Another old classic today; based (mostly) on Sir Walter Scott’s novel, Ivanhoe stars Robert Taylor in the title role, with Elizabeth Taylor as Rebecca and George Sanders as Bois-Guilbert. This is another of those films that I saw as a child and didn’t really understand and have since re-watched as an adult, and a rather historically geeky adult at that, with a new appreciation of both its virtues and its faults.
(image from amazon uk)
The film takes place in the late twelfth century, when Richard I was being held for ransom in Austria, having been captured by his old ally/enemy Leopold on his way back from the Holy Land. Sir Wilfred of Ivanhoe, a loyal Saxon knight, discovers where he is being held and Richard sends him a message; Prince John is aware of his captivity and Leopold’s ransom demand, but John is ignoring it as he and his followers enjoy the power he holds in his brother’s absence.
Ivanhoe heads for England and the home of his estranged father Cedric, encountering two such followers in the forms of Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert and Sir Hugh de Bracy on the way. There he sees his old love, Lady Rowena, and he asks his father to detain and question the Norman knights. But Cedric, still angry at him for going to the crusades without his blessing, refuses to believe him about Richard and orders his son to leave. On the way out Ivanhoe finds another guest there, the Jew; Isaac, being robbed by Norman soldiers. He and the servant Womba save him and both go with him to his home in Sheffield, briefly encountering his beautiful daughter Rebecca while there. In thanks for his help, and after some persuasion, Isaac agrees to do what he can to raise money for Richard’s ransom. But there is still John and his knights to consider…
Well, I hope that’s a tantalising enough glimpse of the story for you – now on to the review. It may be the nostalgia talking but I really do enjoy this film, though I do suspect that I may be biased here. Like a lot of films of this era there is plenty for a modern audience to take issue with, so let’s get the cons out of the way first – there are a few.
First off; American accents in twelfth century England. I’ve said before that since I grew up on these sort of films, the accents for some reason don’t grate on me the way they would in a more modern film (you know who you are Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, just be grateful you had Alan Rickman on your side!), but I accept that for a newcomer, they will seem odd. In a land where nearly everyone, especially the villains, have fairly refined English accents, to hear the leading man and woman speaking in 20th century American accents can be strange to say the least. Having heard some truly atrocious attempts at Brit accents in my time, I will justify this a little by reminding you all that it could all be much much worse (Case in point; From Hell. Never watch this if you value your ears)!
The second thing most people will laugh at if they watch the film now is the action, and a lot of it is, I admit, pretty bad. Like all such films you have to view it as a product of its time but nonetheless, the awkward hack-and-slash of the battles is pretty weak, and the archery is unintentionally hilarious; the shot cuts from the men shooting their bows to a shot of the enemy, and it looks as if there is a man standing just behind the camera half-heartedly throwing armfuls of sticks at the extras. In my house whenever we make a half-arsed gesture about something (washing-up is the usual subject) the normal response has become ‘don’t throw your arrows at me!’ What makes it worse is the extras who dutifully catch these arrows and hold them against themselves to show they’ve been shot. OK, filmmaking has come a long way since then but even as a staunch defender of this film, I have to say it’s pretty cringeworthy to watch. I’m pretty sure I saw a LOTR special feature which said that they used no CGI for the arrows shot at Boromir – they simply filmed the Uruk-Hai shooting his bow in one direction, then did a quick cut to Sean Bean, with the arrow already in his shoulder, reacting as if it had just struck. Combined with the ‘thud’ sound effect it was completely believable and could have been done just as easily in 1952 as in 2001. So yes – definite fail there.
The only other real problem I had (apart from clumsy jousting and metal shields…) was one that most people won’t care about but this is my website so I’m going to say it anyway! It has the classic ‘Robin Hood Syndrome’ of over-vilifying John and over-romanticising Richard. I know we need a good guy and a bad guy and I love Richard Lionheart as much as anyone, but the fact is it gets old after a while if you’re even a little familiar with the real historical characters. John was greedy and often foolish, yes; Richard was bold and sort of chivalric, yes. But that’s it!
I don’t want to go off on one too much but when Ivanhoe told Isaac that Richard would not accept his freedom if it came at the cost of an innocent Jew’s life I actually laughed out loud – of course he bloody would! We’re talking about the man who executed 3,000 prisoners after the Siege of Acre simply to make a point! I had a similar reaction when they claim he is the great hope for uniting the Normans and Saxons of England. Richard, a Norman who even if he understood English only ever spoke in French and Latin, spent maybe a year in England during his entire reign. The rest he spent in the Holy Land or fighting in France and viewed England as a recruiting ground and bank for his campaigns to keep his father’s empire together. John on the other hand, though he repeatedly made failed attempts to take back more of Angevin France, spent most of his reign in England and for all his many (many) failings, had studied law and took an active interest in the administration of justice in his country. I’m not saying John wasn’t an arse or that Richard was without heroism, but the constant stereotyping grates on me a little (as you can tell!).
OK, rant over, on to the pros. The character of Loxley is a nice, believable version of the Robin Hood legend and is well played by Harold Warrender as a hero who doesn’t steal the limelight. The film also has a very positive message (perhaps understandable given the time it was made) about racial equality. Though naturally distrusting and stereotypically well-financed, the Jews are portrayed positively as a people who are willing to embrace a country that is willing to embrace them, and that they are willing to make the first move towards that end. The usual 12th century Norman/Saxon relationship is a little more prejudiced, but Normans like Richard and, to an extent, Bois Guilbert do show both nobility and courage.
That of course leads me nicely on to my favourite character (spoiler alert, skip to next section if wish). This knight, who is really the primary antagonist for most of the film, is brilliantly played by George Sanders and, while definitely a bad guy, has a good side one rarely sees in villains of this period. He is greedy and selfish but also genuinely loves Rebecca (even if he has an odd way of showing it!), to the extent that he is willing to stand up to Prince John to defend her and then offers to sacrifice his own honour and fortune and forfeit a duel to Ivanhoe if she would only say that she loves him back. His death is absolutely tragic as Rebecca runs to him and he tells her it is a shame that he loved her and that Ivanhoe didn’t, and he offers her God’s blessing as he dies. Brilliant moment.
OK – tears dried – on to the last few pros. I liked how they did the siege warfare with the use of pontoons (even done under a hail of half-arsed archery…) and I liked how the final duel is not the usual swordfighting. Don’t get me wrong, few men love a good swordfight as much as I do, but unless you do something special with them they can get a bit predictable. That this film ends with a mounted battle of axe vs mace-and-chain was wonderfully refreshing, even if they were carrying metal shields…
All told, I’d call this a good film if you like that sort of thing. There’s a fair bit of over-acting (Cedric) and some stuff that’s just plain silly (arrows – meh!) but also some cracking acting on the part of Elizabeth Taylor and George Sanders, with Robert Taylor nailing his heroic self very nicely (even if his Ivanhoe is very like his Lancelot…). If you don’t go in for films of this era this might not be the best one to get you into it. Something like Knights of the Round Table (lot of the same cast – review coming up!) or a Flynn swashbuckler like Captain Blood or Sea Hawk might be better suited for you, so long as B&W doesn’t put you off. I like it though – and this is my site so that’s what matters in the end!