Chivalry! Vows of loyalty and honor! Combat action that will impress today’s Marvel fans! The violet eyes and super-damsel figure of Elizabeth Taylor! MGM’s made-in-Merrie Olde England tale of Knights and knaves and forbidden love is yet another suits-of-armor sword-basher about ransoming King Richard from those European Union swine across the channel. Everything clicks, from Miklos Rozsa’s most stirring anthem to the righteous justice of the finale. And it’s restored from 3-strip Technicolor. Robert Taylor is terrific as the stalwart Ivanhoe, the kind of no-funny-business hero they ain’t makin’ anymore.
Warner Archive Collection
1952 /Color / 1:37 Academy / 106 min. / Available at Amazon.com / Street Date December 14, 2021 / 21.99
Starring: Robert Taylor, Elizabeth Taylor, Joan Fontaine, George Sanders, Emlyn Williams, Robert Douglas, Finlay Currie, Felix Aylmer, Guy Rolfe.
Cinematography: Freddie Young
Art Director: 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
The Monty Python crowd certainly studied this picture for their Holy Grail movie — it begins with its knight-hero almost being hit by a bucket of waste water tossed from castle window. And you know it couldn’t have been clean water: who hauls a heavy vat up all those stairs, just to dump it out?
The crowd-pleaser Ivanhoe plays extremely well; we’re told that it was one of MGM’s top grossers for 1952. We want to ask, was this script so good that a good movie was unavoidable, or did Richard Thorpe direct it on steroids? It may be the best basic knights-in-armor feature ever, generating an excitement that the years haven’t diminished. This restored Blu-ray restores it to crystal clarity.
Thorpe’s rousing, swashbuckling medieval adventure features hearty portions of virtue and chivalry that raise it to legendary proportions. Robert Taylor is as committed a warrior as the screen can offer. He plays it arrow-straight, no tongue-in-cheek second-guessing. The story of Normans versus Saxons carries a strong subplot about the plight of England’s Jews: “We are permitted no country” laments Isaac. More than one innocent-righteous moment stirs the heart in much the same way that Chris Reeve does when he simply says “I never lie, Lois” in Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie. Why has that earnest-virtuous quality always been so scarce at the movies? Modern audiences react with the same enthusiasm we had as kids. Who doesn’t want something to cheer for?
Because the movie was filmed in England it has a distinctive production polish that evaded some of MGMs Hollywood- based films of the time. There’s not a hint of the slightly comic attitude adopted by later medieval spectacles. Reportedly directed by Yakima Canutt, the castle assault served as a benchmark before the days of CGI-based armies. Elizabeth Taylor makes a devastating impression as Rebecca, guaranteeing even more lasting interest.
Ivanhoe (Robert Taylor) returns from the Crusades to raise a ransom for King Richard the Lionhearted (Norman Wooland), held a prisoner in Austria. Disowned by his father Cedric (Finlay Currie), he’s still wanted by his father’s lovely ward, 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 can never be his. Ironically, it is the Norman knight Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert (George Sanders) who covets Rebecca, but he is little more than Prince John’s henchman. Brian opposes everything Rebecca believes in yet persists even when she spurns his advances. His love is real, but not real enough to save her from being burned at the stake.
We know that Ivanhoe is 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 also shares the spirit, even if most of it is played in earnest sobriety.
It turns out that the hero we know as Robin Hood is actually a spinoff character from Sir Walter Scott’s 1819 novel Ivanhoe. The film’s ‘Locksley’ (Harold Warrender) is indeed the forest guerilla immortalized by Errol Flynn, and even has a portly friar for a sidekick. Somewhere along the line in publishing history, Sir Robin of Locksley usurped Ivanhoe’s function as the storybook savior of England. Here Locksley is a loyal functionary who sticks to praising the Saxon hero Ivanhoe. He stays where he belongs, in the Sherwood Forest shrubberies.
The stern-faced Robert Taylor is a great hero in the humorless-but-noble vein. He means business and has the arched eyebrows to prove it; the two Italian sisters who created the Diabolik comic in the 1960s are said to have anchored their arch-villain character’s appearance on those flared, intense eyebrows. Taylor’s Ivanhoe personifies pure heroism, and the storyline sets him up for several spectacular public displays of true-blue chivalry.
