Based on the famous novel by Sir Walter Scott, MGM’s film Ivanhoe is something of a generic hybrid, combining the boom and bluster of the traditional epic (the same studio had produced the Roman epic Quo Vadis the year before) and the swashbucklers that were such a notable part of studio production during the 1930s (such as The Adventures of Robin Hood and Captain Blood, both starring Errol Flynn). However, the film is worth watching, as much for the beautiful production values (what film produced by MGM wasn’t exquisite?) as for the plot.
Set during the reign of King Richard, the film depicts the struggles within his kingdom between the native Saxons such as Cedric (Finlay Currie) and his disinherited son Ivanhoe (Robert Taylor) and the Normans, especially the knight De Blois-Guilbert (George Sanders). Caught up in the conflict are the Jews of England, notably Isaac of York (Felix Aylmer) and his beautiful daughter Rebecca (Elizabeth Taylor), the latter of whom finds herself pursued by De Blois-Guilbert, who falls desperately and somewhat hopelessly in love with her. The cunning Prince John, however, attempts to thwart their union and puts Rebecca on trial for witchcraft. The brave Ivanhoe enters a joust to save her, defeats and kills De Bois-Guilbert, and the film ends with the triumphant return of King Richard and the deposing of Prince John.
While the film follows the plot of the novel in its broader contours, there are some notable excisions, most of which make the film stronger and more economical in its storytelling. However, some of the novel’s original historical purposes have also been effaced, for while the novel remains steadfastly interested in the ways in which England became England as a result of the gradual melding of Anglo-Saxon and Norman identities, the film seems more interested in the various love triangles that exist at the dramatic heart of the film. Furthermore, Scott’s original work places a great deal more attention on the plight of the Jews of medieval England, while the film seems to see their ethnic identity as incidental to the main aspects of the plot.
Furthermore, Ivanhoe in the film becomes a much more powerful and active figure than he is in the original novel (in which he is largely laid low for the course of the novel, often a man to whom things happen rather than one who effects change on his own account). In the hands of the always-stalwart Robert Taylor, he becomes a more traditional swashbuckling/chivalric hero, a true knight determined to protect those weaker than he is and to see the return of true honor and chivalry in the person of the imprisoned King Richard. While I am not Taylor’s biggest fan (he is serviceable but lacks, in my opinion, a certain charisma that I usually respond to), he does bring a certain measure of honorable gravitas to his interpretation of Ivanhoe.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the film is not terribly interested in the roles of trials of women (this is in marked contrast to the novel, which consistently points out the ways in which women occupy a marginal and often exploited status within medieval culture). However, Joan Fontaine delivers a creditable performance as the Saxon princess Rowena, bringing her usual grace to the role. And while I often like Elizabeth Taylor, she doesn’t quite bring out the tragic pathos that is such a crucial part of Rebecca’s character in the novel (which may be due to the fact that she gets so much less narrative attention than her literary counterpart), and the script doesn’t quite seem to know what to do with her talents. Quite a shame, really, as she could have really shined as Rowena.
One last note on casting. I always love seeing Sanders in a film, largely because no other actor besides, perhaps Basil Rathbone and Vincent Price could so compellingly play a villain. Somehow, though, Sanders manages to inflect De Bois-Guilbert with a greater complexity as a character than emerges in Scott’s novel, to such an extent that we almost feel sorry for him when he is eventually struck down. It’s rare to see Sanders playing someone who actually has a sympathetic side, and so this film was refreshing in offering him a little more flexibility.
All in all, Ivanhoe is a fine film, with some compelling visuals and a strong score provided by the immensely talented Miklos Rozsa. However, it doesn’t really ask the same sorts of historical questions as either the book upon which it is based, the other epics of the period, nor even other films set in a similar period. This is not necessarily a bad thing all told, but as someone who really loves the novel, Scott’s original work casts a long shadow that the film does not (and possibly cannot) live up to.