**/**** Image B- Sound B Extras C+
starring Robert Taylor, Elizabeth Taylor, Joan Fontaine, George Sanders
screenplay by Noel Langley, based on the novel by Sir Walter Scott
directed by Richard Thorpe
by Alex Jackson Think of Ivanhoe as the 1952 version of Wolfgang Petersen's Troy: a big-budget historical epic designed to garner prestigious Oscar buzz as well as blockbuster box-office results. Like Troy, the film's fatal flaw is in favouring superficial fidelities over a meaningful interpretation of the subject matter. This is a masochistic and defensively middlebrow idea of art, not to mention naïve. Consider, for example, that there are no gods in Troy. Yes, this is perfectly reasonable when you consider what today's filmgoers are likely to take seriously and what they are likely to laugh at; Laurence Olivier in Clash of the Titans is most definitely a camp object. Then, of course, there are the wiseasses who populate Sam Raimi's dedicatedly silly TV series "Hercules" and "Xena".
But when you consider that Troy is supposed to be an adaptation of Homer's The Iliad, it seems irrefutably insane to not use the gods as characters. One of my favourite reviews of Troy, one that I think manages to pin down what went wrong, was from Roger Ebert, who observed that Brad Pitt brought complexity to a role that didn't need it. Pitt is kind of a brooding Method actor in the vein of Marlon Brando or James Dean and as such makes a terrible Achilles. By catering to contemporary trends in movie acting, Petersen and Pitt have done a disservice to their material and irreparably dated their film. Pitt's performance in Troy is as anachronistic as a wristwatch.
Returning to his kingdom following the crusades, Richard the Lionheart is kidnapped by Leopold of Austria and held ransom for 150,000 marks of silver. Richard's brother John (Guy Rolfe) isn't going to pay it--he enjoys holding the throne too much. Richard's faithful knight, the Saxon Wilfred Ivanhoe (Robert Taylor), returns to England and looks for ways to raise the money. As his father Cedric refuses to help a Norman king, Ivanhoe next hits up the Jewish Isaac of York (Felix Aylmer). Noting that Richard is no more a friend to the Jews than John, Isaac reluctantly agrees once Ivanhoe promises him that Richard will give Jews equal protection upon his return. Meanwhile, Isaac's daughter Rebecca (Elizabeth Taylor (no relation)) is deeply in love with Ivanhoe. He cannot truly love her back, however, as his heart belongs to his pre-Crusades sweetheart--and Cedric's ward--Lady Rowena (Joan Fontaine).
I'm not sure that the notions of "freedom" and "justice" have very much currency in Feudal-era England. Ivanhoe appropriates his father's court jester, Wamba (Emlyn Williams), and promotes him to squire. He removes Wamba's collar, which had been fastened around his neck since childhood, and Wamba is thrilled. He's finally a free man, he says. Free? Hardly--he just moved up the social totem pole. He belongs to a better caste of Englishman now. Wamba's allegiance is to Ivanhoe and Ivanhoe's allegiance is to his king.
Really, if it weren't for everyone's willingness to announce which tribe they belong to, these Norman, Saxon, and Jewish people would be virtually indistinguishable from each other. The film's ethnic conflicts are not contextualized for us in any understandable way. In a dumber but more audacious movie, that might have been the point. They could use the prehistoric minutia of 12th-century social distinctions to satirize the very idea of discrimination--sort of like how the original "Star Trek" took on racism by depicting a war between aliens that are black on the left side and aliens that are black on the right. Alas, Ivanhoe takes these distinctions deathly seriously, effectively alienating the audience.
Easily the film's biggest problem is that Ivanhoe must ultimately reject the lovestruck and beautiful Rebecca in favour of the boring Lady Rowena. He seems to be choosing Rowena because they are both Saxons of similar social standing and Rebecca is a Jew, meaning he would rather maintain the existing status quo than follow his heart. (At least I think he would be following his heart: Rebecca is the only person in the film to betray genuine emotion, while it's difficult to discern out how Ivanhoe feels about anything.) I suppose that it's possible intellectually to understand why Ivanhoe does what he does, but it's quite impossible to empathize with him. This mode of thinking is simply impenetrable to modern American audiences. In a free society, the hero ought to be able to end up with Elizabeth Taylor! Like good Fifties progressives, the filmmakers infuse the Jewish Isaac with pious nobility, and when he talks about the Jews receiving just treatment in Richard's kingdom, it's a piously noble sentiment. Yet they are bound to their faithfulness to the novel and force themselves to translate the pro-segregation message.
