In 1952 MGM gave its epic Technicolor treatment to Sir Walter Scott's 1819 novel of knights and chivalric love in the age of King John and Robin Hood. The result was an Ivanhoe that became the year's highest grossing film. It received Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Cinematography, and Best Score. Today it's a favorite title from the era's spate of romantic costume dramas brimming over with bygone MGM grandness.
Heroic Saxon knight Wilfred of Ivanhoe (Robert Taylor) is determined to ransom England's rightful king, Richard the Lionheart, from captivity in Austria. Set against him is a Norman conspiracy headed by Richard's oily brother, Prince John (Guy Rolfe), who of course has every intention of keeping the throne. To defeat John's men and obtain the fortune required to buy Richard's freedom, Ivanhoe competes (incognito as a "black knight") in a brutal jousting tournament. And he befriends Isaac, a Jewish moneylender with reason enough to distrust Saxons and Normans alike. Beyond restoring Saxon glory, Ivanhoe's potential rewards include the affection of his estranged father (Finlay Currie), plus the love of either fair Lady Rowena (Joan Fontaine) or Isaac's daughter Rebecca, played by the supernaturally beautiful Elizabeth Taylor, age 20. George Sanders doesn't get enough to do as villainous Sir Brian De Bois-Guilbert, and Emlyn Williams is a memorable court fool who becomes Ivanhoe's squire. The plot overlaps the story of Robin Hood, who conscripts his merry men when Ivanhoe needs them most. (Ivanhoe lacks the jaunty vim of 1939's The Adventures of Robin Hood, though together they'd make a stirring double-feature.)
For a 12th-century English champion, Robert Taylor's flat style and American accent were better suited for his cowboy pictures. Yet his handsome leading-man looks (plus, of course, the Hollywoodized script full of "Norman dogs" and other Classics Illustrated dialogue) add to the old-fashioned charm in a setting chock-full of drawbridges, clashing swords, and suits of armor. While Joan Fontaine was one of MGM's marquee beauties, she must have rued the day that Ivanhoe's other damsel went to Elizabeth Taylor, who steals Fontaine's thunder with her eyes alone. Sounding surprisingly blunt for such a mainstream vintage entertainment, the subplot with Isaac and Rebecca takes a sympathetic stand against prejudices faced by "infidel" Jews. (And when a kangaroo court sentences Rebecca to burning at the stake for witchcraft, the scene suggests a sly ear for extra political resonance in 1952, the height of HUAC's Hollywood ignominy and five years after Robert Taylor himself named names.) Likewise, a rousing castle siege battle (directed by Yakima Canutt) includes enough nasty deaths to keep anyone from mistaking this for Prince Valiant.
Director Richard Thorpe ably kept it all together with an intensity so somber that it almost belies the movie's reputation as a swashbuckler. On location in Scotland, cinematographer Freddie Young, who later shot Lawrence of Arabia, made fine use of the countryside and Doune Castle (Monty Python and the Holy Grail). Art direction was under Alfred Junge (The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Black Narcissus). Miklos Rozsa's lush score remains one of the greats.
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Warner's DVD edition of Ivanhoe gives us a clean, colorful print with no significant wear. Rozsa's orchestra and the thunder of lances, axes, and maces against shields are treated well by the strong, clean DD 1.0 monaural audio.
Extras begin with the 1952 Tom & Jerry cartoon "Two Mouseketeers." More substantial is the "Swashbuckler Trailer Gallery" holding lengthy previews for Ivanhoe, 1952's Scaramouche ("the hot-blooded adventures of masterly men!"), and 1953's Knights of the Round Table (teaming Robert Taylor and director Thorpe again, it's as much PR for CinemaScope "The World's New Wonder That You See Without Special Glasses!" as for the movie itself).
The only thing here worth griping about occurs when you insert the disc, which front-loads unbidden the trailer for 2004's The Aviator. Punch your Menu button to skip it. Keep-case.