Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Reeling Backward: "Ivanhoe"

In reading about "Ivanhoe," the 1952 film version of Sir Walter Scott's classic novel, I learn it was the most expensive movie made in England up until that time. All I can say is, they must have been shooting movies with pin-hole cameras before that, with the crew subsisting on Ritz crackers and pond water.

Granted, it's more than a half-century old, and we have digital trickery now and costume budgets that run into the millions. But still, after the spectacle of movies like "Braveheart" and the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, "Ivanhoe" looks positively embarrassing.

The hero, a beleaguered knight just returned from the Crusades, first shows up in this green-and-red outfit, posing as a minstrel. He rides a mule and claims that he has no armor or horse to joust in the tournament being held by evil Prince John, who's trying to usurp the throne. Well, how did he lose them? How does a knight go to battle in Jerusalem, survive and make it back without the tokens of his profession? Was his sword stolen by a thief, a la King Arthur in "Excalibur"? Did his armor get itchy, so he ditched it?

Nevermind. Because it turns out that when he finally does get some armor, he looks even more ridiculous than his minstrel show. All the knights in this production wear draping chain armor and helmets that are obviously not made out of metal. There's one scene where you can see how uneven the surface of the helmet is, like warped wood.

And the battle scenes are simply laughable. At one point the squire of Ivanhoe is caught in battle, and you can see his fake sword bending and swaying after it's struck.

And arrows. My God, the arrows.

There's a big castle siege scene, and you'll see the soldiers running here and there, and then suddenly what looks like a bundle of sticks appears from off-screen, rapidly dispersing into a cloud of wooden arrows. Most of them aren't even pointed in the right direction. They travel too slow to have been launched from a tot's slingshot, let alone an English longbow. You can see them hit some of the actors and bounce off like matchsticks. It literally looks like they had a crew member standing with a pile of fake arrows just outside of camera range, and then on cue he hurls them into the scene.

The one exception I can cite is the final showdown between Ivanhoe and his arch-enemy, Sir Brian De Bois-Guilbert (played by George Sanders). Ivanhoe fights with an axe, and De Bois-Guilbert wields the ball-and-chain, and it's actually a pretty convincing fight.

I did not think much of Robert Taylor as Ivanhoe. When I was young and hadn't experienced a lot of classic movies, one of the things I didn't like about them was what I considered a very stiff sort of acting style that was prevalent around the time. Taylor delivers his lines in fast, crisp tones that barely modulate, and a facial expression that occasionally slips from blank to serene. Now, of course, I know that there were plenty of actors of that era who were much more expressive. I guess Taylor's just a dud, or at least he is in this picture.

"Ivanhoe" also features a 20-year-old Elizabeth Taylor as Rebecca, the Jewess who sells her jewels to outfit Ivanhoe and becomes enamored with him. Nowadays she would be the young ingenue just breaking into movies, but this was actually Taylor's 19th film. People tend to forget that she was one of the few child actors who went on to have a truly robust career that spanned decades.

I'm sure in its day, "Ivanhoe" probably looked like a grand spectacle to audiences. But some films simply don't age well, and this is one of them. It's stiff, cheap-looking and dull.

2 stars out of four


  1. Try reading the actual book instead of carping about the deficiencies of the film, which even in its day never lived up to the work as originally written. You will be using your "minds-eye" it can work wonders

  2. Whatever. I love it and I have watched it many times and I still enjoy it.

  3. You can hardly compare a film from 1952 with films made 50 years later and complain about the quality of the special effects used. That's just retarded. That's like comparing a modern fighter jet to a biplane and saying the jet is faster. Jackass!