It’s never easy adapting a book to film. Sir Walter Scott’s novel Ivanhoe has literally dozens of characters whilst the main character is offstage or wounded for the greater part of the book. So the MGM director Richard Thorpe and writers Noel Langley and Aeneas Mackenzie succeeded in making a highly entertaining movie, but it has little to do with Scott.
The made-in-England movie traces the attempts by Sir Wilfrid of Ivanhoe (Robert Taylor) to bring back king Richard the Lionheart from his captivity in Austria, winning him the enmity of Prince John, who covets his brother’s English throne, and the prince’s Norman knights who dance attendance in self-interest. En route, Ivanhoe revives his long standing love affair with Rowena (Joan Fontaine) and is fancied by Rebecca (Elizabeth Taylor).
There are many plot changes. In the film, Ivanhoe is a much more active hero than the one in Scott’s novel and quickly reveals himself to his Saxon father Cedric and to Rowena.
Also Ivanhoe recovers from his jousting wound in the movie much more rapidly than in the book. In the film Ivanhoe openly rides to Torquilstone castle to give himself up to the Normans if they will release his father and other hostages. But in the book it’s Wamba the Fool who performs this role disguised as a priest.
Needing to give Ivanhoe more to do, the movie’s scriptwriters borrow from other medieval legends. The film opens with Ivanhoe as a wandering minstrel who discovers that king Richard is held captive by Leopold of Austria.
Thus 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 tale – King Richard’s ransom.
To raise the money for the ransom, Ivanhoe in the movie asks Isaac of York, the patriarch of the Jews, to find 150,000 marks of silver.
This subplot is not present in the same form in the novel. Film reviewers in the early 1950s were quick to notice that the film teaches a serious lesson in religious tolerance – that the Jews will ransom Richard who in turn will not oppress them any more – which is not at all customary in spectacle movies. Isaac is played by Felix Aymler in the movie and is a good deal less selfish than the same character in the book.
Elizabeth Taylor’s Rebecca has also been softened for the movie. But her role in the book is broadly retained. She helps Ivanhoe pay for his armour and refuses to submit to the thuggish advances of Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert played by George Sanders.
Finlay Currie and Emlyn Williams respectively play Cedric, Ivanhoe’s father, and Wamba in a charmingly broad and comic perspective.
Robert Taylor isn’t the natural swashbuckler that was Errol Flynn in his heyday. But he manages to convey his authority as King Richard’s envoy well and shows good spirit in the swordfighting scenes at Torquilstone castle.
Taylor dresses in a green and brown costume very similar to Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood’s outfit. As for Robin Hood, he plays a very minor part in the movie, restricted largely to warning the Normans at Torquilstone that they face siege and attack if they don’t release their hostages forthwith.
The most action-packed sequence is without doubt the siege of the castle. The many volleys of Saxon arrows is a spectacular moment, an idea dropped from the Flynn movie owing to budgetary constraints.
It all looks rather cheesy today in that the arrows are not shown penetrating people with the lethal realism which would be shown today. But it is clear that the siege inspired the Helm’s Deep sequences in the 2002 film Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Incidentally, the set of the castle at Boreham Wood was used again in the 1955 Flynn movie The Dark Avenger.
The 1953 Ivanhoe is a brightly coloured romp, filled with pageantry and huge numbers of extras.
The winding narrative is certainly gone, but what stands in its place is enjoyable. Maybe Ivanhoe doesn’t stand up to the best of the swashbucklers, but it provides some good entertainment, these days more likely on DVD than at the cinema.