Ivanhoe’s most dramatic honor confrontation sees the knight throwing down his gauntlet before Prince John, demanding the right to defend Liz Taylor’s life in trial by combat. Taylor’s challenge always elicits cheers in screenings, just like Scott Glenn’s trigger words “Sounds dangerous, count me in..” Taylor invests the gesture with the kind of solemn commitment that makes Flynn’s Hood seem an amateur by comparison.
Ivanhoe doesn’t lack for love interests. He isn’t the kissy-kissy type, and instead waxes noble and steadfast around the two damsels in his life. Joan Fontaine plays the waspish but sincere Rowena, an interesting parallel to her sister Olivia De Havilland’s famed role in Flynn’s timeless Robin Hood feature. Rowena’s 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 persecuted daughter of a ‘witch’ burned at the stake. Dialogue says that this happened in Spain — perhaps because English advisors didn’t want to remind the audience of certain unflattering local historical facts? Rebecca’s moneylender father Isaac may be scorned by the prejudiced Norman usurpers, but Rebecca’s own tribal laws doom her dream of romance with Ivanhoe. Young Elizabeth (she was 19 during filming) reportedly didn’t care for the role, perhaps because Rebecca is forced to be an ever-suffering passive presence in most every scene. But outside the movie Liz definitely got the last laugh, stealing the show from Joan Fontaine. MGM’s front office may have quietly instructed director Thorpe to favor the popular starlet, but every woman will agree that Taylor’s beauty blows any other female off the screen.
Ivanhoe is grateful for Rebecca’s help. He plays everything upright and formal, which only makes her love him more. In the final conflict Saxon Ivanhoe battles to save Rebecca’s life, for a) her father’s help in ransoming King Richard from those Austrian anti-Brexit scalawags, and b) because he’s obviously smitten with her. The interesting wrinkle is that George Sanders’ Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert is sincerely in love with Rebecca as well. A true villain, Brian is tripped up by his commitment to the usurper Prince John’s evil administration. Brian is also a slave to his own hauteur – both he and his scurvy partner Sir Hugh De Bracy (Robert Douglas) believe that noble blood entitles them to loot the country while scooping up the choicest damsel-flesh in sight.
By contrast, Ivanhoe projects uncompromised, undiluted virtue. Like all of your better noble heroes he walks boldly into nasty traps assuming that the villains will keep their word of honor. He comes from a long line of gee-whiz proto-supermen who prevail by virtue of combat skill and incredible good luck. Make Ivanhoe more abstract a force of righteousness, and you’ve got the incorruptible Judex, Georges Franju’s hommage to silent serial chivalry. Fans of George Lucas will recognize the source for the execution standoff at the ‘Sarlaac Pit’ 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.
The show’s action centerpiece is a dramatic castle assault initiated by Robin of Locksley’s ‘Merry Men.’ It may have been the most elaborate scene of its kind in 1952. The battle has several highlights: the expected clash at the moat, scaling the walls with ladders, and nifty broadsword fights in the burning interior. Even with a few unconvincing mass arrow gags, the assault still stands as superior action filmmaking. Around 1956, when I was just old enough to dream about the toys in Christmas catalogs, big sellers were ‘Fort Apache’ western playsets, and ‘knights in armor’ castle playsets. I think I had both, but I didn’t realize that they were likely inspired by recent movies.
Ivanhoe ends in that nifty trial by combat between Taylor and Sanders, with mace & chain versus a short axe. It’s refreshingly brutal, especially for 1952, and it plays out with only a drum cadence for a music soundtrack, allowing us to hear every dull ‘thud’ of iron against flesh. “Beware Saxon, lest you strike horse!” Once again, the supporting characters look on while Taylor and an especially animated Sanders slug it out. In featured cutways Rowena and Rebecca do the same thing they did back at the castle: watch from their separate vantage points as Ivanhoe-sweetie bashes and smashes like nobody’s business.
Frankly, George Sanders’ villain gets some of the best scenes. Brian at first brutally promises Rebecca that he will possess her, but by the time the death duel is underway he’s all but begging her to change her mind, renounce her values and return his devotion. We’re convinced of his sincerity, as he’s willing to face the ignominy of abandoning his knighthood. But our Sympathy for the Devil can only go so far: Brian de Bois-Guilbert has already trashed whatever honor he had. His punishment is to be trapped by his own corrupt loyalties.
Unlike the Errol Flynn classics, none of the fights are lighthearted exercises in style, a change perhaps explained by the collective experience of WW2. Ivanhoe doesn’t ‘make it all look easy’ — he hammers away at his opponents and uses a second knife with merciless skill. Scattered through the film are glimpses of gory Technicolored lance wounds, not to mention scary and violent deaths by fire. Perhaps the literary source, the serious attitude and the secondary theme of Jewish persecution helped slip the extra bits of blood and wince-inducing axe blows past the censors.
