Prithy, reader, dost thou seeketh the opinion of the fair Judge Erick Harper on this, the lofty tale of the gallant Sir Wilfred? Lay on!
Stand and pledge loyalty—or prepare to lie cold beneath your shields!
Sir Walter Scott's classic novel Ivanhoe is a glorious tale of gallant knights, beautiful maidens, heroic deeds, and cunning intrigue. It's a (mostly) grown-up fairy tale, and has remained popular to one degree or another ever since its publication in 1819. In 1952, MGM brought this classic tale of Saxons and Normans, Christians and Jews to life on the big screen.
Facts of the Case
It is the twelfth century, give or take. England is divided in a bitter rivalry between the older Saxon inhabitants, and the more recent Norman overlords who have ruled since their conquest in 1066. The one potentially unifying figure, the noble and fair-minded King Richard the Lionhearted, was captured while on a Crusade and languishes in a cell as prisoner of Leopold of Austria. His evil, scheming brother Prince John has seized power and is plotting to bring all of England under the control of his exclusively Norman elite.
One gallant knight stands as the hope of the English people, Norman and Saxon alike, for justice and fairness. Sir Wilfred of Ivanhoe, a Saxon knight fiercely loyal to King Richard, has returned from the Crusades seeking to free his sovereign and thwart the Norman tyranny of Prince John. While it is true that Richard also springs from the Norman elite, his sense of fairness and justice has won him the allegiance of England's downtrodden Saxons.
An unlikely ally appears in the form of Isaac of York, a Jewish moneylender. Cruelly despised by all because of his religion, he and his stunning daughter Rebecca provide Ivanhoe and Richard's cause with crucial help. More help comes from Locksley, better known to one and all as the merry bandit Robin Hood. With these friends Ivanhoe seeks to unite the people of England, Norman and Saxon alike, in support of the rightful sovereign, Richard.
It isn't all fighting and politics, of course. The lovely Saxon princess Lady Rowena is the ward of Ivanhoe's father, Cedric of Rotherwood. She and Ivanhoe are deeply in love. Prince John, however, has other plans for her, having promised her to one of his ruthless Norman henchmen. Rebecca, too, has her sights on the handsome hero, but her religion stands as a barrier between them.
Ivanhoe delivers much of what we expect from a studio big-budget costume drama. The cast is mostly impressive; the sets and wardrobe colorful, if not quite authentic. Director Richard Thorpe and cinematographer Freddie Young (Lawrence of Arabia), shooting on location in Great Britain, capture some magnificent scenery, including many authentic castles and other delights. We also get a big, sweeping story of heroes and damsels and intrigue. Most important, the story feels like it counts for something—we as an audience can understand what is at stake, and why the troubles of Ivanhoe and his friends matter.
There are some real joys in the cast and performances. Joan Fontaine (Rebecca, Suspicion) shows herself to be just as adept at this sort of thing as her older sister Olivia de Havilland. Her presence on the screen is refreshing every time we see her; a touch of warmth and humanity in the midst of the opulent costumes and sets. Of course, the ever-reliable George Sanders (All About Eve, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir) is suitably menacing as Sir Brian de Bois Guilbert, but he leavens the villainy with just the right note of chivalry and even decency. Guy Rolfe (King of Kings, Mr. Sardonicus) appears as the usurping Prince John, behaving in a suitably dislikable manner but not having nearly the fun that Claude Rains had with the same character.
Although it was originally an MGM production, Ivanhoe's DVD incarnation comes to us from Warner Brothers. The video transfer is full frame, in keeping with the original aspect ratio of the film. Approximately the first third and last third of the film look great. The image is sharp and clear, and the gaudy Technicolor hues are reproduced faithfully, albeit with some occasional darkness and oversaturation of blacks. The middle third, however, is varying shades of horrible. Much of that portion of the picture, from about the end of the jousting tournament through the assault on Torquilstone Castle, is washed out, colorless, and noticeably yellowed with age. The sharpness of the print is quite degraded in these scenes as well. The worst picture quality comes as Rowena and Rebecca ride beside each other on horseback, discussing their shared affections for the gallant Ivanhoe. Each woman has a pronounced halo around her, the likes of which I've only seen in religious iconography—or surrounding TIE fighters. Granted, the worst of this transfer lasts only a few short moments, but it's still enough to seriously compromise the overall viewing experience.
There is little of note to say about the audio presentation on this disc. It is, of course, monaural, as is fitting for a film of Ivanhoe's vintage. It sounds about as good as one would expect from a mono audio track from the early 1950s, i.e. it delivers the sound reasonably well while sounding just a bit congested, with varying levels of hiss present.
Warner Brothers has gotten pretty good lately about including appropriate supplements for older films. Ivanhoe is certainly no The Adventures of Robin Hood, and the extras show it, but they did see fit to include the Tom and Jerry cartoon short The Two Mouseketeers. (The term "mouseketeer" wouldn't become Disney property until the advent of The Mickey Mouse Club on television in 1955. One assumes that Hanna and Barbera probably could have sued the pants off of Uncle Walt, but it was a simpler time.) This entertaining little short, featuring Tom, Jerry, and little Nibbles against the backdrop of the French Revolution, has always been one of my favorites. It landed legendary MGM animation producer Fred Quimby an Oscar for Best Short Subject Cartoon of 1951.
