Features Films

Medieval Movie Review: Ivanhoe

By James Turner

Taking a look back at the 1952 classic movie, Ivanhoe.

Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe is probably the single most influential and celebrated historical novel of the nineteenth century. So many of the tropes, motifs and stylistic choices that the modern general public associate with the medieval period and medievalism ultimately originates from Ivanhoe and its immediate imitators. It was a novel of fair, golden-hearted noble maidens and the dashing knights ready to die for their protection and honour. It is a tale of mysterious black knights and the spectacular pageantry of tournaments, of odious usurpers and good kings. It is also the work which teased Robin Hood from his refuge amongst compilations of half-forgotten English ballads and folk songs and placed him centre as a literary and cultural hero.

The enduring charm and appeal of Ivanhoe lie in the richness and vividness with which it paints its escapist setting, breathing life into an emotively archaic world of fluttering banners and courting lovers. The novel, originally published in three volumes in the year 1819, was wildly popular amongst contemporary audiences, acting as the spring broad which launched the Victorians’ enduring obsession with all things medieval. Scott’s highly curated vision of the medieval period and chivalric culture presented the Victorians with a gilded mirror that reflected their own preoccupations with morality and virtue.


Given its enduring popularity and influence, it should be no surprise that the film industry, with its insatiable hunger for source material and borrowed glamour, had come knocking upon Ivanhoe’s door in its formative years. 1913 saw the release of not one but two adaptions of Ivanhoe. While both of these silent films were actually filmed in England, one was a relatively modest British production while the other was the product of the rapidly expanding Hollywood machine. The British film was directed by Leedham Bantock, an actor, musician and occasional director who was a prominent pioneer in the British entertainment industry’s adaption to the new technology of cinema. The American production, on the other hand, distributed by the newly founded Universal Studios, starred the first cinematic superstar, King Baggot. It was produced by one of the studio’s co-founders, Carl Laemmle, and directed by Herbert Brenon, one of Hollywood’s earliest and most talented auteurs.

Yet by the time Ivanhoe (1952) came cantering back into cinemas, the historical swashbuckler had long since emerged as a Hollywood staple, its formula invented and reinvented again and again but all the while retaining the same frenetic energy and emphasis upon a heady vicarious adventure. Indeed, both 1922s aptly named Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood starring Douglas Fairbanks and 1939s Adventures of Robin Hood with Errol Flynn were to some extent spinoffs of Ivanhoe, owing a great deal to the novel in terms of style and content, which had played pivotal roles in formulating and propelling the success of the swashbuckling genre. While Swashbucklers would never vanish from our screens completely, Ivanhoe and its contemporaries were forced to jostle shoulders with their more sober and grandiose cousins, the historical epics which were beginning their inexorable climb to box office and cultural dominance.


Unlike its literary namesake and inspiration, Ivanhoe (1952) did not define a genre, launch a cultural phenomenon or forever change the way the public conceived of and related to the Middle Ages. What it did do, however, was provide its audiences with an enjoyable adventure romp populated by dynamic and eminently likable characters. The film begins with its hero, Wilfred of Ivanhoe, known to his friends and loved ones simply as Ivanhoe, scouring Austria in the guise of a troubadour in search of his missing liege, King Richard the Lionheart. After narrowly avoiding a thrown bucket’s worth of the unmentionables, Ivanhoe has better luck at the next castle when his mournful travelling song is answered with a refrain and letter tossed from the window of a tower cell. This letter, penned and thrown by the hand of the king himself confirms to Ivanhoe that Richard is alive and being held ransom by Duke Leopold of Austria.

Upon arrival in England, our hero swiftly learns that Prince John has no intention of ransoming his brother and is instead in the midst of a grab for power. This coup, perpetrated by John and his cabal of ambitious Norman supporters, is intricately connected with the rising tensions between the Norman elite and the native Saxon population that has plagued England since Richard’s departure on the Crusades. Ivanhoe meets two of John’s flunkies on the road, the boorish De Bois-Guilbert and his slightly more circumspect friend, Sir Hugh de Bracy, both of whom are veterans of the crusade where they formed something of a rivalry with Ivanhoe. Fortunately, the duo fails to recognise our hero, presumably because he’s wearing a different set of clothes and is carrying a lute.

