When I signed up to participate in the Fabulous Films of the 50s blogathon, for whatever reason I was drawn to the epic film. To me the 50s in Hollywood was one of trepidation, as television was making inroads and threatening the livelihoods of the studios. The studio system as it was had fallen away and the moguls had been forced to divest themselves of their theaters.
Most studios responded by increasing how many big-budget epic films they released, with the thinking that these would be a draw and provide something television could not. While by no means ever comprising the majority of releases, these epics became a cornerstone of film history in the 1950s.
Oh, and let us point out- should you have missed it, that that post is part of the CMBA Blogathon themed toward those Fabulous Films of the 50s.
So now that we know why I concentrated on the epic picture, why 1952’s Ivanhoe? It surely wouldn’t be likely come to the top anyone’s list of the great films of the 50s. As far as epics go, most surely would steer towards Ben-Hur or The Ten Commandments, or even something without Charlton Heston perhaps. So again, why Ivanhoe?
First, I like the picture and I hadn’t sat through it in a while. High art it isn’t, but I remembered it as fun and escapist; so the studio definitely did their homework there. My recent watching does nothing to dissuade me from the perceptions of youth. Second, I have always seen the picture as a bridge between the Golden Age and the Silver Age. For Ivanhoe still relies on familiar faces like Joan Fontaine and Robert Taylor to do the heavy lifting, but we also see the future of the industry with Elizabeth Taylor in a featured role. (Though Elizabeth Taylor was no newcomer to films in 1952, it was the 50s and 60s in which her career blossomed as she became to some the greatest actress in history.)
The story is a different take on the tales of Robin Hood, though here Robin of Locksley is not the center of the action, but merely one of the stronger supporting players. Here the main attraction is Robert Taylor in the title role as the son of a Saxon Lord returning from the Crusades. He is still loyal of course to the imprisoned King Richard, and the diabolical Prince John (Guy Rolfe) holds the throne in his stead. The ultimate goal is to free the King, and Ivanhoe is the one who leads that charge.
Over the course of the film, Ivanhoe flirts admirably with both Rowena (Joan Fontaine) and Rebecca (Elizabeth Taylor). This creates a love triangle for most of the picture between the young and vivacious Taylor with her trademark violet eyes and the slightly aloof and distant Fontaine. Some have characterized (Robert) Taylor as too old and Fontaine as too stiff for their respective roles. Few question Liz’s role, though reports at the time indicate that she felt she wasn’t right for the role.
I beg to differ here. Fontaine is stiff perhaps, especially when compared to the significantly younger Taylor. But they contrast each other in such a way that works wonderfully on the screen. If either actress had played the role in type with the other the two characters would have melded into a murky morass of mediocrity. It is that contrast that makes us interested in both ladies, though shockingly Taylor loses her man in the end.
Robert Taylor too brings an added maturity to the role that works as well, especially against villains De Bois – Guilbert (George Sanders) and Sir Hugh de Bracy (Robert Douglas). Sanders seems particularly engaging and completes a well-rounded cast. All of whom perform well. There are times when you want to do a straight comparison of Ivanhoe against the early Adventures of Robin Hood as there are more than a few scenes which do cross wonderfully; thinking here of the feast and forest scenes.
It is far too easy to think of the jousting sequence in Ivanhoe as a corollary to the archery tournament in Robin Hood. In both our Saxon hero thwarts initially the Norman oppressors, only to fall to them moments later. And the only difference in the resolution is that in Ivanhoe there are two starlets pining over our leading man.
But as strong as the cast is, the true star of the film is the esthetic feel of the film itself. Obviously little was spared in the making of Ivanhoe. From a lush Miklos Rozsa score to the deep and rich colors the image is almost too good to be true. Again, that is the magic of the movies; how can television compete? The only downfall is that perhaps things are too shiny and too clean. What we don’t have (and shouldn’t expect) is that gritty dirty feel that comes in Braveheart, for example.
Rozsa’s score is among his better efforts, as it touches on both the physical and emotional peaks of the story with equal aplomb. It is often not recognized as such, but well worth the price of admission. Somehow it seems easier to embrace this score better than the better regarded but somewhat self-absorbed epic score for Ben-Hur.
The best showpiece scene (or at least one of them) is the joust roughly midway through the film where Ivanhoe challenges most of the Norman knighthood and nearly wins the day. For a look at the attention to detail folks put into the film, take a gander at those individualized crests on the Norman helmets.
The joust is a great amalgamation of music, hoofbeats, and the clash of lancetip on chainmail. It is only when Ivanhoe is bested by the last of five Normans, De Bois-Guilbert, that Guilbert spies the Rebecca and is instantly smitten. This further complicates the already enmeshed love triangle that is Ivanhoe. Guilbert’s love for Rebecca plays an ironic twist on him later in the finale as King John, realizing Guilbert’s feelings for Rebecca, selects him to be her champion at her witchcraft trial. And, well that goes as you’d think it would.
The final fight between Ivanhoe and Guilbert is a classic brawler. While probably not the most historically accurate depiction of 12th century combat, there is plenty of clanging and action. This is definitely not the rapier based swordplay you’d see in The Sea Hawk, or even the broadsword based (but still rather fluid and deft) duels of The Adventures of Robin Hood. Rather, this is two men in heavy mail, basically seeking to bludgeon each other to death. Their weapons of choice are the mace and chain and the axe, for goodness sake! (Granted, for those into historical accuracy, it is the entirely incorrect type of axe.)
Over the course of this fight, which of course ends with Ivanhoe’s victory, one of the highlights is the power of the shots. With each metallic clang you can see the shields bend and warp. You can see the damage the mace and chain – or axe- are doing to the heraldic crests painted upon them. And even at the end, as George Sanders speaks his final clichéd lines as he passes, you don’t care about the clichés they hold. Even though he is the heavy of the picture, you’ve found yourself somehow rooting for him. I’m not the biggest George Sanders fan, but he is good here!
So is Ivanhoe among the featured highlights of filmdom of the 1950s? Probably not in anyone’s top twenty. That said, it is reflective of what the studios did to respond to the incessant incursions of television, the film has big and large than life aims. The only missing prerequisite that it lacks is the omission of Cinemascope.
But again, Cinemascope wasn’t invented until 1953.