‘Ivanhoe’ or — Calling Health and Safety!
I once described Errol Flynn’s ‘The Adventures of Robin Hood’ (1938) with the words “ZING! THRRRRUMP! ZAP!” and “POW!” because the film flew along with the lightness and speed of an arrow in flight. For Richard Thorpe’s ‘Ivanhoe’ (1952), on the other hand, I’d plump for “BASH! SMASH! CRRRRUMP!” and “OUCH!” because this film is like being whacked over the head with a mace or hit in the chest with a lance and any flying arrows are countless sheaves of them thrown from off-screen in an insanely frantic manner. Putting it simply — if ‘Robin Hood’ is the perfect, elegant dancing partner then ‘Ivanhoe’ would be constantly treading on your already highly bruised tootsies. The good news is you won’t notice the pain because this movie is a lot of highly dangerous looking fun.
The film is, essentially, the same as that of Robin Hood except we focus on the “character” of Ivanhoe (Robert Taylor) as he sets about collecting the ransom money to free King Richard from prison in Austria. I say “character” because Ivanhoe is highly static and inert; he is noble and upright to begin with, is noble and upright throughout and finishes the film noble and upright and without having shown or demonstrated a single emotion other than a look of intense nobleness and uprightness. There are a couple of fearless women after his heart — Elizabeth Taylor and Joan Fontaine — but Ivanhoe is too busy being noble and upright to really notice them.
Fortunately the baddies more than make up for any character deficiencies in our hero and then some. George Sanders’ Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert chews the scenery, plus his fruity dialogue, with relish whilst Guy Rolfe as Prince John must have been a big influence on Disney’s version of the nasty usurper. Robin Hood and his men are also present but mainly as support for Ivanhoe.
And it’s all a lot of fun but what makes ‘Ivanhoe’ REALLY fun is its compact story (it’s like a huge epic crammed into 107 minutes), incredibly brisk pacing, bright Technicolor image and chaotic action. There are duels, jousts, sieges, rescues, contests of skill and ambushes although the climactic storming of the castle is easily the stand out sequence with legendary stunt co-ordinator Yakima Canutt throwing everything but the kitchen sink (but certainly a shit load of arrows) into it all. And it’s relentless, exciting but also looks extraordinarily dangerous to the point I felt myself turning into my grandmother, tutting at my TV screen — “You’re going to have someone’s eye out with that!” — as arrows, swords, maces, more arrows, drawbridges, fire, lances even MORE arrows are flung about, destroyed, burned, smashed into and onto stuntmen with total abandon. It’s complete bedlam! It’s also fantastic.
The final duel between Ivanhoe and Bois-Guilbert looks incredibly painful, which isn’t surprising as it’s nothing more than two men walloping the living hell out of each other until their shields are bent and bashed beyond recognition (how many fingers must’ve been broken during this movie?!).
Although the most exciting aspect of ‘Ivanhoe’ is easily Miklós Rózsa’s incredible score which isn’t so much a rousing soundtrack and more an orchestral ramjet powering the movie along at an insanely high speed. I wasn’t just worried for the stuntmen but also the musicians performing the score as I could imagine some of them bursting a blood vessel, collapsing a lung or simply falling off their seats from exhaustion whilst blasting this out. But it’s exactly what you want from a great soundtrack and this definitely one of them.
‘Ivanhoe’ is great. It’s not perfect and it doesn’t so much barrel along as feel like it’s thrown itself down some stairs in a suit of armour so a certain element of grace is sacrificed, but it’s a blast to watch and then some.