To date, the best screen version of Ivanhoe, Sir Walter Scott’s great tale of chivalry, is not the classic 1952 Hollywood film starring Robert Taylor and Elizabeth Taylor (though that’s still worth watching). Nor is it the five-hour 1997 BBC miniseries, which follows Scott’s story more closely than the Hollywood version but ruins its spirit, subverting the characters with angry PC clichés and replacing the romance and grace of Scott’s tale with brutal violence and crude sexual references.
The best version is the 1982 TV movie starring Anthony Andrews (“A.D.”) as Ivanhoe, Olivia Hussey and James Mason (“Jesus of Nazareth”’s Virgin Mary and Joseph of Arimathea) as the Jewess Rebecca and her father Isaac of York, and Sam Neill (Jurassic Park), John Rhys-Davies (The Lord of the Rings), and Stuart Wilson (The Mask of Zorro) as villainous Norman knights.
Adapted by John Gay and directed Douglas Camfield, this retelling takes its boldest narrative risk at the outset, omitting entirely the tense supper scene at Cedric the Saxon’s hold and skipping directly to the tournament. The tournament, though, is decently staged, and once the story gets going Camfield makes good use of the time saved up front.
As in Scott’s story, the titular hero is sidelined by injuries for most of the film, and is really a supporting character. In turn, due weight is given to King Richard the Lion-Hearted (Julian Glover, such a natural in the role that he reprised it for the same director in an episode of “Doctor Who”), returning from the Crusades to deal with his treacherous brother John (Ronald Pickup, much better here than as the voice of Aslan in the BBC Narnia movies), and to Robin Hood (David Robb, a huge improvement over ill-cast, wooden Harold Warrender in the classic version) and his Merry Men (marred only by a less-than-holy Friar Tuck).
In fact, the whole cast is excellent, with the unfortunate exception of Lysette Anthony as Ivanhoe’s love Rowena, who’s totally outclassed by Hussey’s dazzling Rebecca.
Long available only in out-of-print VHS, Ivanhoe has now received a welcome DVD release from Sony.
Director Richard Thorpe and star Robert Taylor would re-team the following year for the Arthurian epic Knights of the Round Table, but that film is a pale imitation of Ivanhoe, which boasts better spectacle and action (highlights include the opening tournament, the rousing seige sequence that is the film’s centerpiece, and a gripping climactic duel scored by ominous drums), a more interesting romantic triangle, and better villains scheming to usurp the king’s throne.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.