This article is primarily about the 1952 American film adaptation of IVANHOE.
Before GAME OF THRONES, BRAVEHEART and even LORD OF THE RINGS, THE OTHER BOYLEN GIRL and PIRATES OF THE CARRRIBEAN, SPARTUCUS, GLADIATOR, and even TITANIC, SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE, BROADWALK EMPIRE, DEADWOOD and DOWNTON ABBEY, the world of ‘historical romance’ was in a way dominated by the works of Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832). Drawing on Scottish and English history, as well as Arthurian Romance’ and ‘Myth’, Scott set the bar in regard to ‘historical romance’. Extremely popular when first published, many of his novels are still in print, including his 3 volume 12th Century medieval England epic ‘historical romance’ IVANHOE, written and published in serial form 1819-20.
‘Historical romance’ has always been a popular form of dramatic entertainment, Arguably, Homer’s THE ILIAD and THE ODYESSY, as well as the Classical Greek drama, marks the beginning of ‘historical romance’ in the ‘Western’ tradition. More modern writers, who are influenced by the work of Sir Walter Scott, included Georgette Heyer, Margaret Mitchell, Dorothy Dunnett, Philippe Gregory, as well as George R. R. Martin’s author of the GAMES OF THRONES novels. Why we have the need to recreate the past in a dramatic way is far too big a topic to discuss here. Nonetheless, the 1952 film of IVANHOE, despite a story set in 12th Century England, and honoring at least in spirit and intention if not always accuracy of Scott’s original novel, is very much a product of it’s own time, – the time of McCarthyism, HUAC, and the anti-Communist ‘witch-hunt’ trials that dominated the USA when IVANHOE was made and released.
IVANHOE is set in England in the year 1194, during the reign of King Richard I, aka Richard the Lion-heart. It involves the adventures of a loyal Crusader knight, Ivanhoe, who after finding the imprisoned King Richard in Austria, returns to England to raise the ransom for his king’s release. England, however, is under the control of Richard’s brother, Prince John. That’s right – Prince John of Robin Hood fame and notoriety. Ivanhoe must face the forces of evil and corruption and fight for truth, justice, love and tolerance. It is certainly a rollicking ‘boy’s own adventure’, with vivid characters (including Robin Hood), but there is more to novel that just the romance and fighting, it is also a scathing attack on religious and racial prejudice and discrimination – a timely piece for 1952, as much as it is today.
MGM’s 1952 film of IVANHOE is perhaps the most popularly successful of all the adaptation. Not so surprising considering the cast, which includes Robert Taylor, Joan Fontaine, Elizabeth Taylor, George Sanders and Sir Emlyn Williams. It also features two of MGM’s most successful and memorable stalwart MGM contracted ‘characters actors’, Finlay Currie and Felix Alymer who play the senior male characters in this film as they did in many others, including another Robert Taylor epic ‘historical romance’ QUO VADIS (1951). The cast also features Meg Jenkins and Sebastian Cabot in small but important roles, both actors later having equally successful careers in primarily playing ‘character’ roles in theatre, film and television.
The film’s director, Richard Thorpe is a fascinating American filmmaker. Beginning in the silent era, the subsequent diverse range of his quite considerable. He was initially the first director of THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939), but was somewhat controversially replaced after the first two weeks of filming. Why? He made Judy Garland wear a blonde wig!? There are, however, a few moments in the current print of the film that were directed by an un-credited Richard Thorpe; such as the thrilling sequence in which Toto escapes from the Wicked Witch’s Castle.
As well as IVANHOE (1952), the extraordinary range and diversity of Thorpe’s work is exemplified by his 1937 psychological murder thriller NIGHT MUST FALL (based on the terrific play by Sir Emlyn Williams), his wonderful 1939 film version of Mark Twain’s HUCKLEBERRY FINN, starring Mickey Rooney, TARZAN’S ESCAPES (1932) and TARZAN’S NEW YORK ADVENTURE (1942) with Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan; there are ‘westerns’ and ‘comedies’, such as WYOMING (1940) with Wallace Berry and THE THIN MAN GOES HOME (1945) with William Powell and Myrna Loy– and then there the musicals, including three Esther Williams films, as well as TWO GIRLS AND A SAILOR (1944) with Jimmy Durante, Gracie Allen and Lena Horne, THREE LITTLE WORDS (1950) with Fred Astaire, THE GREAT CAROUSO (1951) with Mario Lana and Anne Blyth, THE STUDENT PRINCE (1954) and JAILHOUSE ROCK (1957) and FUN IN ACAPULCO (1963 )with Elvis Presley.
