and useless while Arn notes that Rowanne is lucky to have not broken her leg. They are then approached by the king of North Gallis, King Weldon (Mark Hamill), who introduces his son to them, Prince Thomas (Fred Savage). He was apparently the one who saved Rowanne and she thanks him, but is taken aback by how young the boy is when he removes his helmet. Thomas immediately takes interest in Valiant and notes that the knight has suffered a dislocated shoulder. Valiant apparently has no idea what that means and is surprised when the young prince pulls his arm out, but is quickly in awe when he feels it pop back into place.
Thomas then leads Valiant around their camp and provides some backstory on the conflict that has been waging here for years. It would seem the people of Lindem aim to overtake the sanctuary, a church-like structure positioned above their camp. Inside the walls of the sanctuary is a relic and whoever possesses the relic rules over the land. Valiant is somewhat aghast at the notion that a mere object is what the people are fighting over. As the two scoop soup from a pot, I feel inclined to point out that the shot was incorrectly configured and the image of the pot was placed over the cel containing the characters. When Valiant and Thomas walk away from the pot towards the camera, they actually remain behind the pot which looks odd as other characters continue to take from it. Rowanne and Arn are then given another moment to yet again bemoan their fate on Christmas. To drive the point home that war is bad, especially at Christmas, the camera pans across the sullen camp and rests on a man laying on a cot. He appears to be feverish, and his hyperventilating visage is used to transition to a barbarian like man making merry.
We’re back in Camelot and a celebration of the holiday is taking place in the castle. The barbarian dude is apparently a guest of Arthur’s and one probably enjoying his drink. Some guests are in costume, while others are not, but it is certainly a much different atmosphere from that of the camp. Lady Daniella is again speaking with the king about the whereabouts of Prince Valiant. She is so determined to deliver this apparently secret message to him that she’s willing to ride out to North Gallis herself, but the king won’t entertain such a notion. He continues to assure her that the knights will return in time for Christmas. As she takes her leave, Arthur confides in Merlin that it feels inappropriate to celebrate while the knights are in danger. Merlin then tells him that Christmas is important to the people of Camelot and reminds him that he drew Excalibur from its stone on Christmas Day. As he goes on about the holiday’s importance, he surprisingly fails to mention anything secular instead referring to it as a symbol of hope and one the people need. Arthur agrees, though feels the need to remind us that his knights are senselessly fighting a foolish war. Nearby, Denys gets the attention of Lady Daniella and informs her that he has a message from Prince Valiant for the princess. It seems Valiant wasn’t sure he’d make it home in time for Christmas, so he instructed Denys to give Lady Daniella a necklace he had procured for the princess. She’s happy to take it as the two hope for the knight’s safe return.
In North Gallis, Thomas is leading Valiant to the sanctuary in hopes that showing Valiant the relic inside will perhaps allow him to understand why the two factions are at war with each other. The two talk and it allows Valiant to inform Thomas that the people of Camelot were at war like Thomas’s people currently are, but King Arthur put an end to that. He tells Thomas of Arthur’s creed that might does not equal right, and the young knight seems enthused by this. Before the two can complete the surprisingly frightful walk to the sanctuary, the droning horns of battle are sounded and the two are forced to return to the camp.
The droning horns are juxtaposed with brassy, cheerful, ones as we return to Camelot for the delivery of the castle’s Christmas tree. The large tree is pulled into the main square and erected as the people place candles on it (Christmas trees have forever been a fire hazard). Arthur, from a balcony, places a candle atop the tree and the animators make no effort to make this look plausible as it just sits there. He makes a brief speech about the lighting of the tree welcoming the Christmas spirit and he prays it will remain in their hearts forever. He declares “Peace to all,” and the townsfolk return the sentiment in a rousing manner. The camera lingers on the candle atop the tree, which fades into a snow-covered evergreen elsewhere.
