Ivanhoe August 29, 2016
In which everyone around Robert Taylor (aka the Saxon Wilfred of Ivanhoe) enunciates their lines with the gusto of a Shakespearean pro but he maintains a manner of speech that makes him sound less High Middle Ages hero and more Lux Radio personality named Jack or Johnny. Indeed 1952’s Ivanhoe is a whole lot of self-important spectacle without the tongue-in-cheek fragrances of 1948’s similarly minded The Three Musketeers, but as much as I’d like to poke fun at MGM’s Quantity Is Synonymous With Quality temperament, I can’t. Say what you will about Taylor’s stone-faced colorlessness — his popularity during the Hollywood Golden Age is increasingly baffling as the decades pass — or the way the film's throwback design never sells. In Ivanhoe we have an ambrosial extravaganza of action infused with big-headed ego — we’re left with an ornate blockbuster with more heart than head, which isn’t all too bad the more you let your guard down and let its simple joys sink in.
And because I like (and like looking at) Elizabeth Taylor, Technicolor-lensed swashbuckler tales, and deadly serious actioners that somehow get the job done, it’s impossible for me to resist Ivanhoe, which is undoubtedly 1952’s equivalent of a Vin Diesel vehicle that doesn’t include him being fast and furious. Its 106 minutes revolve around our titular hero’s searching for the kidnapped Richard the Lionhearted (Norman Wooland) upon his return from the Crusades, along with the inevitable attempts to overthrow Prince John (a deliciously scheming Guy Rolfe), who’s taken Richard’s place as a ruler.
Involved in his quest for justice are a couple of lady loves (Joan Fontaine is his soulmate and Taylor is the ingenue that thirsts for but will never get his attentions), plentiful jousting matches that boast Ivanhoe’s machismo, and even Robin Hood (Harold Warrender) and his devoted entourage of men in tights. Not a minute of Ivanhoe overcomes strict artifice — even characters in anguish look like they’re posing for a spread in Photoplay (just look at how regal the violet-eyed Taylor is when her Rebecca comes close to being burned at the stake) — but not a minute isn’t seasoned by breezy guilty pleasure benefits, either. It’s unavoidable for an effective sense of fun to win out over inauthenticity.
Save for Bob’s leaden persona and Ivanhoe is a strapping blowout both off-putting and lovable in its colorful self-regard. Nobody does beautiful manipulation better than MGM, and the film is, as a result, commercial bait with dignity. Maybe Errol Flynn’s entire oeuvre seems intellectual by comparison, but you won’t be thinking about The Adventures of Robin Hood nor Captain Blood as you scarf down Ivanhoe’s old-fashioned thrills (until it’s over and your weariness makes a comeback). B