A young knight returns from the Crusades and finds himself entangled in some rather nasty business when rival knights go on a kidnapping spree. Fortunately, he has some help from King Richard and Robin Hood.
It’s not a question of where he grips it, it’s a simple matter of weight ratios!
I must confess myself to being something of an Ivanhoe fangirl. I was fifteen when I decided to go on a course of self-improvement and fill in the classic novels that I had missed reading. Being a bit of a medieval buff since pretty early in my childhood, Ivanhoe was at the top of the list. An 1820 publication date, 1,000 pages in the first edition. Reader, I fell head over heels.
I realize that Ivanhoe is not to everyone’s taste but I do encourage you to give it a shot. It’s not about the plot (a big mistake many modern critics make when bashing it) but rather about the atmosphere, the recreated medieval pageantry. It’s a book that enfolds you and completely takes over your senses and it is intensely quotable. There are fewer names more fun to say than Sir Brian de Bois Guilbert. I’m not going to pretend it is light or easy but I do think it is well worth the effort. (I recommend the audiobook narrated by James Cosmo. Audiobooks can make heavy literature more accessible and reading books aloud was popular family entertainment for centuries, so you are even historically accurate if you adopt this method.)
In the aftermath of my Ivanhoe reading, I became a bit of an adaption nerd. I sought out every version I could (not easy when the internet was so young) but I was never able to see the 1913 Universal release. Until now. So, this is quite an occasion for me, a fun revisit of a teenage hobby. The print is held in the Netherlands and all the title cards are in Dutch but those familiar with the story should have little trouble following the action and if you are not yet acquainted with Ivanhoe, here is a handy and detailed synopsis of this film version.
Pre-WWI, American film companies had seized on location filming as a way to attract attention and give their productions a sheen of class. The most famous world travelers were probably the Kalem crew, who shot films in Ireland, Egypt and the Holy Land. Universal wanted a piece of that lucrative prestige film pie and so it shipped off a film crew to capture Ivanhoe on film surrounded by real castles.
In this case, Chepstow Castle was the destination and main setting for the studio’s adaptation of Ivanhoe. Surrounded in medieval scenery, the story unfolds in a manner that is not so much adapted as it is amputated.
I’m not going into a full synopsis of Ivanhoe the novel because, well, this review doesn’t need to be the size of a Volvo. I’ll just make mention of a few of the cut scenes and other changes to the original and we should all be home by supper. Deal? Deal.
The film opens with a Palmer (King Baggot) calling on Lady Rowena (Evelyn Hope, who later married Boris Karloff). He has a message from her love, Wilfred of Ivanhoe, the disinherited son of her guardian. Of course (nudge nudge, wink wink) the Palmer is really Ivanhoe in disguise but everyone is nearsighted and glasses would spoil that medieval mood so he goes about undetected, though his armor is hidden under his robes and gives him a decidedly lumpy appearance.
Cedric (Wallace Bosco) and Rowena sit down to dine when they find themselves with two sets of guests. First, some Norman knights who are clearly up to no good. They are Reginald Front de-Boeuf (Jack Bates) and Brian de Bois Guilbert (Wallace Widdicombe), the latter of whom is a Templar.
Okay, I am now going to make the confession that I have failed as a viewer, reviewer and history nerd. I try my best to give movies a fair shake and base my assessment of their successes and failures on comparisons of other similar films of the period. So far, so good. But the problem is that the costumes and facial hair in Ivanhoe look so similar to those of certain characters in Monty Python and the Holy Grail that I found myself quoting the dialogue as the film played and giggling like mad. I’M SORRY, OKAY?
I was all right until the Norman knights showed up but their mustaches made them look so much like the insulting French that I couldn’t help myself. “Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberry!” If it in any way restores my reputation, let me tell you that at least one reviewer of the day complained about “German military moustaches” on the Normans.
Anyway, the other guests are Isaac of York (Herbert Brenon) and his daughter, Rebecca (Leah Baird). Bois Guilbert immediately gets all lecherous and schemes with Front de-Boeuf to commit infamous acts of abduction, theft and anything else he can think of. Ivanhoe overhears, tries to escape with Isaac and Rebecca (“Nice seeing you, dad and Rowena!”) but is slashed apart rather thoroughly by the Normans, who proceed to kidnap everybody.
