Ivanhoe (1952)

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A largely unsung classic of Hollywood swash’n’buckle, Ivanhoe manages to be both superior to the draggy, arcane Walter Scott novel it’s based on, and recover from the ever-petrified presence of Robert Taylor in the lead. It lacks the freewheeling zest of the Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks brand of knights-in-tights action films, but Ivanhoe is meatier fare, coherently recapturing Scott’s detail, in presenting a period England defined by incessant ethnic strife and feudal brutalism, and with a peculiar four-way romantic conflict at its centre.
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The ruling Norman bigots are stirred up in the absence of King Richard (Robert Douglas) by Prince John (Guy Rolfe, splendidly caricaturing sleazy opportunism) against both the Saxon natives, represented at the highest level by the bristling Cedric of Ivanhoe (Finlay Currie) and Princess Rowena (Joan Fontaine), and the Jews, embodied by Isaac of York (Felix Aylmer) and his daughter Rebecca (Elizabeth Taylor).
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Wilfred, Cedric’s son, (Robert Taylor) returns from the Crusades, having discovered Richard imprisoned for ransom by the Austrians, and tries to convince his father to aid in Richard’s rescue, but it’s from the cynical, cautious Isaac that Wilfred gets most help. This diptych of disparate father figures for Wilfred is matched by the two women who contend for his love, Rebecca and Rowena. The subsequent drama largely revolves around still-crucial issues of just who constitutes a citizen worthy of respect and loyalty, when socially patented ideals are smokescreens for power-plays and vicious venality. .



Soon Wilfred discover’s John’s plot to keep Richard locked up, with the aid of chief henchmen Bois-Gilbert (George Sanders) and Norman barons, and stumbles into the middle of a civil war being waged by Loxley (Norman Wooland) and his guerrilla army.
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Ivanhoe goes the whole romanticised distance, but also aims for a solid sense of historical milieu and corporeal action that avoids the superhero flourishes of Flynn and Fairbanks – the settings and swordplay have a grittier, more realistic bent. This is all, of course, portrayed in the most vivid of Technicolor terms, and anchored by two brilliant battle scenes – the final joust, where it really looks like the characters are fighting to the death, as Ivanhoe’s shield is steadily pummelled to a buckled mass of metal by the mace of Bois-Gilbert; and the siege of Torquilstone castle by Loxley's Saxon rebels, whilst Wilfred and his party fight their way out from within, a sequence which rivals Ben-Hur’s chariot race, the final battle of The Seven Samurai, and Scaramouche’s duel as the greatest action set-piece of ‘50s filmmaking.
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Ivanhoe was directed by Richard Thorpe, an old hand at penny westerns since the ‘20s, and who later directed Taylor in the interesting nautical noir film All The Brothers Were Valiant (1953). Ivanhoe’s big-budget splash inspired several of what Taylor called his “iron codpiece” movies, but this was by far the best, and the intolerable Knights of the Round Table (1953) was the worst. It helps that the screenplay (by Noel Langley and Marguerite Roberts, from an adaptation by Aeneas The Ten Commandments Mackenzie) is strong, littered with good lines, and erasing a lot of the distractions in Scott's novel (and also excising Scott's fondness for greedy-Jew jokes that undercut his own efforts at historical fairness).
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At least Taylor’s mahogany virtue suits his role as a hero who may have stepped out of the one-dimensional stylings of medieval art. Sanders nearly walks off with the film, splendid as Bois-Gilbert, a strange mixture of bullying arrogance and lovesick fervour – in some ways he’s the most compelling figure in the film. Elizabeth Taylor, at the brightest bloom of youth, makes a bewitching Jewess worth the risks Bois-Gilbert in trying to possess her. Fontaine can’t make much of an impression alongside her, as an Anglo-Saxon rose with her bloom a little faded. Much of the acting entertainment derives from Currie, Aylmer, and Emlyn Williams as the clown Wamba – Williams even manages to coax a dash of homoerotic subtext out of the material in his devotion to Wilfred. Most notable is Freddie Young, heralding his arrival as the greatest cinematographer of his time, with his rendering every image in a kind of picture-book perfection.

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