That evergreen is quickly fire-bombed as it is time for battle, and the music is appropriately suspenseful. It sounds very similar to something I’ve heard elsewhere, as we have synth stings to heighten the drama. Maybe it just sounds like something that could have been included on X-Men? King Weldon declares “Death to Lindem,” as he leads his forces to battle against catapult fire from the men of Lindem. Valiant, who rides with Rowanne, Arn, and Thomas, are under fire and Thomas tells them to follow him for he knows a way around their forces. They come up behind the catapults and take out the men there, as we see Bryant and Gawain rush into battle. Bryant tells Gawain to mind his flank, advice that would have been useful 10 seconds earlier for he gets sliced on the arm by an attacker. Another knight cleans up as Weldon races after the retreating men of Lindem. They discard torches as they flee into the woods which ignites the trees on the edge of the woods. Weldon brings his horse to a stop and looks up as a flaming trunk begins to fall. Rather than move, he just screams and lets the thing fall on him and his horse.
We are then returned to a gloomy camp where rain has started to fall. Thomas is shown at his father’s side, his body completely wrapped in bandages. The king apparently has succumbed to his wounds, leaving Thomas ruler of his people. As his men await their orders, Valiant informs Thomas that the path of battle is now his to walk. He and he alone can put an end to this constant state of war. Thomas is unsure and remarks that the ways of Camelot may not work here, but Valiant assures him that there is a path. Thomas then emerges from the tent to find a group of men thirsty for revenge for their fallen king. When Thomas informs them of his path of peace, they rebel and let their new king know that they will seek vengeance, with or without him. As they run off chanting death to Lindem, Thomas confides in Valiant. As Thomas walks away, Valiant tells him they must find a way to end this cycle of violence, or “God help us all.” They’re really making that CBN proud!
We return to snowy Camelot where the bells remain quiet still. Denys is in the tower looking out over the kingdom as Merlin enters. He asks the sage how it can be so peaceful in Camelot, but so violent elsewhere? Especially on Christmas Eve! Merlin tells the young man that war is an addiction and that some feed on the violence it spawns. When Denys asks how it can end, Merlin just looks up and asks “How, indeed?” Way to be useful, Merlin.
Under dark, rainy, skies, the people of North Gallis and Lindem prepare for battle. Arn, once again calling attention to it being Christmas Eve, wonders how this can ever end? Bryant doesn’t care as he just wants to see it end in battle so they can get out of this God-forsaken place. His words, not mine. He leads them into battle, but Thomas hangs back causing Valiant to pause. It is then that Thomas informs the knight that he can no longer be party to this ongoing mayhem. He intends to end it, but he needs Valiant’s help. Valiant reminds him that the people of Camelot swore an oath of allegiance to his father, which is extended to him. He is more than willing to help Thomas, but Thomas warns him he’ll need Valiant to risk his very life.
The battle has begun, and the people of Lindem are seemingly well-positioned with arrows. They launch volleys at the charging North Gallis knights. The melee units meet on the field as well bashing sword against shield with neither side appearing to have an advantage. The people of North Gallis have archers of their own which they use as an equalizer. On the outskirts of battle, Thomas and Valiant remove their armor and ride calmly into battle. Lindem fires at them, and everyone is apparently a terrible shot suddenly as every arrow misses its mark. When the two draw closer, the commanding officer instructs his men to hold their fire, noting they’re warriors, not murderers.
Thomas is then able to dismount and address the people before him. He calls to all of them to stop this violence and in order to do so produces the relic: a book. He remarks they’ve been fighting over this book for so long that no one can even recall what it says. He opens it to read a passage aloud, and I am totally expecting it to be the Bible, but it turns out it’s just a book with some very on-the-nose advice:
People of North Gallis and people of Lindem, we have been at war far too long. Our soil was stained with the blood of the innocent. Our homes lie in devastation and our families are scattered and broken. And we’ve done it all in the name of this. A book. A book that has lain unopened for so long that no one alive today can even recall what it says, “Let it be decreed that this land belongs to no one king or another. That this land belongs to the people. And that it shall be the shelter and domain of those who dwell upon it, in peace.”
