October 27, 2018

Ivanhoe (1952)
Grade: 51/100

Director: Richard Thorpe
Stars: Robert Taylor, George Sanders, Elizabeth Taylor

What it's about. Based on the classic 1819 novel by Sir Walter Scott, and set in medieval England. A minority of Normans rule the country, to the detriment of the subjugated Saxons.

The Normans are led by sneering and hissable Prince John (Guy Rolfe). He is aided by loyal knights, principally Bois-Guilbert (George Sanders) and De Bracy (Robert Douglas). The Saxons would be in poor shape were it not for Ivanhoe (Robert Taylor), their heroic champion.

Ivanhoe seeks to return Good King Richard (Norman Wooland) from an Austrian prison, where he is held captive, in lieu of an enormous ransom. Ivanhoe is at odds with his stubborn father, Cedric (Finlay Currie), who eventually comes around. Ivanhoe's hottie and aristocratic girlfriend is Rowena (Joan Fontaine).

Ivanhoe elopes with Cedric's servant, Wamba (Emlyn Williams). He presses Jewish leader Isaac (Felix Aylmer) for King Richard's ransom. Isaac's gorgeous young daughter, Rebecca (Elizabeth Taylor) falls in love with Ivanhoe, though her affections are not returned.

Rowena, Rebecca, and Cedric are captured by Prince John's knights. The two women respectively resist the advances of De Bracy and Bois-Guilbert. The knight's castle is stormed by Saxon rebels, who free the prisoners except Bois-Guilbert, who escapes with hostage Rebecca.

Prince John condems Rebecca to death as a witch, to lure Ivanhoe into action. Ivanhoe challenges Bois-Guilbert in combat to the death, with Rebecca's life at stake. The result is predictable, and is followed by King Richard's timely arrival at court with his army.

How others will see it. The historical costume drama was a box office smash for MGM, their biggest film of the year. The studio attempted to reproduce their success by casting aging but still dashing Robert Taylor in the lead of two similar efforts, Knights of the Round Table (1953) and Quentin Durward (1955), with lesser results.

But Ivanhoe was well received, and was nominated for three Oscars, including Best Picture. Today at imdb.com, though, the film has a lackluster 7K user votes (Singin' in the Rain, released the same year, has 187 user votes). The user rating is 6.8 out of 10, a decent if unspectacular figure.

The user reviews generally praise the cinematography, costumes, and action. One reviewer, though, is unimpressed, nothing that "they lay down a bridge to pass over a moat ... but when a few fall into the water it is only ankle deep."

How I felt about it. There are only two reasons to watch this movie; to hear George Sander's typically droll delivery, and to enjoy the closeups of 20-year-old Elizabeth Taylor.

Otherwise, this is standard Golden Era family action. The Saxons and Jews wear the white hats and never once act in self-interest. This contrasts with the despicable behavior of the Normans, who arrest, condemn, and kidnap with impunity. But no worries, they get what's coming to them.

The story is strongly reminiscent of the Robin Hood fable. All that's missing is Friar Tuck. Nobody seems to doubt the wisdom of squandering the country's GDP to ransom a king who foolishly engaged in needless foreign wars. At least Prince John is shrewd enough to keep his villainy local.