Now this doesn’t exactly set up our hero in a particularly flattering light and I do wish the tournament scenes from the novel had not been cut as they would have established Ivanhoe as a force to be reckoned with (the tournament was the source of his wounds), as well as introducing the whole King Richard/Robin Hood thing. Yep, the novel is something of a who’s who in medieval legend and is responsible for much of the modern interpretation of Robin Hood. (The Douglas Fairbanks version really should have given Scott co-writing credit.)
Plus, you get delicious lines of dialogue like this exchange between Brian de Bois Guilbert and Ivanhoe:
“Have you confessed yourself, brother,” said the Templar, “and have you heard mass this morning, that you peril your life so frankly?”
“I am fitter to meet death than thou art” answered the Disinherited Knight; for by this name the stranger had recorded himself in the books of the tourney.
“Then take your place in the lists,” said Bois-Guilbert, “and look your last upon the sun; for this night thou shalt sleep in paradise.”
“Gramercy for thy courtesy,” replied the Disinherited Knight, “and to requite it, I advise thee to take a fresh horse and a new lance, for by my honour you will need both.”
Yes! That is what I am talking about! (My younger brother and I used to play the Ivanhoe Game, the object of which was to open to random passages and see who could deliver the dialogue is a more grand and regal manner.)
But nooooo, we don’t get a tournament and I am properly peeved. I really such things would have been expensive but Universal had already shipped everyone off to England. In for a penny, in for a pound. Sigh. Also, it would have given the story some much-needed breathing room because as it stands, Ivanhoe is dashing around to save the lives of a couple of people he just met whereas in the book, he owes his life to Rebecca’s prowess as a healer.
So, Cedric and Rowena and later Isaac and Rebecca are captured and held in Torquilstone Castle. Isaac is rather graphically tortured by Front de-Boeuf in order to oblige him to turn over his fortune. Rebecca is chased around by Bois Guilbert and the claustrophobic nature of the old castle’s passageways add considerably to the suspense of the situation. There’s also some reasonable snappy editing and cross-cutting between the prisoners and Ivanhoe’s rescue plan.
His rescue plan is as follows: Get King Richard and Robin Hood to help him storm the castle. (Say it, you know you want to.) What follows is the Pretty Much the Reason This Film Was Made scene with armies of extras playing the opposing sides and waving assorted medieval cutlery at one another. It’s pretty darn impressive for 1913, even if the fight choreography is not exactly John Woo. If the story is true, King Baggot was smashed severely on the head during one of these melees.
According to the Exhibitors’ Times:
“Among all the bruises, scratches and cuts for the foundry hands, under the urging of the enthusiastic director, laid on right merrily and with many a cracked crown, the most serious came to the star, King Baggot. In the finish of the light, when he had the enemy on the run, he received a tremendous blow on the head, a blow which may have been intended to settle a grudge in the foundry. It found the wrong mark, and so savage was it that the actor realized that he must lose consciousness. But it was not on the cards for the victorious Ivanhoe to faint at the time, and so it must not be. Weak, dizzy and half out of his wits, he, nevertheless, kept his head, and his feet as well, until he saw the operator drop the handle. Then, when the picture was taken and the necessity of acting over, he fainted dead away.”
For what it’s worth, Baggot does indeed seem to be staggering at one point during the battle.
(Spoiler from here, I think, but the book is almost 300 years old.) Everyone is rescued except for Rebecca, who is kidnapped by Bois Guilbert, taken back to Templar HQ and accused of being a witch. Ivanhoe simply will not have that and he heads out to defeat the Templar in single combat. Rebecca has been crushing on Ivanhoe but he ends up with Rowena. The end!
The cast of Ivanhoe seems to be playing things a bit dramatically by the standards of their day in order to compete with the scenery and do justice to the rather flowery prose of the original novel. Some of it works, some of it doesn’t. At least the performers show a bit more spunk than the overall staid cast of From the Manger to the Cross (1912), the other big overseas American production of the period. This dedication to BIG acting would have certainly been a conscious choice and would have been expected by audiences of the period.
