Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
A rousing, swashbuckling knights-in-armor adventure, Ivanhoe's hearty portions of virtue
and chivalry raise it to legendary proportions, and Robert Taylor is as committed a warrior as
the screen could offer. The story of Normans versus Saxons carries
a strong subplot about the plight of the Jews ("We are permitted no country" laments Isaac); there
are a couple of innocent-righteous moments that stir the heart in much the same way th>Superman:
The Movie does.
Because the movie was shot in England it has an extra production polish that evaded most of
MGMs Hollywood based films of the time, including a castle assault (by Yakima Canutt) that served as
a benchmark before the days of CGI-based armies. Elizabeth Taylor makes an impressive
Rebecca and there's not a hint of the tongue-in-cheek attitude adopted by later medieval spectacles.
Ivanhoe (Robert Taylor) returns from the Crusades to raise a ransom for
King Richard the Lionhearted (Norman Wooland), held in Austria. Disowned by his father Cedric
(Finlay Currie), he's still wanted by the Lady Rowena (Joan Fontaine). Befriending Isaac of York
(Felix Aylmer), Ivanhoe promises that the Jews in England will be well treated if Richard returns
to the throne. Prince John (Guy Rolfe) is determined to rub out the campaign to restore Richard
and orders Ivanhoe, Cedric and Isaac arrested. In the center of this is Isaac's beautiful daughter
Rebecca (Elizabeth Taylor). She adores Ivanhoe as well but is forbidden to be his; instead, Prince
John's Norman knight Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert (George Sanders) covets her. But not enough to save
her from being burned at the stake when she spurns his advances.
We can tell that Ivanhoe is going to be a winner from the first notes of its rousing
Miklos Rosza score, a thunderous orchestration that will immediately remind younger viewers of
Star Wars. George Lucas' jokey-serious space opera is often compared to
The Adventures of Robin Hood, but
this epic is much more in the spirit, even if it is played mostly in sober earnestness.
It turns out that Robin Hood is actually a classic literary spinoff of Ivanhoe; Sir Walter Scott's
"Locksley" is indeed the forest guerilla immortalized by Errol Flynn, and even has a portly friar
as his main sidekick. Apparently the Robin Hood character usurped Ivanhoe's function as the savior
of England somewhere in publishing history. Here he's a loyal functionary serving mostly to praise
our Saxon hero and stay in the bushes where he belongs.
Robert Taylor's politics weren't the nicest but he's a great hero in the humorless-but-noble vein.
He means business and does chivalric things like throwing down his gauntlet before Prince John with
the kind of solemn commitment that makes Flynn's Hood look like a Sunday revolutionary - even Darth
Vader would be impressed. 1
Ivanhoe waxes noble around the two damsels in his life. The waspish but sincere Rowena is played by Joan
Fontaine in an interesting parallel to her sister Olivia De Havilland's position in the Flynn
Robin Hood feature. Her main function is to wait out the threat of civil war between Saxons and
Normans and coax Ivanhoe's bitter (but obviously soft-hearted) father into recognizing his wayward
son once again.
Elizabeth Taylor's Rebecca is the 'noble Jewess,' the deserving daughter of a 'witch' burned at the
stake in Spain - I guess the Inquisition was an ongoing event in La España. Along with her
wise father, a moneylender scorned and discriminated against by the Norman usurpers, Rebeca is so
beset by disapproval and prejudice that she knows her dream of romance with Ivanhoe is impossible.
Ivanhoe is grateful for her help but standoffish as only a formal gentleman can be, and the final conflict
brings up a number of interesting ironies. Saxon Ivanhoe is battling to save Rebecca's life, for
a) her father's help bailing King Richard from those Austrian scalawags, and b) because he's
obviously smitten by her as well. Nasty villain Sir Brian (George Sanders, more sensitive than usual)
is crazy in love with Rebecca but all snarled up in his loyalties to an evil administration, and
a slave to his own hauteur - both he and his scurvy partner Sir Hugh De Bracy (Robert Douglas) think
that their noble blood entitles them to loot the country while scooping up the choicest damsel-flesh
Ivanhoe of course prevails by following his quest even though it estranges him
from his father and makes him an outlaw. Like all of your better noble heroes (I'm thinking of
Judex), he walks into nasty traps assuming that the villains will keep their word of honor.
There follows another scene re-purposed by George Lucas in The Return of the Jedi: Sir Brian
prepares to hang Ivanhoe from the battlements of a castle, but the Saxon hero turns the tables on
Ivanhoe ends in a nifty trial by combat between Taylor and Sanders, with mace & chain versus a
short axe. It's refreshingly brutal, especially for 1952. Come to think of it, scattered through the
film are several glimpses of gory Technicolored lance wounds, not to mention scary and violent deaths
The only thing politically interesting about Ivanhoe is the payoff for the Jews after they
fund King Richard's ransom. Ivanhoe admits that Richard wasn't hospitable to the Hebrews before he
left on his Crusade, but gives his word that a restored Richard will dispense justice and fairness
to all his citizens. On the face of it that sounds like an irresponsible promise on Ivanhoe's part.
Maybe we just have to accept Richard as some kind of Arthurian saint who will honor an underling's
Ivanhoe has a number of fringe benefits. Emlyn Williams' Wamba is a nice contrast to Robin
Hood's sentimentalized sidekicks, and Felix Aylmer makes Isaac a courageous sage for 'his people.'
By sticking with the attitudes of its time (sort of) Ivanhoe doesn't have to twist its
story to invent an unrealistic happy ending for Rebecca. Megs Jenkins of The Innocents is a
servant pressured into giving false testimony against her.
(Mr. Sardonicus, The Stranglers of
Bombay) is almost too intense in his villainy, but as he only makes a few appearances he needs to
make a quick impression. He has a nice touch when he chooses to try Rebecca as a witch, even though he
doesn't for a moment believe any of that supernatural rubbish. Using fear as a political tool is a ploy
that hasn't changed in a thousand years.
Warners' presents Ivanhoe in a brightly colored transfer that betters previous home video versions.
Even the travelling mattes around Elizabeth Taylor in some shots are minimized - she apparently did not
go to the castle location in England and some window closups had to be filmed against blue screens. Fans of the Rosza
score (also finally available separately on CD) will appreciate the punchy soundtrack. The final fight is
played out against a droning drumbeat that makes the shield and mace impacts all the more effective, and
the sound effects people properly use only a light thud when a weapon strikes home. When Rosza's fiery
fanfare bursts in again theater audiences tend to clap, just because the cue is so well timed.
There's a nice trailer for an extra, and some other swashbuckling trailers too. Savant only received a
check disc on this one and so cannot evaluate the packaging.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 3, 2004
1. Arcane trivia: The two
Italian sisters who dreamed up the radical Diabolik comic in the 1960s are said to have
based their arch-villain character's looks around Robert Taylor's flared, intense eyebrows!
2. There's a gripping (and once suppressed) 1970s Argentinian film about a squelched
worker's uprising called Rebeldes de Patagonia. The populist Gaucho hero goes to parlay with the general
charged with expunging the rebels, and is shocked when the general ignores the flag of truce and simply orders
him shot. The whole history of chivalry and honor is violated, and this being the ruthless 20th century the
Gaucho has no army of guerillas waiting to rescue him. When rebels become murderously ruthless, it's usually
because they've had good teachers; Rebeldes ends years later with the victorious general, a mass
murderer, blown up in the street by an assassin's bomb.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson