Directed by Richard Thorpe
Screenplay by Aeneas MacKenzie, Noel Langley and Marguerite Roberts, based on the novel by Sir Walter Scott
Starring Robert Taylor, Elizabeth Taylor, Joan Fontaine and George Sanders
The House Un-American Activities Committee and the Hollywood Blacklist that followed it were some bullshit. Some major league bullshit. Right now, in 2018, we have a president who loves to use the term witch-hunt in ways that makes me wonder if he even knows what the word means, but if he wanted to see what a real witch-hunt was, he only need look at HUAC and the Blacklist to get a solid definition.
Originally, HUAC was used by reactionary conservatives to investigate subversive activities. Ostensibly, this meant actual communists, which eventually included so much more than that, because slippery-slopes ya’ll. Then, just like that, careers were ruined.
After slavery, the slaughter of indigenous peoples, and the internment of the Japanese, the communist witch-hunt might be the most regrettable thing this country has ever done. What made it so regrettable is it was so avoidable. If people would have stopped letting themselves be misled by manufactured hysteria and political opportunism, none of it happens.
While some careers would recover, many never returned from the wilderness. Among the lucky few were Dalton Trumbo, Ring Lardner, jr., and Jules Dassin.
During the blacklist, Trumbo went on writing, but hid behind various fronts and won two Oscars for his work. He ultimately returned to writing under his own name with the screenplay for Spartacus, followed by the anti-war novel Johnny Got His Gun, which he eventually directed for the screen. Ring Lardner, Jr. was already an Oscar-winning writer by the time he was Blacklisted, and was forced to continue his career by writing a novel, and then writing for television in England, using various pseudonyms. When the Blacklist ended, he would win another Oscar for the screenplay for M*A*S*H*. Director Jules Dassin would not win an Oscar, but would continue his career in Europe, where they didn’t mind so much about his politics.
Which brings us to Ivanhoe and screenwriter Marguerite Roberts. On the original prints of the film the writing was credited only to Aeneas MacKenzie and Noel Langley – there was no Marguerite Roberts listed. That’s because she’d once been a member of the Communist Party and refused to answer questions about it when called before HUAC. As a result, Roberts was Backlisted, had her contract with MGM terminated, and saw her credit for her work on Ivanhoe stripped. It was nine years before she’d work in Hollywood again, writing such films as True Grit. Which means that, just as it is when anybody sits down to watch Roman Holiday and The Brave One, when you sit down to watch Ivanhoe you are unknowingly watching a political film.
What’s It About?
Dateline – Great Britain. It’s the time of the hostilities between the Normans and the Saxons, when King Richard has been off on the crusades, and is believed dead. Turns out, he’s not dead, but is actually imprisoned in Austria. The only thing stopping him getting out? His brother, Prince John, won’t pay the ransom because he’s having too much fun ruling in his brothers place. Well, Ivanhoe (Robert Taylor) isn’t about to let that sort of nonsense go on, so sets about raising the ransom himself. Eventually, he manages to free the King, who triumphantly returns to reclaim the throne. Along the way swashes are buckled, ladies are wooed, and chivalry carries the day.
The Good and Bad
For the most part, the acting in the film was good, but unexceptional. Elizabeth Taylor, as Rebecca, is the baseline for all the performances. She neither stands out, nor falls into the background – she just is the median. Falling below her is Robert Taylor as Ivanhoe. He has a fine chin, and can recite the script clearly and loudly, but is otherwise tone-deaf with his inflections, or when it comes to showing emotions.
Falling both below her, and also rising above her, is George Sanders as Bois-Guilbert. At times he seems bored with the material, likely because this is the sort of role he can play in his sleep – and sometimes that seems exactly what he’s doing. But just at the time you’re about to write him off as lazy, he flashes that nonchalant superiority you come to expect from Sanders, that easy condescension, and you understand why he was hired. Why he had a career. Even so, you’re really missing out on one of the great drinking games in life if you don’t sit down and take a shot every time you see the seams, or the edge, of the ridiculous wig they put on him. A still photograph really doesn’t do justice to it, because it’s really quite spectacular, in all the wrong ways.
Most obviously memorable of the supporting players is Guy Rolfe as Prince John. This is probably the only film of his I’ve ever seen, so can’t say if he was any good in anything else, or even good in general at all. But I can say that, just like George Coulouris in Watch on the Rhine, Rolfe understands his character on a granular level and is pitch-perfect at it. He sneers it up with the best of them. He might not have done anything of any great import after this film – hell, he wound up in William Castle’s Mr. Sardonicus, so maybe his career wasn’t the greatest – but here he is the perfect spice to sprinkle on the movie.
The stand-out, for me, though, was Joan Fontaine. She co-stars as one of Ivanhoe’s love interests, Rowena. No, she doesn’t have any grand, dramatic scenes. And yes, she is playing just another version of the damsel in distress – she’s a proactive damsel, but a damsel just the same. But, to me, she is magnificent. Having only really known her from her roles in Rebecca and Suspicion – she was probably the first of the blonde’s Hitchcock terrorized – she always seemed brittle and just on the edge of histrionics. On the verge of being intolerable. But here, she’s quite wonderful – warm, has a genuine affection for Ivanhoe, and excludes confidence. Moreover, she acts with grace – in a way, she seems to be playing the heroic version of her one-time cinematic nemesis, Rebecca DeWinter. Yes, her part is supporting, and she’s not asked to carry much of the film at all, but she is an enjoyable watch. The only downside is her voice seems to have lost a bit of that girlish edge she had in Rebecca, likely as the result of years of smoking – I’m not certain she smoked, but since pretty much everybody smoked back then, it’s a fair guess. Still, she kept the crooked smile, which I always quite liked.
What’s too bad about this film is while the story does promise adventure, and action, it has the most pedestrian direction. The director here, Richard Thorpe, had a career that stretched from the mid-20s to the late-60s, amassing something like 180 directing credits. Given that, you can expect one of two things to be true: (1) he eventually developed a unique visual style and back-doored himself to auteur standing, much in the same way as Howard Hawks, simply be flooding the market with product, or, (2) he was a competent craftsman whose biggest strength was his ability to get a production over the finish line.
Watching Ivanhoe, it’s clear the second of those things is the truth.
This is my thesis – the best films are ones that marry the form and the content. In other words, the two separate pieces of the film inform the other. They accentuate the other. For instance, if you have a movie about cold, unfeeling people, you hold the camera removed from them, and keep it very steady. You keep a distance. But, if you have a movie about a relationship that is just…off, you shoot it with Dutch angles and strange compositions. In that way, the form accentuates the content.
Similarly, if you have an action movie, you let the camera be dynamic – it doesn’t have to behave as if it has A.D.D., but it should have some life. Unfortunately, the direction of most scenes here are ultimately lifeless.
For instance, the battle scenes making up the last 30 minutes or so of the movie are completely listless. At a time when the swashes should be buckled and adventure had, the action just lays there. And the sword fights don’t seem so much choreographed as simply…happening. As if the actors had swords shoved into their hands, without any idea of how to use them, and were themselves shoved in front of a distant camera to fake fight. It’s no surprise that most just flail away at the air between them and seem more frightened of hitting themselves in the head than anything else. Perhaps that’s why the camera kept a distance, too – the crew didn’t want to get hit on the head in this flailing either.
With A Just A Little Bit of Tweaking…
The story of this movie takes place concurrently with the events depicted in The Adventures of Robin Hood. It depicts the missing King Richard. It depicts Prince John hanging onto the throne at all costs. It depicts the contests that were meant to show Norman superiority – in Ivanhoe – or to flush out Robin Hood – in Robin Hood. In both instances, the men show up in disguise and are eventually outed because of it. And, it depicts the revolt of certain nobles against Prince John, in an effort to disgorge him and return the king.
The novel of Ivanhoe was said to have popularized the story of Robin Hood and in some ways, you could say that Ivanhoe was Robin Hood by another name. Except, Robin Hood appears here – well, Robin and his various Merry Men – so, it’s not that Ivanhoe informs Robin Hood, but lives closely adjacent to it.
Anyway, with a little bit of editing and color correction, this film could easily be edited together with The Adventures of Robin Hood into one, massive movie and you’d hardly even notice it was happening.
A Question About The Villains Plans
Though the plot of this film is ostensibly about the efforts to return King Richard to the throne, Prince John is not the real villain of the piece – that role belongs to George Sanders as Bois-Guilbert. And like most villains, it’s not quite clear what motivates his villainy, though on one point he is quite clear – he wants to coerce Rebecca (Elizabeth Taylor) into marrying him. This is actually a fairly common aim of most villains – the conquest of a woman.
If this conquest were purely sexual, I could understand it – conquer her, have her, then be done with her. But Sanders doesn’t just want to screw her – he wants to possess her. Which, to me, is a strange goal, because I simply cannot fathom why a man would want to be with a woman, long-term, who does not want him. A night? Sure. But long-term? No. I mean, unless some sort of Stockholm Syndrome thing plays out, is Sanders really going to spend his life being with a woman who not only does not love him, but might despise him?
To me, this is inconceivable and makes all his villainy a pointless waste of time.
Better Than Best
Best Picture 1952 was The Greatest Show On Earth, one of the worst movies ever to win Best Picture. It’s long, it’s hokey, it’s sentimental, and it’s got a weird structure that makes it play like an extended DVD extra for the Barnum and Bailey’s Circus DVD. That said, I do like many parts of it, particularly Charlton Heston and Gloria Grahame.
Of the two films – The Greatest Show on Earth and Ivanhoe – I’d push Ivanhoe forward as Best Picture. While it’s not very good – it’s certainly all right – it’s also only 105 minutes long, compared to The Greatest Show’s 152 minutes.
That said, there are many other 1952 films that are better than the both of them, which is a thing that happens when a lesser film wins Best Picture. Among them:
- High Noon
- The Bad and the Beautiful
- The Lavender Hill Mob
- Moulin Rouge
- Singin’ in the Rain
Still, my favorite is the film that won John Ford the last of his Oscars as Best Director, and easily has the best performances Maureen O’Hara, John Wayne, and Barry Fitzgerald ever gave – The Quiet Man.
See the rest of the Also Rans Project here.
 Individual feelings on the matter almost certainly vary. And if I really thought about it, I would probably find lots of things that are worse.
 Though the awards were credited to other men at the time, after Trumbo’s death he got his due.
 For Woman of the Year (1942).
 And also on the version broadcast on TCM that I caught.
 It’s ironic to think that a woman Blacklisted for refusing to testify against communists would later write the most iconic role for one of Hollywood’s most notorious conservatives.
 These are the films Trumbo won Oscars for while he was blacklisted.
 Not true, I saw him in Nicholas and Alexandra, but since he did not register in my consciousness in that film, I’m not even sure it happened.
 I don’t want to go on besmirching the man’s work, but while he was twice nominated as Best Director by the Director’s Guild, for this film and a year earlier for the film The Great Caruso, I’m more inclined to think that’s due to having directed so many films than because he was a great director. After all, if you do something enough times, you’re bound to get it right eventually.