King Baggot, who would later turn his hand to directing, does a lot of the dramatic pose stuff and generally acts like he is being fitted for a new suit of armor. I liked him better when he was actually in motion during the motion picture. Evelyn Hope and Wallace Bosco have so little to do that they practically count as cameos.
Herbert Brenon as Isaac does carry on a bit and I do wish the director had reigned him in. The director was one (scans page) “Herbert Brenon”… Oh. Brenon would later find greater success as a director with credits that include the 1926 version of Beau Geste, the first screen version of The Great Gatsby and Laugh, Clown, Laugh.
I must say, though, that I was quite disappointed in the way the film handles Sir Brian de Bois Guilbert. I have always considered him one of the more interesting villains of classic literature but he is reduced to a mustache-twirling (and what a mustache) cad and bounder here. I mean, don’t get me wrong, Bois Guilbert was not a nice man but his inner workings in the novel were fascinating. A religious hypocrite who cannot conceive of anyone else being sincere, his inability to deny himself leads to his death and very nearly kills the one person he claims to love. That’s some good stuff!
Alas, the film has him turn into a plain, average rotter. In the book, he is horrified when Rebecca is charged as a witch but cannot quite figure out a way to extricate her. In the film, he is the one who condemns her to burn. Mwahahaha, etc. Wallace Widdicombe furthers the problem by playing him like the landlord about to foreclose on a poor, wee widow and her seventeen starving children.
Poor Leah Baird (who later found success as a screenwriter and specialized in bringing women’s issues to the screen) is not given much to work with as Rebecca. She basically spends the entire film fending off a masher and isn’t given any time to show why everyone is so in love with her. Her standoff with Bois Guilbert is put on fast-forward and never quite sparks like it should.
The film ends with Rebecca and Isaac departing and Ivanhoe reunited with Rowena. For years, the fact that Ivanhoe did not end up with the far more interesting Rebecca has been a subject of controversy. William Makepeace Thackeray penned a satirical novel called Rebecca and Rowena that indulged everyone’s favorite pre-Victorian shipping.
As in the case of shipping Professor Higgins and Eliza Doolittle in the space between Pygmalion and My Fair Lady, I feel that the basic argument rather disregards Rebecca’s agency and treats her like a prize for the hero. After all, what could Ivanhoe, as dull as Rowena, bring to the marriage? There’s only so many times one needs to be rescued from being burned at the stake. Further, it would have forced her to convert and that would have been profoundly disappointing. (For an example of this NOT working, I refer you to the 1927 film Surrender in which the Jewish heroine ends up with the Cossack prince who had previously threatened to burn her village to the ground.)
I must concur with Edgar Rosenberg’s opinion published in From Shylock to Svengali: Jewish Stereotypes in English Fiction: “Historically the marital problem could have been solved in the way Scott’s predecessors solved it, and as Thackeray solved it in his parody, by allowing Rebecca to submit to baptism. In that case she would have compounded the venial sin of bombast with the mortal sin of hypocrisy, and her function in the novel would have lost what meaning it has. She has to stick it out with her father, if only to make good her protests and act out her creeds. The only way in which Scott could have eaten his cake and had it too would have been to recruit Ivanhoe for the synagogue.”
Which would have been AWESOME. Personally, I prefer to believe that Rebecca got over her crush on old Wilfred and met an absolutely gorgeous fella in her travels (played by Joseph Schildkraut, rawr) and found happiness with her intellectual equal.
This, of course, leads to a discussion of how Jews are portrayed in the novel and whether or not it can be considered anti-Semitic. To cut to the chase, Scott condemns the anti-Semitism faced by Isaac and Rebecca but he also indulges in the ethnic tropes and stereotypes that have been used to excuse said anti-Semitism. (There’s a good gathering of the various opinions on the topic in the New English Review here.)
For example, here is a scene in the novel in which Isaac is considering giving Ivanhoe’s lackey Gurth a coin for his troubles:
“Here the Jew paused again, and looked at the last zecchin, intending, doubtless, to bestow it upon Gurth. He weighed it upon the tip of his finger, and made it ring by dropping it upon the table. Had it rung too flat, or had it felt a hair’s breadth too light, generosity had carried the day; but, unhappily for Gurth, the chime was full and true, the zecchin plump, newly coined, and a grain above weight. Isaac could not find in his heart to part with it, so dropt it into his purse as if in absence of mind.”