Apparently, that’s all it took to end this war. Everyone appears moved by the simple expression of peace and they soon throw down their arms. The passage may not have been biblical, but it leads to a Church-friendly exchange as the warring factions shake hands and utter, “Peace be with you.” At the end of his reading, Thomas also casually tossed the book aside where it came to rest in the mud (maybe that’s why they didn’t want it to be a Bible) driving the point home that it’s foolish to allow a mere object to dictate who rules over another.
We then return to Camelot once more and it’s Christmas Day. The people are gathered for a slightly more subdued celebration. Lady Daniella approaches the king and queen and presents a gift to them, a statue, on behalf of the Misty Isles. She also extends the most useful gift of all, thoughts and prayers, for the safe return of the knights of Camelot. Right on cue, the doors to the ballroom open and Valiant enters with the other knights. He marches right up to King Arthur and drops to one knee informing the king he brings good news for there is, at last, peace on Earth. The people gathered around all cheer, and a juggler tosses a blue ball into the air which transitions to that of a planet, possibly Neptune. We’re back in space, and Merlin is musing on the subject of peace on Earth. He positions that if peace on Earth is nothing but a dream, then let us all be dreamers, one and all. The camera centers on Earth from the point-of-view of the moon and we fade to black.
I expected something melancholy with a touch of Jesus, and The Legend of Prince Valiant did not disappoint. The subject of peace on Earth has been associated with Christmas for generations, and for a show often set during times of war, it’s an appropriate premise for a Christmas episode. It does add quite a bit of the cliché sentiment of “Not at Christmas!” but I certainly wasn’t expecting this one to rise above that. There is perhaps a bit too much of it though as basically every scene in Camelot can be distilled down to that premise and a few filler scenes in North Gallis do the same. The episode, being only 22 minutes or so, isn’t long enough for this to get really annoying, but there certainly is a tiresome element to it. The secular elements are few and understated to the point that it might frustrate viewers looking for more Jesus in their Christmas specials to not see the special take it further. On the flip-side, there’s not enough of it to truly discourage those who don’t want that in their entertainment.
What allows “Peace on Earth” to be a bit better than the standard fair is the production and the violence the show is known for. Now, when I say production, I’m mostly talking about the sound design. The animation, done by Sei Young Animation Co. Ltd, is nothing special. It’s probably below average for the era, but I don’t mean that as a slight against Sei Young for I assume the company didn’t have a huge budget to work with. The music though is quite well done and was handled by the duo known as Exchange (Steve Sexton and Gerald O’Brien) while the voice cast is really quite excellent. Robby Benson finds a nice balance between corn and sincere for the very earnest lead character, Prince Valiant, while the rest of the cast finds the right tone for even the lamest of lines. I really enjoyed Efrem Zimbalist as the stoic King Arthur while Fred Savage was a nice surprise in the role of Thomas. The script isn’t particularly good, but the actors treat it like Shakespeare and do an admirable job of selling the story’s sincerity.
As a Christmas special, this one is certainly a bit different than others. The theme of peace isn’t really as explored as some others, though there is another subtext that’s essentially “home for the holidays,” but it’s definitely not emphasized as much as the premise of peace. The episode either ran out of time, or the writers decided whatever holiday message Princess Alita had for Valiant was not important in the wake of peace being brokered between the warring factions of Lindem and North Gallis. I likened this one to the classic holiday short Peace on Earth early on and I wonder if it’s that short’s near perfection that causes others to avoid the subject. Who can really get the message across better? Prince Valiant certainly doesn’t, but it’s not without value. The eventual resolution isn’t particularly satisfying, but it had to be wrapped-up somehow. At least there was a price to pay for peace, though as viewers we’re hardly allowed to care about the life of King Weldon, so that lessens the cheapness of it all. It would have been a bit too grim to have the young Thomas give his life in sacrifice to achieve peace, so the book thing is fine.
The Legend of Prince Valiant is a mostly forgotten cartoon series, but it’s not uninteresting. The entire series is available on DVD and also streaming for free on YouTube. This definitely is not the prototypical Christmas episode that puts one in a happy, celebratory, mood, but it’s okay. I wasn’t that enthused about diving into this one, but I came out of it not regretting my time with it. If you want to see some mostly nameless men die for peace in the name of Christmas, then this is the one for you.