MGM’s classic swashbuckler Ivanhoe takes considerable liberties with Sir Walter Scott’s novel, and doesn’t hold up to the superior 1982 made-for-TV version, but still delivers one of the better adventures of the period.
Director Richard Thorpe and star Robert Taylor would re-team the following year for the Arthurian epic Knights of the Round Table, but that film is a pale imitation of Ivanhoe, which boasts better spectacle and action (highlights include the opening tournament, the rousing seige sequence that is the film’s centerpiece, and a gripping climactic duel scored by ominous drums), a more interesting romantic triangle, and better villains scheming to usurp the king’s throne.
In fact, Ivanhoe is in a way the next best thing to the real Arthurian classic that Hollywood never made, with the added plus of Robin Hood and his Merry Men — if only Harold Warrender weren’t so stiff and unappealing in the role Errol Flynn made his own.
Rather than sidelining Ivanhoe with injuries, as the source material does, this version makes Ivanhoe a more traditional action hero, instead sidelining King Richard the Lion-Hearted (who plays a much bigger role in Scott’s tale) in a French prison cell. Scott’s tale of Richard’s campaign against his treacherous brother John thus becomes a tale of Ivanhoe seeking to ransom Richard and bring him back to England.
At the same time, the intrigue of the original has been diminished. Where Scott’s tale had the seigers of de Bracy’s castle cleverly contrive to spring Ivanhoe’s father Cedric from captivity prior to the siege, this version has Ivanhoe try to spring Cedric, not through guile, but by openly surrendering himself in his father’s place and naively trusting the villains to keep their word. Don’t filmmakers realize that foolishness is as much an impediment to a hero as debilitating injuries?
Since money is needed, Isaac the Jew here becomes a rich moneylender, leading to an amusing third-act scene in which Isaac explains the miracle of paper transactions to the bewildered Saxons. Elizabeth Taylor is stunning as Rebecca, but lovely Joan Fontaine makes Rowena more interesting and a credible object of Ivanhoe’s affections.
The best version is the 1982 TV movie starring Anthony Andrews (“A.D.”) as Ivanhoe, Olivia Hussey and James Mason (“Jesus of Nazareth”’s Virgin Mary and Joseph of Arimathea) as the Jewess Rebecca and her father Isaac of York, and Sam Neill (Jurassic Park), John Rhys-Davies (The Lord of the Rings), and Stuart Wilson (The Mask of Zorro) as villainous Norman knights.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.