Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe

The 1952 film from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Starring Robert Taylor and Elizabeth Taylor

Directed by Richard Thorpe

Adapting a book to a film is never easy. Peter Jackson had three movies lasting three hours each when he adapted The Lord of the Rings, and he still cut plot and characters. Adapting Ivanhoe wouldn't have been any easier. It's hard to reshape a tale with dozens of characters, where your title character is offstage or wounded for most of the book, into a rousing swashbuckling adventure that lasts under two hours. Director Richard Thorpe and writers Noel Langley and Aeneas Mackenzine succeeded in making an entertaining movie. Just don't expect fidelity to the original novel.

The Lord of the Rings fans complain about the absence of Tom Bombadil and Prince Imrahil from the film versions. But that's a petty complaint when compared to the 1952 Ivanhoe movie which cut such characters as Gurth (with Wamba the Fool - the more colourful of these two chums - pulling double-duty as Ivanhoe's squire instead), Athelstane, Prior Aylmer, Lucas de Beaumanoir and more.

The corrupt members of the Christian religious establishment are absent from the film. Perhaps this was to avoid causing offence, especially towards the religiously-minded film censors of the time. The Clerk of Companhurst (played by Sebastian Cabot) goes unnamed and does little but trade witticisms with Locksley - his schizo approach to religion was dropped along with the memorable moments at his hermitage. The Clerk's religious vocation is only vaguely suggested by his wardrobe, just as his true identity of Friar Tuck is only suggested by his waistline. It is not Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert or his fellows who wear the cross. Rather King Richard (Norman Wooland) and his virtuous knights bear the cross on their surcoats. Rebecca is still tried for witchcraft, but not by the Grandmaster of the Templars. Instead the secular Prince John conducts the trial, as part of a plot to discredit his absent brother.

Robert Taylor as Ivanhoe in a Robin Hood-style costume, from Robin Hood Annual 1960It;s not the only plot change for the film. Many changes are designed to make Ivanhoe a much more active hero than the one in Scott's novel. In the film, Sir Wilfred of Ivanhoe is much less circumspect with his identity - revealing himself nearly immediately to Rowena and Cedric. Narrative tricks in hiding a character's identity don't work as well on film. Ivanhoe also recovers from his injuries - sustained in the joust, as the melee sequence is absent - much quicker than in the novel. A wounded Ivanhoe is not taken back to Torquilstone by Bois-Guilbert and the other knights. Instead Sir Wilfred fills the role that Wamba did in the book - by deliberately going to the castle to exchange himself for Cedric. But Ivanhoe doesn't disguise himself like a priest as Wamba did. Rather he openly declares himself to his foes. Naturally the plan fails as the bad guys seize Ivanhoe but refuse to release Cedric. By having a hero who is nearly fully healed, the opportunity for swashbuckling action is much greater. While the castle is under siege by Locksley and his men, Ivanhoe indulges in some Errol Flynn-style swordfights. It's one of the few times that Robert Taylor's dapper and measured Ivanhoe comes alive.

Needing to give Ivanhoe more to do, the movie also borrows from other medieval legends. The film opens with Ivanhoe as a wandering minstrel who discovers that King Richard is being held prisoner in Austria. Ivanhoe takes over the legendary role of Blondel. This Blondel element leads to a plot common to many Robin Hood films, but only on the fringes of Sir Walter Scott's original novel - King Richard's ransom.

The ransom story necessitates keeping King Richard out of England until the very end of the film. Otherwise, the need to raise the ransom would be ... well, pointless. "The Black Knight" is now the disguise that Ivanhoe uses at Ashby. So, Richard (the Black Knight of the book) is also absent for the siege of Torquilstone. Instead, Ivanhoe had hoped to enlist his father Cedric to direct the siege - the movie version of the Saxon chief evidently has more skill at siegecraft than his novel counterpart, but ultimately both Ivanhoe and Cedric remain trapped in the castle. Locksley is left to direct the siege by himself.

