Robin Hood Spotlight

Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe
The 1952 film from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Spotlight Review by Allen W. Wright
(August 2005)


Starring Robert Taylor, Elizabeth Taylor, Jpan Fontaine, George Sanders and Emlyn Williams
Screenplay by Noel Langley
Adaptation by AEneas MacKenzie
Uncredited writer: Marguerite Roberts
Directed by Richard Thorpe
(MGM, 1952)

Sir Walter Scott's 1819 historical romance Ivanhoe was one of the most popular novels of the 19th century and the centuries that followed.

Robin Hood (mostly under the alias Locksley) is a supporting character in the novel. Later writers took some of Sir Wilfred of Ivanhoe's traits and shifted them to Robin Hood.

While Locksley is a minor character in this film, Scott's story has been reshaped into a Robin Hood adventure.

Summary of the film

Sir Wilfred of Ivanhoe (Robert Taylor), a returning crusader, wanders Europe looking for his lost king. King Richard is held prisoner in an Austrian castle, and when he hears a singing Ivanhoe wandering by, Richard throws his knight a message. He’s being held for ransom, which brother Prince John is refusing to pay. Prince John conspires with “certain Norman knights” to seize Richard’s throne.

Ivanhoe returns to England – Sherwood Forest – where he encounters the “certain Norman knights”, Sir Brian De Bois-Guilbert (George Sanders) and Sir Hugh De Bracy (Robert Douglas). Ivanhoe leads them to the castle of his estranged father Cedric of Rotherwood (Finlay Currie). In Rotherwood, Ivanhoe reunites with both his jester Wamba (Emlyn) and Cedric’s ward Lady Rowena (Joan Fontaine), who Ivanhoe loves.

Ivanhoe hides his identity during the banquet. The castle is also visited by a Jewish traveller, Isaac of York (Felix Aylmer). And the Normans are most eager to meet Rowena. But Rowena taunts the Normans with her knowledge tha t Saxons (including Ivanhoe) won the tournaments in the Holy Land. Bois-Guilbert accuses Ivanhoe of cowardice. Rowena throws a glove at Bois-Guilbert to challenge him. Then she bids the Normans and the reluctant Cedric to drink to his honour. As they do so, the family dog comes to Ivanhoe’s side and barks. Ivanhoe smiles as his identity has been revealed to his father.

Ivanhoe meets secretly with his father, but it is not a happy reunion. The proud Saxon Cedric refuses to help raise the ransom for the Norman King Richard. So, Ivanhoe and the jester Wamba leave Rotherwood. Much to Wamba's delight, Ivanhoe makes the jester his squire and frees him from his bondage.

They rescue Isaac of York and accompany him to Sheffield. Ivanhoe convinces Isaac to use his connections in the Jewish community to raise Richard's ransom. From a distance, Isaac's daughter Rebecca (Elizabeth Taylor) watches Ivanhoe.

Later she sneaks into the tavern and gives Ivanhoe her family jewels -- allowing him to buy equipment to face the Normans at the tournament in Ashby.

The Normans are triumphing at the Ashby tournament when a mysterious Saxon knight turns up and challenges all five Normans. After his first victory the Black Knight pays homage to Rebecca which scandalizes the onlookers. Bois-Guilbert has also been watching how the disguised Ivanhoe handles his lance. But he has also been watching Rebecca.

Ivanhoe continues to vanquish his foes. Cedric has guessed the knight's identity and allows himself a moment of fatherly pride in his son. The Saxon outlaws Locksley (Harold Warrender) and the Clerk of Copmanhurst (Sebastian Cabot) -- who we glimpsed earlier in the film -- are also impressed and pledge to assist Ivanhoe.

Wilfred of Ivanhoe continues to vanquish his foes, but at a cost as he takes a wound to the shoulder.

Prince John gives the Black Knight a chance to crown a lady Queen of Love and Beauty, and this time Ivanhoe chooses Rowena -- much to the delight of the Saxons.

Although Ivanhoe unhorses Bois-Guilbert, he succumbs to his wound. Both Rebecca and Rowena run to Ivanhoe's tent, but it is Rebecca with her knowledge of healing who can assist.

Then begins a series of captures and daring escapes. Most of our heroes are captured by the Normans and taken to the Norman castle at Torquilstone. Ivanhoe surrenders himself in a failed prisoner trade. As Locksley's outlaws siege the castle, Ivanhoe fights his way out. 