Also included on the disc is a trailer for Ivanhoe, as well trailers for two other swashbucklers from the same period, Knights of the Round Table and Scaramouche.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Probably the greatest weakness of this film is its overblown sense of seriousness. There is a great story here, and it is for the most part well told, but there is little of the sense of heroism and adventure that has made the original novel so popular for almost 200 years. There is also little of the sense of fun that distinguishes other films of this genre. A good deal of this problem comes from Ivanhoe himself, Robert Taylor (Billy the Kid, Knights of the Round Table, Quo Vadis). Known as "the man with the perfect profile," Taylor certainly looks the part, but plays the role with an overdose of dignity and solemnity. He lacks the adventurousness of others known for similar roles, e.g. Errol Flynn or Tyrone Power, appearing stuffy, staid, and stoic by comparison. His Ivanhoe has no spark, no passion, no sense of the rightness or justice of his quest; it would appear that Taylor simply has no relish for the role. Even in what are supposed to be quiet, intimate scenes opposite Fontaine's Rowena he proves unable to muster any more warmth or tenderness than a man deciding whether to order the steak or the fish. He is further disadvantaged, as any American would be, by appearing with a mostly British supporting cast. Taylor's flat intonations clash with the cultured accents of his co-stars, and the result is almost as painful and discordant as John Wayne trying to join the Royal Shakespeare Company.
The other Taylor, serial monogamist Elizabeth (Butterfield 8, Cleopatra), was not yet twenty years old when she made this picture. Her stunning beauty is a revelation to those of us more accustomed to seeing her much later appearances in the supermarket tabloids. Her performance, on the other hand, is disappointment. Her vacant, doe-eyed stare into the camera shows little of the star quality that would make her a Hollywood legend. Even her most crucial speech in the film, where she talks about the fate of the Jewish people in England, comes across as dreamily ethereal and disconnected from reality.
Really, the primary failing of this movie is in the script and pacing. Coming from a Romantic-era literary source, the dialogue can be expected to retain a certain level of formality, but the adaptation by Aeneas MacKenzie (Captain Horatio Hornblower R.N., They Died With Their Boots On) contains some of the most painfully stilted dialogue I've heard in a long time. I could excuse this if it were mere faithfulness to the source, but much of this dialogue I certainly don't remember from the novel. Fontaine and Elizabeth Taylor bear the brunt of its maudlin melodrama. Although Ivanhoe makes for a fairly faithful adaptation, there are some changes that hurt the narrative. As a prime example, the identities of both Ivanhoe and Locksley are revealed far too early in the film, destroying some of the suspense and intrigue of the novel. Overall, the film tries to tell a rousing story, but does so in a curiously subdued—at times, even tedious—manner.
There are also some faults in direction, as well as in technical details. Thorpe's framing and presentation of several scenes has a claustrophobic feel, so much so that I had to check several times to verify that Academy Standard was in fact the correct aspect ratio. It is—but much of the movie feels like a Cinemascope picture that has been severely cropped. The film overall suffers from a lack of energy in its direction and editing. This lack of rhythm in how the picture is shot and edited is most acute in the scenes that should elicit some excitement on the part of the viewer, such as the jousting tournament at Ashby or the assault on Torquilstone Castle. Technical problems also plague these action sequences, further hampering their effectiveness. Apparently no one thought to show Robert Taylor, or anyone else in the cast, even the rudimentary basics of how to handle a sword. The volleys of arrows fired by Locksley's bowmen at Torquilstone fly through the air in far too solid and tight a mass to have actually been fired individually. A final confrontation between Taylor as Ivanhoe and Sanders as Bois-Guilbert fares a bit better in both areas. However, it still tends to drag a bit, and is plagued with audio effects that sound like someone bouncing bowling balls off the roof of an airplane hangar.
Scott's novel has provided the source material for several filmed adaptations, as well as most of the familiar Robin Hood mythology seen in films like The Adventures of Robin Hood and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Also, a little closer to home (at least for this writer), it provided the name for the small town of Ivanhoe, Minnesota, a mere twenty miles away from where I grew up. Yes, naming your town after a book is a bit cheesy, as is naming all the streets in town after characters and locations from the book, but it is also rather interesting and shows a respectable degree of literary awareness on the part of the early settlers. It wasn't until much more recently that I read the book and saw the movie, but now that I have, there is something satisfying about driving down Norman Street or Rebecca Street or Rotherwood Avenue and knowing just what the heck these weird names mean.
On a more relevant note, it is somewhat unfortunate that Ivanhoe came out in 1952, rather than just a year or so later. The introduction of wide-screen processes such as Cinemascope in the early 1950s would have been a natural fit for this epic story. In fact, in 1953 director Thorpe and Robert Taylor would reunite to cover some very similar ground in Knights of the Round Table, this time in glorious 2.55:1 Cinemascope. By most accounts the later film is not as good as Ivanhoe, but I'll bet dollars to donuts it has a lot grander look and feel.
Overall, Ivanhoe is not a bad film, but I find its nomination for a Best Picture Academy Award in 1953 quite surprising. It's an entertaining film, but hardly merits that sort of recognition. Even more mystifying, given the flaws noted earlier, is Thorpe's nomination for a Director's Guild award.
Not guilty! For all its faults, Ivanhoe is a pleasing adventure story and a passable literary adaptation. Fans of similar films, such as The Adventures of Robin Hood, should find this disc worth a look, though perhaps not a purchase.
On the other hand, a new adaptation of this story for the big screen, done by someone working outside the confines of the old studio system and with a knack for literary adaptations, seems about due. Paging Peter Jackson…
We stand adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Theatrical Trailer
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