Thursday, May 14, 2009

Ivanhoe (1952)

When adapting Sir Walter Scott’s famous novel, “Ivanhoe” (1952), what did M-G-M do first, consult the novel or “The Adventures of Robin Hood” (1938) starring Errol Flynn? Likely both, though I think there’s little doubt the strong influence the Flynn film has on “Ivanhoe.”

Not only had Robin Hood been a huge audience favorite since its release in 1938, but it was a perennial favorite as a re-issue. Warner Brothers were surprised at the high grosses a double feature of Robin Hood and Flynn’s other great swashbuckler, “The Sea Hawk” (1940) earned in a 1948 re-issue. Robin Hood was sent forth to theaters once again in the early 1950s before being sold to television. So the success of Flynn’s Robin Hood was no doubt in the minds of the “Ivanhoe” creators.

In an odd coincidence, both movies earned Best Picture nominations, an honor rarely afforded to traditional swashbucklers.

And “Ivanhoe” should be justly regarded as one of the screen’s great swashbucklers, even if it doesn’t reach the heights of the Flynn film. True, it doesn’t have the high spirits and zest of the 1938 film, and “Ivanhoe” journeyman director Richard Thorpe doesn’t have the visual flair of Michael Curtiz.

But there is much to enjoy, thanks to a literate script, a grand Miklos Rozsa score, terrific swordplay, beautiful vistas of the English countryside and arguably the best castle siege ever put on film.

It’s no secret that “Robin Hood” screenwriters Norman Reilly Raine and Seton I. Miller used the novel “Ivanhoe” as a basis for their script. If memory serves, Norman and Saxon rivalry during the reign of Richard the Lionheart was mainly an invention of Scott, and later added to existing Robin Hood legends. In fact Robin Hood and his Merry Men have fairly substantial supporting roles in “Ivanhoe.”

Both movies deal with brave Saxon oppressors against Norman injustice during the time King Richard the Lionheart is away at the Crusades. Sir Wilfred of Ivanhoe (Robert Taylor) tries to raise a ransom for Richard after the king is taken hostage by Leopold of Austria on his way home from the Crusades. While trying to save Richard, Ivanhoe upsets the plans of Richard’s brother Prince John and company, who have been ruling in Richard’s place.

Prince John (a magnificently sneering Guy Rolfe) and his Norman allies are in no hurry to have Richard home as they are plucking the kingdom dry left and right. Guy Rolfe is one of my favorite character actors, and he’s especially good here. His Prince John carries an expression throughout of a man who just stepped in something unpleasant.

Besides the main plot, what other Robin Hood influences are there? Well, the Saxon Princess Rowena is played by Joan Fontaine, Olivia deHavilland’s sister. She is certainly lovely in the part, but Fontaine was not under contract to M-G-M at the time. Why her? Was she chosen for the DeHavilland connection, and hence a subconscious Robin Hood link, or because of her availability?

Like the Flynn film, “Ivanhoe” is ideally cast with a roster of superb character actors, including George Sanders, Robert Douglas, Felix Aylmer, Finlay Currie, Guy Rolfe, Francis De Wolff. And what voices! I wish we had actors today with such distinctive voices. One just closes the eyes and revels in their dictation.

Low brow comedy relief is provided by the squire Wamba (Emlyn Williams), whose appearance, haircut and manner bring one to mind of Much the Miller (Herbert Mundin) in the Flynn film. Wamba’s puppy dog loyalty to Ivanhoe is very similar to the role Much had for Robin Hood.

Robin Hood (Harold Warrender) and his Merry Men (one of whom is Sebastian Cabot) join with Ivanhoe to keep England safe until Richard returns, and that includes taking part in the film’s action highlight, the storming of Torquilstone Castle. For almost 15 minutes of furious action we get thousands of arrows shooting through the air, wooden ladders flung against castle walls, sword fighting through fire- and smoke-filled corridors and one particularly amazing stunt where we see, from overhead, a stuntman fall from the castle’s ramparts and into the moat below.

Warrender was an unfamiliar face and name to me, so I looked him up on IMDB. I was saddened to see he died just the following year at age 50. I wonder what happened to him?

A radiant Elizabeth Taylor is on hand as Rebecca, daughter of Isaac of York (Felix Aylmer), a Jew whose role as treasurer of his tribe is key to raising Richard’s ransom.

Ivanhoe is lucky to have the attentions of such fetching beauties as Rebecca and Rowena, but Rebecca’s beauty has caught the eye of Ivanhoe’s main foe, the Norman knight de Boise Guilbert (George Sanders). This is the weakest part of the film.

As much as I love watching (and listening) to George Sanders, his lovesick knight here is not well written. There’s very little interaction between de Boise Guilbert and Rebecca, so we’re somewhat surprised when towards the end he says he will sacrifice his title and lands if she will love him. Where scenes cut establishing their relationship? I wish there had been at least one good scene between Sanders and Taylor to set this up.

When we think of Sanders, we think of the superior, aloof, and yes, caddish zest he brought to his roles. Sanders is always great fun to watch. But here he tries for sensitive, but comes off dull, a sin in the Sanders canon.

Back to another Robin Hood connection. Rebecca is put on trial with witchcraft and stands in a shimmering white gown facing her accusers, very similar to the gown Maid Marian (Olivia deHavilland) wore in facing her tribunal in the Flynn film. It could be an obvious choice of the costume designers, dressing their heroine in pure white, symbolic of her standing against the corruption flooding the kingdom. The dresses aren’t identical, but they sure do look a lot alike.

Both films also end with Richard returning to England and promising to rule justly and to mend the Norman and Saxon rivalry.

It’s somewhat churlish to go all this way without mentioning Robert Taylor (no relation to Elizabeth). He’s fine in the role, and has the chivalrous (if humorless) behavior down pat, but he’s not the best fencer in the world. Some of his sword fighting scenes are clunky, and make one appreciate the seemingly effortless flair the likes of Flynn and Tyrone Power brought to their fight scenes. Taylor was still a big favorite with audiences, especially the ladies, and no doubt his name brought a lot of people into the theater.

Like Korngold’s score for “The Adventures of Robin Hood”, “Ivanhoe” boasts a majestic score, courtesy of Miklos Rozsa. Rozsa became something of a music historian when researching Roman music as a basis for his score for “Quo Vadis” (1951) and greatly enjoyed the process. He embarked on a similar role in preparing his “Ivanhoe” score, visiting museums in Europe to study 12th century music. I can do no better than to quote the great composer himself:

“I wanted again to create a score that would sound stylistically authentic. I found a somewhat similar situation in musical matters between twelfth century England and first century Rome. As Roman music was largely influenced by the Greeks, so came the Saxons under the influence of the Normans, who were much more cultured. The sources of Saxon music are extremely few, but there is a large amount of music of that century of the French troubadours, who brought their music with the invading Normans to England.”

Under the film’s opening narration Rozsa introduces a theme from a ballad actually written by Richard the Lionheart. The tender love theme for Ivanhoe and Rowena is adapted from an old popular song from the north of France. Rozsa said, “It’s a lovely melody, breathing the innocently amorous atmosphere of the Middle Ages, and I gave it modal harmonizations.”

While I rail about the running time of many movies, I wish “Ivanhoe” was fleshed out a little more. At 106 minutes “Ivanhoe” could have used some additional scenes, especially establishing more groundwork in the Rebecca and de Boise Guilbert storyline.

But “Ivanhoe” still stands as magnificent entertainment, one sure to please young and old alike. The DVD release is a splendid transfer, beautifully showcasing the Technicolor photography.

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