With the aid of Isaac's allies and Locksley's off-screen robberies, the heroes have raised to pay the money for King Richard's ransom.

But there's a complication. Bois-Guilbert has also escaped with Rebecca. She is tried for witchcraft before Prince John. And obsessed Bois-Guilbert says she has one way out -- confess and repent her Jewish heritage. He says he'd willingly disgrace himself to be with her.

Rebecca refuses and instead Ivanhoe defends her in a pitched trial by combat at Ashby. It is a close-call, but Ivanhoe finally vanquishes the Norman foe. Just then King Richard and a large crusading army return and restore order. 

A dying Bois-Guilbert says that she must blame the fates that he loved her, and not Ivanhoe.  

Adapting for the Screen

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, Aeneas Mackenzine and uncredited Marguerite Roberts 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: A More Active Ivanhoe

It'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.

Isaac of York

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.

Rebecca and Rowena

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. 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. 

When there is pressure on Rebecca to confess and repent her Judaism, contemporary viewers might be reminded of the anti-communist hearings occuring in America. The Hollywood blacklist touched this film as co-writer Marguerite Roberts refused to testify in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1951 and so was denied credit for her work.

Rebecca and Rowena are like the Betty and Veronica of historical romance. Generally readers have favoured Rebecca over Rowena. This film is no different. Although the Saxons are oppressed by the Normans, the jealous Rowena played by Joan Fontaine is still more privileged that the Jewish Rebecca. Rowena worries that Ivanhoe may "no longer be Ivanhoe" and yet the viewer wants Ivanhoe to overcome the prejudices of his day and choose Rebecca. What might have been holds more sway on our hearts that what is.

And yet in some ways Elizabeth Taylor and Joan Fontaine have a greater bond with each other than they do with Robert Taylor's Wilfred of Ivanhoe. Both characters have moments of jealousy, but they also show empathy.

Other Characters

Finlay Currie and Emlyn Williams are charmingly broad and comic in their respective roles of Cedric and Wamba.

Currie's Cedric is stubborn and yet for all the character's bluster, Currie projects a genuine warmth and likeability. In a way, the two father figures Cedric and Isaac serve as counterpoints to each other, showing different paternal temperaments. 

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.And Wamba's joy at being made squire is infectious.

In terms of social station, the ultimate villain in the film is Prince John as played by Guy Rolfe. Rolfe gives a fine performance but his John lacks the youthful ambition of that other Prince John of 1952, Hubert Gregg in The Story of Robin Hood and His Merry Men. Rolfe also lacks the wit of Claude Rains' memorable performance in 1938.

By far the most memorable of the movie's many bad guys is George Sanders as Bois-Guilbert. With his deep voice and sophisticated manner, Sanders projects cool menace. And yet underneath that coldness run deep passions -- the thirst for revenge for his humilations in the Holy Land and his dangerous obsession for Rebecca. This passionate ice makes Bois-Guilbert compellingly malevolent.

Two years later Sanders wouild switch sides for another Sir Walter Scott film adaptation, playing King Richard in 1954's King Richard and the Crusaders based off the novel The Talisman. And several years before Ivanhoe, Sanders played a character often billed as a modern Robin Hood, Simon Templar aka The Saint, in a series of films.

Sir Wilfred of Ivanhoe clad in Robin Hood brown and green

Locksley with the bow and hunting horn but different colours

Will the Real Robin Hood Please Stand Up?

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.) 

The casting of Rowena also creates confusion between Robin Hood and Ivanhoe. Joan Fontaine is the sister of Olivia de Havilland who played Maid Marian in the 1938 Adventures of Robin Hood, and there is a clear family resemblence.

But 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 film is a good example of the ouroboros between Ivanhoe and Robin Hood. Sir Walter Scott included Robin Hood as a supporting character in the original novel. Later productions grafted some of Ivanhoe's traits onto Robin Hood. For example, Douglas Fairbanks's Robin Hood in the 1922 film is a returning crusader like Ivanhoe who competes in tournaments. And then elements of the Robin Hood legend such as the ransom that appeared in the original Ivanhoe novel but gained in prominence in subsequent versions of Robin Hood come back into this 1952 adaptation of Ivanhoe in a super-charged manner.

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.

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