Take a Drink: for exposition
Take a Drink: for quality zingers
Take a Drink: for unhorsing
Take a Drink: for old-school greenscreen
Take a Drink: for anti-Semitism
Do a Shot: “No man gives himself to his enemies like a drunken applewoman!”
By: Henry J. Fromage (Three Beers) –
I was a weird kid. I’ve mentioned my archaeology obsession before (entirely unrelated to Indiana Jones, believe it or not), but before that I was all about romantic literature about medieval characters. You could keep your Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Sir Gawain and Sir Galahad would straight eradicate those merchandise-shilling crimes against nature and good taste, and call him the Dark Knight, but Ivanhoe would send Val Kilmer crying home to his mommy.
Considering I was so obsessed with Ivanhoe, it’s a bit strange I never watched 1952’s Ivanhoe. The library must have not had it (or it was too violent for the Family Resource Center). Based off of Sir Walter Scott’s classic, Ivanhoe (Robert Taylor) discovers his King, Richard the Lionheart, is being held hostage in Austria after being waylaid returning to The Crusades. His quest to ransom him brings him home to England, where Richard’s brother John rules with his cruel Norman henchmen, Robin Hood and his Merry Men prowl the forests, and his Saxon brothers strain against their Norman yoke. One group has it even worse, though- the Jews. After he saves respected leader Isaac (Felix Aylmer) and his beautiful daughter Rebecca (Elizabeth Taylor) he finds they may be England’s best hope.
Ivanhoe is an old Hollywood swashbuckler in the The Adventure s of Robin Hood and Captain Blood mold, a comparison director Richard Thorpe and MGM were likely shooting for by casting Errol Flynn-lite Robert Taylor in the lead and stuffing the script with action set-pieces and witty rejoinders. While it doesn’t quite reach that level of excellence, Ivanhoe comes close, and is an extremely entertaining example of the genre.
Basically, the 1950s equivalent of a Marvel tentpole
The film is handsomely designed, costumed, and shot, and the action that works does so due to the sheer ballsiness of old-school stuntmen. The joust is brutally believable because, well, they literally take lances and knock each other on their asses. Likewise, the siege scene features real people storming real castle and tumbling off real ladders and into real moats. However, Ivanhoe saves the best for last, as the trial by combat features two stuntmen in armor straight up whaling on each other with mace and ax. Here the film crosses a line from a fairly sanitized crowd-pleaser into a realistic look at the horrors of combat.
Less realistic, but just a tad more horrifying.
Acting-wise, it’s no surprise that Elizabeth Taylor is best in show, beautiful and demure but sharp and fierce when she needs to be. Her character may be a damsel in distress, but she isn’t. Her work and Aylmer’s sympathetic, noble Isaac the Jew also salvage a plot that threatens to cross into anti-Semitism by way of overcompensation. And Errol Flynn-like he may be, but Robert Taylor pulls it off with aplomb and just a hint of soulfulness.
Richard Thorpe was a bit of a director for hire, with 185 credits in his career (185!!!!) It shows. The action is indifferently and unimaginatively directed, and while the incredible stuntwork salvages a great deal of it, some scenes (the ones you can see the actors’ faces, primarily) look like sickly children half-heartedly flailing sticks at each other.
The script does a good job boiling down the novel into a two-hour screenplay, but could have done with less confusing and frankly unnecessary exposition-dumping in the dialogue.
Ivanhoe isn’t the smoothest-directed swashbuckler, but it retains its childhood pleasures and boasts some surprisingly aggressive action.