Ivanhoe accepts Locksley’s ill-gotten loot to ransom King Richard, and negotiates with Isaac for the balance of the needed cash. Our hero admits that Richard the Lionheart didn’t welcome the Hebrews before his Crusade, but gives his personal parole that when Richard returns he will dispense justice and fairness to all his citizens, including the ‘infidel’ Jews.
That really sounds like an irresponsible promise on Ivanhoe’s part, but I guess that this fantasy Richard is an Arthurian saint who will honor an underling’s expedient bargain. To its credit Ivanhoe doesn’t twist its story to invent an unrealistic happy ending for Rebecca — or did MGM decide that some parts of America would take offense to a cross-faith marriage? We’re told that at least one earlier script draft confected a way for Ivanhoe and Rebecca to wed.
Ivanhoe’s cast yields a number of fringe benefits. Emlyn Williams’ Wamba is a nice contrast to Robin Hood’s sentimentalized sidekicks; the actor earns a big screen credit. Felix Aylmer makes Isaac a courageous sage for ‘his people.’ Robert Douglas later became a TV director; he had previous experience playing scurvy villains opposite Errol Flynn and Burt Lancaster. Horror fans may spot Martin Benson, as well as Valentine Dyall of City of the Dead. Dyall gets just one moment on screen but his distinctive voice can’t be missed. Megs Jenkins of The Innocents is a servant pressured into giving false testimony against Rebecca.
Guy Rolfe (Mr. Sardonicus, The Stranglers of Bombay) is almost too intense as the snakelike Prince John, and he makes his every sneering second on screen count. But the screenwriters give Prince John a nice touch by having him put Rebecca on trial as a witch, even though he has no patience for any of that ‘supernatural rubbish.’ Using fear as a political tool is a ploy that hasn’t changed in a thousand years.
The production story of Ivanhoe carries its own political hypocrisy. One of MGM’s most respected writers, Marguerite Roberts, was dropped by the studio when she refused to name names to the HUAC. Not only did her flourishing screenwriting career stall for a full ten years, MGM stripped her credits from films she’d completed. She had only contributed to Ivanhoe so may have not gotten screen credit on it anyway. But according to the book Tender Comrades, Roberts’ name was also struck from Elizabeth Taylor’s next film, The Girl Who Had Everything. Everything with the blacklist is irony: sixteen years later John Wayne won his only acting Oscar with a script written by Marguerite Roberts.
The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of Ivanhoe is yet another impressive digital restoration of a show originally filmed in 3-strip Technicolor. The color values are excellent and the glamorous close-ups of Liz Taylor are even more to-die-for. We’re impressed by the relatively subdued colors — the reds and yellows in the costumes aren’t pushed to the limit of brightness, as was the norm in MGM’s 1940s costume pictures. Miklos Rozsa’s music score is one of his best — the thunderous main theme establishes power and importance, and the secondary romantic theme evokes virtue and sadness.
F.A. (Freddy) Young’s cinematography is very pleasing. The fully restored Blu-ray also gives us a better look at the special effects, revealing the use of more matte work than we once thought. Various traveling matte edge lines around Elizabeth Taylor seem to have been digitally erased — the thick blue (green?) lines were once a serious distraction. The movie is so exciting, I never remember to check to see if Taylor is present at all the locations. She of course must have filmed in England, but for the castle assault she seems to have been doubled in long shot. Judging by the use of blue-screen, some of her shots at castle windows, etc., were filmed on duplicate sets back at the studio.
As I mentioned above the final Trial by Combat plays out against a droning drumbeat that makes the shield and mace impacts all the more effective. The sound effects properly use only a light thud for sickening mace hits . . . how many ribs were smashed there, Ivanhoe? When Rosza’s fiery fanfare bursts in again theater audiences tend to clap, just because the cue is so well timed.
The hard-sell trailer is filled with action, and some dull ‘important movie’ narration is I think delivered by actor Donald Crisp. The Tom & Jerry cartoon The Two Mouseketeers won an Oscar. At the finish, the cartoon wants us to laugh because Tom the Cat gets guillotined. Mee – OWW.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Supplements: Trailer, short subject Tom & Jerry cartoon The Two Mousketeers.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: December 5, 2021
Text © Copyright 2021 Glenn Erickson