Director/Producer – Stanley Donen, Screenplay/Lyrics – Alan Jay Lerner, Based on the Novel by Antoine De Saint-Exupéry, Photography – Christopher Challis, Music – Frederick Loewe, Music Conductor – Douglas Gamley, Photographic Effects – Thomas Howard, Animation Sequences – J.V.C. London, Special Effects – John Richardson, Makeup – Ernest Glasser, Production Design – John Barry. Production Company – Stanley Donen Films Inc/Paramount
Richard Kiley (The Pilot), Stephen Warner (The Little Prince), Gene Wilder (The Fox), Bob Fosse (The Snake), Donna McKechnie (The Rose), Joss Ackland (The King), Clive Revill (The Businessman), Victor Spinetti (The Historian), Graham Crowden (The General)
A pilot crashes in the midst of the Sahara desert. There he meets and befriends a young boy who claims that he is a prince from the tiny asteroid B612. The prince has travelled through the universe in search of knowledge. As the prince tells the pilot about his travels, he asks the pilot to draw him a picture of a sheep.
Antoine De Saint-Exupéry is considered a French national icon. Saint-Exupéry was a pilot during the infancy of commercial flight in the 1920s, where he flew as an international postal courier and later managed an airfield in the Sahara. He began writing in 1926 and within his lifetime published seven books, all on aviation themes. The most famous of these was the fable Le Petit Prince/The Little Prince (1943), which has gone onto become an international children’s classic. The story is largely seen as allegorical upon Saint-Exupéry’s part – he, like the character, was a pilot in Saharan Africa, while the character of The Rose, who represents love, was a portrait of his wife Consuelo – she later entitled her autobiography The Tale of the Rose (1979). The characters throughout stand in for caricatures of various types in modern society, against whom the Prince represents an unalloyed innocence. Saint-Exupéry is a character of some interest. Chief among these is the mystery of his eventual fate – he had joined the Allied resistance during the Second World War, flying as a pilot against the Nazis. In 1944, he flew what was meant to be his last mission, a reconnaissance flight, before leaving the service, but failed to return. Exactly what happened remains a mystery, although it is believed that he was shot down by a German fighter. Largely on the basis of The Little Prince, he has become a celebrated figure in French culture. He appeared on the French 50 franc note and has had an airport (in Lyon) and even an asteroid named after him.
This is a film adaptation of the Saint-Exupéry story. Here, the story was turned into a brassy, cumbersome American musical. It was written directly for the screen by Broadway musical specialists Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, who had classics like Brigadoon (1947), My Fair Lady (1956) and Camelot (1960) to their name. The film was directed by Stanley Donen, a specialist in film musicals with the likes of Royal Wedding (1951), Singin’ in the Rain (1952), Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1957), Funny Face (1957) and Damn Yankees (1958). Unfortunately for Stanley Donen, The Little Prince came at a point when public interest in musicals was nosediving amid a string of well-publicised flops, and effectively ended his career as a director of musicals.
Even though the film remains faithful to the text of the story, it is ponderous and deadening. Its construction as a classical-styled musical drags the story out. While many of Stanley Donen’s other film musicals have a frothy effervescence, he fails to give the exercise here much in the way of enervation. The film’s only enlivening moment is a wonderfully slithery self-choreographed number from famed dance choreographer/film director Bob Fosse of Cabaret (1972), All That Jazz (1979) and Star 80 (1980) fame as the Snake in the Grass. Another dance sequence with Gene Wilder, giving what must be one of the worst in a whole career of awful performances, is excruciatingly over the top. The scenes between the Pilot and Prince certainly play with a wry humour and deft matter-of-fact absurdism but then the score keeps returning to drag proceedings to a standstill.
One of the plus points of the film are its highly unusual sets and effects. The Prince’s asteroid is a sphere only 15 feet in diameter – we see him walk the entire way around the equator, stepping over tiny volcanoes and across The Statesman’s borders and countries that are no bigger than a puddle of water. There are other memorable images – Clive Revill as the businessmen living in a world filled with towers of books; or the Prince’s flight through space holding onto a flock of animated silver birds. Eight year-old Steven Warner has a plaintive and sweetly endearing presence as the Prince – what ever happened to Warner one wonders?
The Little Prince (2015) is a French-made animated remake, although this invents a far wider story that surrounds the text. A far more impressive version of the story was a short film version made by Claymation animator Will Vinton in 1979. There was a further animated adaptation made for German tv in 1990. There have also been two films based on the life of Antoine De Saint-Exupéry – the British production Saint-Ex (1996) with Bruno Ganz in the title role, and the French tv production Saint-Exupéry: The Last Mission (1996) starring Bernard Giraudeau.
Stanley Donen’s other films of genre interest are:– Damn Yankees (1958), a musical about diabolic temptation and baseball; the Peter Cook-Dudley Moore black comedy, the original Bedazzled (1967), a dark satire on pacts with the Devil; and the killer robot film Saturn 3 (1980).