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DVD SAVANT

Ivanhoe


Ivanhoe
Warner DVD
1952 / Color / 1:37 flat full frame / 106 min. / Street Date January 11, 2005 / 19.97
Starring Robert Taylor, Elizabeth Taylor, Joan Fontaine, George Sanders, Emlyn Williams, Robert Douglas, Finlay Currie, Felix Aylmer, Guy Rolfe
Cinematography Freddie Young
Art Direction Alfred Junge
Film Editor Frank Clarke
Original Music Miklos Rozsa
Written by Aeneas MacKenzie, Marguerite Roberts, Noel Langley from the novel by Sir Walter Scott
Produced by Pandro S. Berman
Directed by Richard Thorpe

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.

Synopsis:

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 in sight.

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.  2 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 him.

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 by fire.

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 expedient bargain.

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.

Guy Rolfe (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, Ivanhoe rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 3, 2004


Footnotes:

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!
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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.
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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