Whilst he worked with a number of different actors over a lifetime making film, nonetheless, he directed certain actors a number of times in different films, such as Wallace Berry, George Sanders, Elizabeth Taylor, Hedy Lamar, Esther Williams and Stewart Granger, nonetheless, he made several major Hollywood films with Robert Taylor, including IVANHOE (1952). This was the first of three films they made together that were ‘epic historical romances’ set with a medieval English and European world; the others being KNIGHTS OF THE ROUND TABLE (1953) and THE ADVENTURES OF QUENTIN DURWOOD (1955). Between IVANHOE and KNIGHTS, Richard Thorpe directed another classic ‘historical romance’ based on the 1894 novel of the same – THE PRISONER OF ZENDA (1952) with Stewart Grainger, Deborah Kerr and James Mason.
What I admire about Richard Thorpe is that it would seem that he continually challenged himself, being a type of performing artists who wished to experience ‘everything in the garden’. Based on his extraordinary diversity and the vast body of his work, Richard Thorpe exemplifies a different type of director; in contrast and also complementing the popular ‘auteur’ directors with a distinctive style and/or stays within a particular genre, such a Hitchcock, Chaplin, Fellini, Allen, (et al), this is a director whom it would seem desired to test himself with a number of different genres. I have by no means seen everything – it is huge body of work, 43 years worth from 1924-1967! They are not necessarily ‘innovative’, nor adorned with critical praise and awards, but many of them were extremely popular in the time they were respectively released. IVANHOE was perhaps Thorpe’s most successful film. This is not only due its considerable box-office takings, but also to the high standard of production in a number of areas; exemplified by the film’s Academy Award nominations for Best Picture (Pandro S. Berman –Producer), Freddie Young (Cinematographer), and Miklos Rozsa (Motion Picture Score). Freddie Young was the Cinematographer for LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962) and DOCTOR ZHIVAGO (1965), as well as far too many other major films to mention here.
Miklos Rozsa is one of the most important Hollywood film composers of the 20th Century. Like Richard Thorpe, the range and diversity of his work is extraordinary; exemplified by his music for THE THIEF OF BAGDAD (1940), THE JUNGLE BOOK (1942), FIVE GRAVES TO CARIO (1943), DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944), SPELLBOUND (1945),A SONG TO REMEMBER (1954), THE LOST WEEKEND (1945), THE KILLERS (1946), THE NAKED CITY (1948), A DOUBLE LIFE (1947), QUO VADIS (1951), IVANHOE (1952), BHOWANI JUNCTION (1956), LUST FOR LIFE (1956, BEN-HUR (1959), KING OF KINGS (1961), EL CID (1961), THE V.I.P.S (1963), TIME AFTER TIME (1979), and many others. Extraordinary!
It is, however, the screenplay by Aeneas MacKenzie, Noel Langley and Marguerite Roberts, which makes this version of IVANHOE particularly interesting and a product of its time. Despite honoring the imagined world of Scott’s novel with all its melodramatic romance and epic battles, ‘the color and movement’ of this vivid ‘Technicolor’, there are some things in the screenplay that are different from the novel and hint at something more subliminal and subversive, and at the time relatively controversial. Despite some massive cutting and condensing, which also involves amalgamating some characters (such as Gurth the Swineherd with Wamba the Jester, played by Emlyn Williams), it is the difference in regards to the fate of the Jewish characters of Rebecca and her father, Isaac, played by Elizabeth Taylor and Felix Alymer, which is particularly notable. In the film Rebecca and Isaac are included in the happy ending with King Richard’s patriotic ‘one nation-one people’ speech, and that they (Jews) are ‘for England’; whereas in the novel Rebecca and Isaac leave England due to the pain and suffering they had endured based on racial and religious prejudice, discrimination and hatred. ‘Jew-bating’ and anti-Semitism was very much alive in post WW2 America, as reflected in Elia Kazan’s brilliant film GENTLEMEN’S AGREEMENT (1947), as well as in the early 1950s anti-communist trials, which saw Jewish-Americans such as Arthur Miller go before the House of Un-American Committee, as well as the controversial trial and execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in 1953, for alleged spying for the Russians. Whilst the shift in the film of IVANHOE to a happy ending for Rebecca and Isaac may be conforming to some perceived notion of contemporary audiences taste and tolerance, the commercial need for a happy ending, it could also be seen as subliminal demand for respect, justice and inclusion at a time when such things were being severely and brutally questioned by extreme right forces in terms of national security, loyalty, and patriotism, often with the accused being completely isolated and ostracized, held up as scapegoats due to government generated fear and intolerance. As exemplified by the tragic fate of the Rosenberg’s, being Jewish was demonized, and at times equated with being Communist and subsequently, ‘anti-American’, spreading subversive ‘foreign’ ideas, and a possible threat, contaminating the idealized ‘white male’ American nation.