With night apparently gathering, Ivanhoe leads the Norman knights to the hall of his father, Cedric, one of the few remaining great Saxon nobles with whom he has long been estranged as a result of his support for the Norman King Richard. Meanwhile skulking behind the hedgerows are Robin of Loxley and his band of merry men. Loxley’s followers are intent upon shooting any and all Normans they can get their hands on but fortunately Robin is able to recognise Ivanhoe, despite his hat. At Cedric’s Hall, guided principally by his charm and his inherent decency, Ivanhoe begins to piece together his plan to raise King Richard’s ransom with the help of the Saxons and Isaac the patriarch of England’s persecuted Jewish community. Oh and, of course, reunite with his long-lost love, the beautiful and warm-hearted Saxon Princess Rowena. From there the plot bounds through many of the iconic set pieces and motif’s associated with medievalism; jousting, the besieging of castle, trial by combat of champions and of course the rescuing of not one but two damsels in distress after Rowena and Isaac’s daughter, Rebecca, are carried of by Bracy and Guilbert.

I think it is fair to say that when Sir Walter Scott first wrote the tripartite Ivanhoe, entertainment and escapism were prioritised over an accurate depiction of the material circumstances and cultural mores of the Middle Ages. Wilfred of Ivanhoe was, of course, an invention of Scott’s imagination who in locating King Richard supplants the role traditionally occupied in folklore by the equally fictitious troubadour, Blondell, and is assisted by Robin Hood himself, an archetypal outlaw figure taken straight out of song. In keeping with this philosophy, the book’s depiction of the medieval period is an almost purposefully archaic one, its subject matter and presentation heavily couched in contemporary social conventions and expectations. Interestingly, Scott’s headily idealised view of medieval society and the positioning of chivalric culture as its guiding light and moral centre in many ways tallied with a genuine medieval penchant for indulging the escapist idealisation of chivalric culture.


Less grounded, even in this highly conditional and contextualized historical reality, was Scott’s placing of England’s Norman and Saxon populations at loggerheads into the 1190s, a full century after the Conquest. While the rapidity of modern globalisation has modulated our conceptions of the adaptability and permeability of human cultures as well as the multifaceted and layered nature of identity, in Scott’s day nationalism was seen by many as the great engine of history. The Victorians’ interest in history was to an extent an exercise in self-obsession, how could a people as mighty and virtuous as we, have come to be? Scott’s portrayal of King Richard’s lionisation of a united English identity and its subsequent conflation with chivalric excellence would therefore be ingratiated to the novel’s original audience and be broadly consistent with later medieval portrayals of Richard as a singularly English hero. It is also highly probable that the novel’s depiction of two distinct cultures reconciling and coming together to work for their mutual benefit under a just monarch, to an extent reflects a portion of Scott’s complex feelings about Scottish nationalism.

While the 1952 film retains much of the plot and many of the original idiosyncrasies of the source material, it has been strategically and cleverly pared down, distilling the story to its essence. This crucially allows for the personalities and talents of the core cast to shine unobscured in centre stage as the movie leaps from one set piece to another. The person principally responsible for the adapting of his lean and charming screenplay was Marguerite Roberts, a former fake pearls salesperson who had successfully sold her first script in 1933 while working as a secretary in the offices of 20th Century Fox. Roberts subsequently became one of Hollywood’s most highly sort after and well-paid screenwriters taking contracts with MGM and Paramount. However, in 1951 while working on Ivanhoe, her twenty-seventh movie, Marguerite was blacklisted from Hollywood for refusing to cooperate in a hearing before the sinisterly named House Un-American Activities Committee. As a result, her name was removed from the credits of Ivanhoe and subsequent rewrites and treatments were performed by Noel Langley, the principal writer of the adaption of the industry-shaking The Wizard of Oz, and the Scottish-born writer Aeneas MacKenzie, a veteran of historical swashbucklers who would go on to write the screenplay of The Ten Commandments.

This formidable pool of writing talent was matched and complemented by the rest of the movie’s cast, crew and behind-the-scenes talent. Created and distributed under the auspices of MGM-British Studios, the film was produced by Pandro S. Berman, the heir to a Hollywood dynasty. Berman was well versed in the production of historical films having over the course of a long and diverse career previously overseen Mary of Scotland, The Hunch Back of Notre Dame and The Three Musketeers as well as a number of musical comedies starring Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire.

