Thursday, February 23, 2006

IVANHOE (1952)

I have an admitted prejudice against 50's movies in general, and 50's costume epics in particular, but I've been trying to expand my horizons lately, so I made a point of watching this, which crops up frequently on Turner Classic Movies. On the plus side, I was pleased and surprised, knowing almost nothing in advance about the original book, that this is a story which is contemporaneous with the events of the Robin Hood legend, and specifically with the wonderful Errol Flynn ROBIN HOOD film from 1938. Robin himself is a (very minor) character here, known as Robin of Locksley, and Sebastian Cabot has a small but noticeable role as one of Robin's men. That's about it for the plus side. Not that the movie is a total disaster, but because it's difficult not to compare it to the earlier Errol Flynn film, it winds up losing on every count. As in ROBIN HOOD, the action is set during the period of the Crusades when King Richard the Lionhearted is being held hostage in Austria and his villainous brother John (Guy Rolfe) has taken the throne. Chivalrous Saxon knight Wilfrid of Ivanhoe (Robert Taylor) vows to raise the money to free Richard and to fight John and his obnoxious Norman cohorts (led by George Sanders). After failing to reconcile with his estranged father (Finlay Currie), Ivanhoe finds help from Jewish community leader Isaac of York (Felix Aylmer), who raises funds for the ransom in exchange for promises of official tolerance. Robin and his men contribute some of the booty they steal from the rich to the ransom as well. Along the way, Ivanhoe fights and jousts and falls in love with two women: childhood friend Rowena (Joan Fontaine) and Isaac's daughter (Elizabeth Taylor, quite lovely at age 20). There is a castle siege sequence which was likely quite rousing in 1952, but which is difficult to take seriously now as it plays out too much like the parody siege in MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL. Robert Taylor is attractive but wooden, as usual. Fontaine is OK, but she loses out to her sister, Olivia de Havilland, who played a very similar role in the '38 ROBIN HOOD. Sanders does a nice job with his usual mustache-twirling villain part, and aside from Aylmer, the only other actor to make much of an impression is Emyln Williams as Ivanhoe's buffoonish squire. The sets and costumes are fine, but this would look more impressive if it had been shot in widescreen. [TCM]

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