One of the writers of the screenplay for IVANHOE was Marguerite Roberts. In 1951 she appeared before the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), evoking the 5th Amendment in regard to ‘are you now or have you ever been’ a member of the American of Communist Party’. Subsequently, she was blacklisted, and her name removed from the credits of the film. Could this have influenced the screenplay of IVANHOE. Highly possible and likely. The world of IVANHOE, the book and the film, is full of racial tension between the Saxons and their Norman overlords, as well as the major presence of Jews, as exemplified by Rebecca and Isaac. Rebecca is accused of being a ‘witch’ and is put on trial for her life, whilst Isaac is tortured to reveal the secret whereabouts of the ransom money for King Richard. Both are subjected to lies, gossip, rumors, vilification, and the brutal vindictiveness of others; not too dissimilar to real life in regard to perceived ‘Un-American’ activities being ‘outsiders’ and ‘foreigners’, ‘aliens’ to the American way of life that needed to be exposed and removed, and treated like ‘outcasts’ in 1950s America. The end of the 1952 film of IVANHOE challenges this dominating notion.
It is also apparent in the scene where Rebecca is put on trial – with Elizabeth Taylor as Rebecca in a beautiful white gown, virginal white, innocence. Rebecca is confronted with a number of outlandish accusations, supported by coerced and bullied supposed eyewitness, including old friends, who testify against her. Rebecca makes an angry passionate plea against the injustice and prejudice bias and corruption of the proceedings. Again – in the context of the 1950s it has a resonance wRebeccith the contemporary experiences and expressions associated with the trials by HUAC. Furthermore, Rebecca’s trial in IVANHOE complements other ‘trial scenes’ and ‘trail dramas’, which was a major characteristic of American film and theatre in 1950s. (See article on blog site: “What Lies Beneath’).
So there – for what it’s worth – is my review of IVANHOE. On a sheer entertainment level is it terrific. It is fast action paced, with many terrific scenes, particularly the jousting and battle sequences, such as the storming of the castle by Robin Hood and his men in order to free all our heroes. The climatic final formal ‘fight to the death’ that Ivanhoe does in order to save Rebecca’s life is fascinating; not only because of the visual excitement of the action but also there is no music only ‘real-life’ sound, which is very different from the rest of the film, and indeed is very different from other climatic fights in other epic Hollywood films of this period. The art direction, the costumes – all heightened to an elaborate ‘Hollywood’ unrealistic opulence – are excellent in bright ‘Technicolor’. The acting varies from being great to wooden; everything is high stakes, right from the very beginning; there is dramatic conflict in one form or another in virtually every seen. Robert Taylor and Joan Fontaine were really too old to play the characters of Ivanhoe and his love interest, Saxon Princess Rowena, with a lot of relatively wooden sincerity and frowned brows and concerned eyes, playing attitudes rather than genuine emotional truth. This does not, however, spoil the fun of the film. Elizabeth Taylor, however, is different; she radiates as Rebecca and works with a lovely depth. She was still quite young when she made this film, only 20 years old. She is quite simply – ravishingly beautiful; and OK – for a medieval Jewish single young woman from this period, she is probably wearing way too much make-up, and her dresses are so ‘cut’ to her body, and also beautiful – OK – it’s not realism, or naturalism – it’s ‘Elizabeth Taylor Land’, and it’s great to visit. Such a terrific old classic Hollywood ‘historical romance’ with a touch of subliminal and subversive socio-political statement about racism.