1952 poster for Ivanhoe – Wikimedia Commons

The film’s director, Richard Thorpe, had started his career as an actor and vaudeville performer before making his transition to director with the now lost early western, Rough Ridin’ in 1924. While many of his peers and contemporaries from the silent movie era fell by the wayside, he deftly negotiated the changing trends and structure of Hollywood. Somewhat unfortunately, given the dozens upon dozens of movies he directed for MGM over a career that spanned over forty years, Thorpe is often best remembered for the movie he didn’t make, The Wizard of Oz, from which he was fired after two weeks of filming due to creative differences. While the incident never appreciatively slowed Thorpe’s career, at least in terms of volume, the success of Ivanhoe would see Thorpe go on to make some of his most highly acclaimed and well-remembered works.

The film’s masterful score was composed by Hungarian American master composer Miklós Rózsa fresh off his success with the 1951 Sword-and-Sandals epic Quo Vadis. Interestingly, Rózsa, who was a huge fan of the novel, did not entirely approve of the adaptation’s script, feeling that it was too scaled back and went too far to accommodate modern sensibilities and storytelling conventions. His attempts to correct this by cleaving closer to the visions of chivalric romanticism present within the book do much to elevate the film and inject a sense of pageantry into proceedings.

The film stars Robert Taylor as the eponymous Wilfred of Ivanhoe. Born Spangler Arlington Brugh, an incredible name that the studio persuaded him to change to something more generically marketable, the forty-one-year-old Taylor came to Ivanhoe as an already well-established leading man. He had been initially propelled to stardom with his role in 1935’s Magnificent Obsession where he played a repentant playboy who, and bear with me here, falls in love with and anonymously cares for the widow of a philanthropist doctor who previously died in his stead and who has been blinded in a car accident following her attempts to escape Taylor’s initial advances.

Amongst Taylor’s impressive array of projects are a significant number of British co-productions such as 1938’s A Yank at Oxford. Indeed, Taylor sympathised strongly with the British and was an outspoken critic of American Isolationism, a stance which was reflected in his appearance in several pro-war and pro-British films such as Waterloo Bride and Escape, both of which were released in 1940. This evident affinity places his role in Ivanhoe and its source material’s idiosyncratic vision of English identity in an interesting light.


As previously stated, the effortless charm and gentlemanly air are one of the film’s greatest strengths. The guiding impulses and motivations of characters within both the medieval and Victorian iterations of chivalric romance literature may well appear performative, overwrought and ultimately alien to modern audiences, forming a conceptual barrier that hampers the audience’s ability to relate to the characters and become invested in the film. Taylor, alongside some clever scripting, deftly sidesteps this issue, however, by convincingly painting Ivanhoe’s gallantry and chivalric related activities as a natural outgrowth of his fundamental decency and natural empathy. This portrayal frames Ivanhoe as a naturally compelling and convincing hero, while also helping to ground the film and make it more emotionally accessible to audiences. Likewise, Ivanhoe becomes drawn unwillingly and unwittingly into the film’s love triangle, not as the result of any surfeit of lasciviousness or flirtation on his part but because Rebecca like Rowena is drawn to his unfeigned and unpretentious rectitude.

Speaking of, Joan Fontaine and Elizabeth Taylor both deliver enchanting performances as Rowena and Rebecca respectively. Joan Fontaine, born Joan de Beauvoir de Havilland, was a British American actress and the younger sister of the always-dazzling Dame Olivia de Havilland. They are so far the only pair of siblings to have both won Oscars for lead roles. Joan was prevailed upon to adopt her stage name of Fontaine by their parents in order to avoid potential confusion that could detract or derail Olivia’s career. Joan had first appeared as a lead in Lynn Shores, A Million to One in 1937 where she played the love interest, helpfully also called Joan, to a driven Olympic hopeful. She narrowly missed out on the Oscar for best actress for her starring role in Alfred Hitchcock’s psychological thriller Rebecca in 1940 before winning the following year in another Hitchcock production, Suspicion. In fact, she beat out Olivia who has also nominated in the same category that year for her performance in Hold Back the Dawn. It is I think fair to say that Ivanhoe and the scant lines afforded to Rowena, the rose of Saxon England, in the script do not stretch Fontaine to the limits of her expansive talents. Yet she positively elevates the material given to her by infusing a natural warmth and depth of intelligence into what could have so easily been an unremarkable performance as a typical damsel in distress.