If the ransom story sidelines Richard, it increases the role of Isaac of York. Ivanhoe asks Isaac, as the patriarch of his tribe, to arrange for the Jews to raise the 150,000 marks needed to pay Richard's ransom. Isaac is reluctant, as his people have been cast out of every country and their synagogues were looted to help send Richard on the Third Crusade. Ivanhoe, acting as Richard's envoy, promises that "I pledge you this, Isaac. You're a race without a home or a country. Deliver Richard and he will deliver your people from persecution in this land." Isaac agrees but requires no written guarantees.

ISAAC: Let Richard promise this instead. Let him promise justice to each man, whether he be Saxon, Norman or Jew. For justice belongs to all men or it belong to none.

IVANHOE: But that is a Christian teaching.

ISAAC: Strange as it may be, sir, we are taught it too.

This plot development is satirized in the TV movie The Zany Adventures of Robin Hood when Robin promises that Richard will create the nation of Israel if the Jews help stage a commando raid. Of course, this version of Ivanhoe is reacting to the then-recent holocaust and the creation of Israel. The 1950s TV series The Adventures of Robin Hood starring Richard Greene featured a Jew named Joseph of Cordoba (played by Karel Stepanik) in the episodes The Wanderer and The York Treasure to comment on the plight of the Jews. In this film, when Prince John (played by Guy Rolfe) demands Rebecca's death, he sounds all too like a Nazi. "I say burn this infidel. And with the same torch, drive her people into the sea and Richard with them!"

The topical nature of the Jewish situation was not lost on movie reviewers of the time. The New York Times review notes "the picture brings off a serious lesson in fairness and tolerance not customary in spectacle films."

In the spirit of tolerance and fairness, Felix Aylmer's Isaac is far more wise and a lot less greedy than his novel counterpart. (Aylmer made a career out of playing religious leaders such as the Archbishop of Canterbury and would later be Merlin to Robert Taylor's Lancelot in The Knights of the Round Table.) It's hard to question the movie Isaac's generosity, when his poverty is shown and yet Isaac still helps to raise the ransom money. Also, the film Isaac believes strongly in the cause of Jewish freedom, when he refuses to divert money to free Richard in order to pay Rebecca's ransom.

In the novel, most characters have some prejudice against the Jews. In the film, it is only the bad guys who are prejudiced. Instead of erecting a bulwark of pork between him and Isaac (as in the novel), Wamba remarks "For every Jew who is not a Christian, I'll show you a Christian who is not a Christian." Although the racial politics in this film are much fairer and easier to take, the book is more accurate to both history and human nature by showing that even good characters have their prejudices.

Elizabeth Taylor's Rebecca has also been softened for this film. But some classic elements from the novel have been retained. She helps Ivanhoe pay for his armour (more directly than in the book) and refuses to submit to the lecherous advances of Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert (who George Sanders plays as more thuggish than some versions of this conflicted character). But the dominant trait of Taylor's Rebecca is her unrequited love for Ivanhoe. It's best expressed when Taylor declares "My heart is breaking, father!", accompanied by Miklos Rosza's moving musical score. Still this Rebecca lacks the fire of the book Rebecca, a character who questions the use of chivalry. Of course, Rebecca is still preferable to Joan Fontaine's jealous Rowena. Finlay Currie and Emlyn Williams are charmingly broad and comic in their respective roles of Cedric and Wamba. Williams's Wamba isn't as fun as some portrayals of the character, but this version also has to perform Gurth's more serious squire duties.

Robert Taylor isn't the natural swashbuckler that Errol Flynn is. His Ivanhoe lacks much of the roguish charm of a Robin of Locksley or a Captain Blood. But then Sir Wilfred is more authoritarian than those outlaw swashbucklers, and Taylor manages to convey his authority as King Richard's envoy well. Still Taylor shows real swashbuckling spirit in the swordfighting sequences at Torquilstone. Appropriately enough, in the Torquilstone scenes, Taylor dresses in a green and brown costume very similar to Flynn's Robin Hood outfit. (The 1960 Robin Hood Annual by Fleetway Publications published a picture of Taylor in this costume with no additional comment, leading the unwary to think it is a picture of Robin himself.)