Yeah… So, I am pretty comfortable labeling Ivanhoe a problematic favorite. Rebecca is a pretty splendid heroine in the old school romantic style but Isaac’s Scrooge McDuck ways cannot really be defended, nor should they be. It’s a blot on a book that I love, I am aware of its flaws and open to reading about and discussing them while still reading the novel. A friend of mine cannot read it because of this content and that is absolutely his right.
The film, for what it is worth, does not go this route with the character. Both Isaac and Rebecca and Cedric and Rowena are portrayed as victims of the Normans with the Jewish characters being subjected to far harsher treatment. There is no pocketing of plump coins or other unfortunate behavior assigned to Isaac.
For all its flaws, the film does look the ticket. I don’t mean that its exactly accurate to its 11th century setting (heck, the novel was famously inaccurate) but rather that it translates the 1913 view of medieval England to the screen successfully. Ivanhoe is often inaccurately labeled as a Victorian novel (its actual publication date was 1819, the year Victoria was born) but it did enormously influence the Victorian view of medieval times, chivalry and they were portrayed in the pop culture of the day.
The picture was a hit and was brought up in movie magazines for years afterward, its tenth anniversary celebrated at Universal and some sources listing it as King Baggot’s film debut. (It wasn’t.) Alas, the First World War put a stop to much location filming and the movies headed to California, which provided much variety of scenery even if it lacked authentic medieval castles. That’s what hanging minatures and mattes are for, I suppose.
Ivanhoe has the glorious realness that we can only find in silent films of this period. It’s kind of like how for Hell’s Hinges, when they needed a town to be burned down, they built a town and burned it. When they needed a ship battle for Ben-Hur, they built ships and set fire to them on the Mediterranean. It was expensive and dangerous but mad props to the silent era filmmakers for doing it. The pictures still look great after all these years, which is more than can be said for some modern CGI.
(I suppose I should be upset that the castle did not burn in the movie as it did in the novel but, hey, it was rented and I imagine the owners would have been slightly peeved and Universal would have lost their cleaning deposit.)
This is not the perfect Ivanhoe but then again, I don’t think the perfect Ivanhoe has ever been made. I didn’t like the 1952 film even before I read the novel (Elizabeth Taylor seems curiously unconcerned about being potentially burned), the 1997 miniseries tries too hard with the “We’re MODERN! We’re NINETIES!” schtick and just comes off as sadistic in its violence, the 1983 Russian film The Ballad of the Valiant Knight Ivanhoe looks splendid but has a score seemingly played on a Commodore 64 and—more significantly—cuts Rebecca from the story entirely.
I’ll have to give the Best So Far But That’s Not to Say It’s a Masterpiece™ medal to the 1982 TV version starring Anthony Andrews, Olivia Hussey and Sam Neill as Ivanhoe, Rebecca and Bois Guilbert respectively. It’s not perfect by any means and a lot of good stuff is cut but the essentials are right and that’s evidently all we can hope for. (It’s apparently a tradition of some thirty years to watch this film on New Years Day in Sweden. The tradition has been described as “bizarre” by some news outlets but couldn’t just about every tradition be seen as bizarre? In any case, I would rather watch Ivanhoe than the interminable Ten Commandments every Easter—and I LIKE Cecil B. DeMille. You do you, Sweden, and enjoy.)
So, I mean, it’s not like the 1913 version is paling in comparison to modern rivals or anything. In fact, as stated above, the picture has much to recommend it.
Ivanhoe is no masterpiece but it is interesting from a historical perspective. From a moviegoing perspective, there are quite a few chinks in its armor and the emphasis of spectacle over the characters is a fatal flaw. Herbert Brenon shows improvement as a director but the scenario is just too much “and then everyone hit everyone else” to properly showcase the central conflict. Worth seeing with some caveats.
Where can I see it?
Available on YouTube for free and legal viewing courtesy of the EYE Filmmuseum. The titles are NOT in English and it doesn’t have a but the image quality is great. I hope it gets a proper release someday with a suitably epic score.
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