The irony of all this is that the Sir Walter Scott novel that serves as the basis for the film is historically inaccurate. I perked up a bit when King John had Rebecca tried for witchcraft. Indeed, witchcraft was not persecuted until fifty years after the events of the film, not punishable by death until the 1400s, and even then not punished by being burned at the stake like in the film, but by hanging. More significantly, the Norman-Saxon conflict was non-existent at this time thanks to intermarriage between the two nationalities among the upper class. The film Ivanhoe is therefore a literal translation of an abstracted perspective of history.
Know that I would never lodge these complaints against Michael Curtiz and William Keighley's The Adventures of Robin Hood (which deals with this same material, Norman and Saxon rivalry and all), because The Adventures of Robin Hood is entertaining and good art besides. Errol Flynn's Robin Hood is a product of the 1930s--a warmly populist hero, but a rebel with a cause, and as such he is a refreshing breather from the modern age of the morally ambiguous anti-hero. You will not find any useful heroic archetype in Ivanhoe. The film's anaesthetic stodginess arguably stems from this needless faithfulness to the source novel. It's possible that Scott rewrote history in a way that was useful to audiences in the early-nineteenth century, but there isn't much use for his revisions today and it is pointless to honour them.
Ivanhoe has some meagre redeeming pleasures. It helps that middlebrow prestige cinema is a little more fun in the '50s than it is in the '80s, '90s, or '00s. Missing the CinemaScope era by about a year but shot in Technicolor, the film is somewhat redeemed by the artifice of the old studio system. Director Richard Thorpe and cinematographer Freddie Young give Taylor a couple of old-fashioned movie-star close-ups so we can marvel at how gorgeous she is. Ivanhoe was made according to Fifties-era epic conventions and has preserved a bit of the junk thrill of the movies as a result. Strangely enough, what prompted me to request it for review was Pauline Kael's disgusted pan in 5001 Nights at the Movies:
What a ruckus! Everybody in 12th-century England is fighting everybody else-lunging at one another with long lances while on horseback, or throwing rocks off the parapets of keeps, or raising and lowering drawbridges over moats and plunging shouting, screaming men into the water below. In between, barbecue pits are made ready for human roasts and stakes are erected for the purpose of burning beautiful young women.
An amusing argument against watching films in their original context, Kael just goes to show that the masochism of the middlebrow ain't what it used to be.
Warner brings Ivanhoe to DVD in a 1.33:1 full-frame transfer that disappointingly exhibits blush fleshtones and faded, sun-baked colours. Too, Fontaine sports a bodacious halo at the 57-minute mark that's clearly the result of gratuitous edge-enhancement. That Technicolor charm is ubiquitous in the perfectly baby-blue skies and robes, though. The Dolby Digital 1.0 audio is pretty standard, a modicum of hiss its only real detriment. In keeping with the tradition of supplementing older titles with vintage pre-show entertainment, the disc includes the 1951 Tom and Jerry cartoon The Two Mouseketeers (7 mins.)--and, as you might guess, it's better than the film it's accompanying.
Set in 18th-century France, The Two Mouseketeers follows Jerry and a French-speaking baby mouse as they raid a banquet table guarded by Tom. I certainly doubt that it's any more chronologically accurate than Ivanhoe; directors Joseph Barbara and William Hanna appear to be mixing and matching their French historical memes. Dumas's Three Musketeers were of the 17th century, the sight of guillotines invokes the French revolution of the 18th, and the song "Frère Jacque" (sung by the French mouse) is an artifact of the 19th. Yet this is hardly relevant, as the short finds an artistic truth that eluded Ivanhoe. Outside the requisite slapstick (ass-stabbing galore) and surreal sight gags (the Mouseketeers uncork a champagne bottle with a roasted pig's tail), The Two Mouseketeers reminds a bit of a French medieval folk tale. As demonstrated by Robert Darnton's The Great Cat Massacre: And Other Episodes of French History, stories like the pre-Grimm version of Little Red Riding Hood had more to do with gastronomical fantasies than with sexual ones. Theatrical trailers for Ivanhoe, Scaramouche, Knights of the Round Table, and a forced pre-menu one for The Aviator round out the platter. Originally published: June 27, 2007.