Harold Warrender as Locksley in the 1952 Ivanhoe filmBut what of Locksley aka Robin Hood? In the opening Blondel-inspired scenes, Ivanhoe is wearing the classic feathered cap, but this movie's Locksley eschews such outlaw chic. The Locksley of the novel is described as wearing the classic yeoman's Lincoln green clothes, but Harold Warrender is clad in orange, white, and brown. Warrender was 48 years old when the movie was released, decades older than either Flynn or Richard Todd's Robins. Ivanhoe looks far more like the classic Robin Hood than the actual Robin Hood of this movie. (Although a man carrying a bow and winding a hunting horn will always evoke Robin Hood, as Warrender does in the picture here.) Aside from two scenes, there are few hints of Locksley's outlaw status. Whereas many Ivanhoe film and TV productions make Locksley and the Clerk's identities as Robin Hood and Friar Tuck more obvious, this film obscures their identities even further. Perhaps this is because a rival studio, Disney, released The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men, starring Richard Todd, in the same year.

The film borrows elements like the ransom plot from Robin Hood movies, but other such moments of Robin Hood cinema have been excised from the plot. While audiences would have to look to the competing Disney film for the memorable archery competition of the novel and the sequence where foes impersonate the good outlaws, Locksley still has moments that remind the audience of Robin Hood. As is common in Robin Hood films and TV shows, a message is delivered to Locksley by an arrow, shot by a network of yeomen until it finds Locksley, the Clerk and their band around a campfire. And Locksley's outlaw status is glimpsed when he helps raise King Richard's ransom.

LOCKSLEY: (Carrying treasure into the room) Who needs more wealth for Richard's ransom? We're the new rich, milord. We bank for the Normans and lend to the Saxons.

CLERK: (Holding up a silver dagger) From a Norman who has no further use for it. He plays a harp instead. (Holds up a gold chain) And this from his lady, who gave everything she had to the poor. Bless her generous nature.

CEDRIC: Disclose no more former owners, you villains ... lest my name be among them.

Stephen Knight has referred to Locksley's role at Torquilstone as that of a non-commissioned officer. But as King Richard is absent save for a last minute cameo, Locksley serves more as a general directing the battle. (It makes Locksley even more respectable than the outlaw leader should look, almost like a travelling baron.) The many volleys of arrows is a spectacular moment - an idea dropped from the Flynn film due to lack of budget. It looks a bit cheesy today in that the arrows are not shown penetrating people with quite the lethal realism possible in a modern film. But it is clear that this siege inspired the Helm's Deep sequences in the 2002 film The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.

This version of Ivanhoe is a brightly-coloured romp, filled with the pagentry, bright costumes and huge amounts of extras expected in such films of the time. The winding narrative of the novel is gone, but what stands in its place is enjoyable. It doesn't stand up to the best of the swashbucklers, but it does provide some good entertainment.

coverIvanhoe, a Romance by Sir Walter Scott. This classic novel, first published in 1819, features Sir Wilfred of Ivanhoe, his love Rowena, the charming Jewish healer Rebecca and the conflicted and dark Templar knight Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert. It's a very influential book on the Robin Hood legend. The outlaw hero appears in the identity of "Locksley".
Buy the Modern Library Classics edition on Amazon.com

Buy the Penguin Popular Classics edition on Amazon.co.uk

coverIvanhoe, Adapted by Marianna Mayer, with paintings by John Rush. A short adaptation of the novel, aimed at younger audiences. The book includes several oil paintings.
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Buy it on Amazon.co.uk

coverSir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe (1952) starring Robert Taylor and Elizabeth Taylor. This classic swashbuckler film alters the story to make it much shorter, and to put Taylor's Ivanhoe at the centre of the action.
Buy the North American DVD (Region 1) on Amazon.com

coverSir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe (1997) starring Steven Waddington and Ciaran Hinds. This TV mini-series aired on the BBC and A&E. It uses more of the novel than the 1952 version, but with a grimmer colour palette and mood.
Buy the North American DVD (Region 1) on Amazon.com

Buy the VHS (North American format) on Amazon.com
Buy the VHS (PAL format for European VCRs) on Amazon.co.uk


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Text copyright, © Allen W. Wright, 1997 - 2005.