Elizabeth Taylor is rightfully regarded as one of the Golden Age of Hollywood’s most iconic stars, although like so many others chewed up by the Hollywood machinery, her story carries with it elements of tragedy. Born in England to American parents, Taylor’s family moved back to the United to avoid the impending outbreak of World War II. There she began to take work as a child actor landing a number of small parts before her breakout role in 1944’s National Velvet where she played an aspiring jockey. After her continued success with National Velvet and a number of other precocious teen roles she was rapidly pushed by the studio into playing an adult starring alongside Robert Taylor in 1949’s Conspirator. Interestingly, Taylor was not thrilled to be part of Ivanhoe, the rising star who had been forced into participating in the production in an ongoing attempt by MGM executives to punish her for her recent divorce which had accrued substantial negative press. Despite reservations about the quality of the script and bemoaning the meagreness of the role, Elizabeth Taylor nevertheless brings a sense of brashness and righteous outrage to Rebecca which serves as an interesting counterpoint to her father’s wary cynicism, Rowena’s empathetic realism and even Ivanhoe’s grounded, one good deed at a time, idealism.

Rebecca’s father, Isaac of Sheffield, is expertly played by veteran British character actor, Felix Aylmer. The role was in many ways familiar ground for Aylmer who had only the previous year played the father of Robert Taylor’s love interest in Quo Vadis. While the film perhaps regretfully sanitises the antisemitism of Medieval England, Isaac is played and presented as an eminently sympathetic character who aids Ivanhoe as a matter of personal obligation and gratitude, rather than any high flown chivalric of nationally derived idealism. As he adroitly points out, whatever Richard’s positive feelings towards his Saxon subjects, this level of tolerance and cultural understanding will not be applied to England’s Jewish population. Indeed, historically Richard I’s coronation precipitated a wave of vicious anti-Semitic violence throughout England, although historians remain divided on the extent of the King’s personal culpability for these massacres.

Ivanhoe’s own father, the venerable Cedric, as the credits refer to him, is played by yet another Quo Vadis veteran, Scottish actor Finlay Currie, who perfectly plays the roiling conflict between the nobleman’s stubbornness and pride for his son. Befitting his role in the movie, the multi-talented Welsh actor, screenwriter and director Emlyn Williams, injects the movie with both moments of levity and pathos as an enslaved jester turned free squire. The principal cast is rounded out by George Sanders as De Bois-Guilbert, who is probably best known today as the voice of Shere Khan in The Jungle Book, and Robert Douglas as Sir Hugh de Bracy. The duo make for suitably dastardly villains, Bracy’s carefully cultivated image as a reasonable and sophisticated man belies his ultimately knavish intentions while Bois-Guilbert wallows magnificently in self-pity that abets his worse impulses. The film also features a delightful hidden cameo from “Mad” Jack Churchill, a former British Army officer and veteran commando known for his habit of going into battle with a longbow, sword and perhaps most devastatingly of all, bagpipes. Churchill appears in the film as one of the archers defending de Bracy’s stronghold, Torquilstone, from the besieging merry men.

While the climax of the film is heralded by a personal and emotionally charged duel between Ivanhoe and Bois-Guilbert during Rebeca’s trial for witchcraft, the siege of Torquilstone Castle is its grandest and most exciting set piece. The attempting storming of the enormous and convincingly fabricated set by Robin of Loxley and his followers is a suitably frenetic, varied and deeply enjoyable action sequence. Hails of arrows fly back and forth as the Merry Men attempt to forge their way across the moat and into the barbican with all manner of siege apparatus. Meanwhile in true swashbuckling style, Ivanhoe and his companions, held in the belly of the castle, take advantage of the distraction caused by the siege to enact their own escape and stage a confrontation with their villainous captors.

Ivanhoe proved to be a hit with contemporary audiences and finished as the fourth highest-grossing movie in a year when the industry was beginning to succumb to the allure of the mega-budget Epic. The success and popularity of the film were such that much of the cast and creative team reunited in 1954 to make the far grander and masterfully realised Knights of the Round Table which in many ways served as a spiritual sequel to Ivanhoe, building off its imagery and major thematic elements. This popularity also revivified its once genre-defining source material, bringing the story of Ivanhoe back to the forefront of the public consciousness which no doubt influenced the production of a British television show based upon the novel in the late 1950s which starred future James Bond and history’s most charming man, Roger Moore. While not a culture-shaking phenomena in the manner of its early 19th-century source material, the 1952’s adaption of it is a deeply enjoyable, swashbuckling adventure which vividly renders the pageantry and gallantry of romance literature, in what else but glorious technicolour.

James Turner has recently completed his doctoral studies at Durham University before which he attended the University of Glasgow. Deeply afraid of numbers and distrustful of counting, his main research interests surround medieval aristocratic culture and identity.

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