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In the early 1950s, Hollywood was in a most interesting quandary. Television was rapidly becoming a popular source of entertainment in the country and was 'public enemy number one' to the film industry. Movie attendance began a steady and rapid decline forcing many Hollywood executives to find ways to compete with the popularity of the small screen. One executive, Dore Schary (who was head of MGM Production at the time) came up with one solution - make the big screen even bigger. With a large budget, lavish set pieces, period costumes, top stars, and the advent of Cinemascope, Schary struck gold in 1951 with Quo Vadis?, the top grossing film of that year (raking in over $11.9 million, a phenomenal sum in its day).
Schary wasted no time in preparing for his next spectacle. He decided to do a film adaptation of Sir Walter Scott's historical adventure Ivanhoe - a fanciful tale of knights, swordplay, chivalry and kingdoms. The story begins with the kidnapping of King Richard the Lionhearted. Ivanhoe, (Robert Taylor, whose stoic embodiment of virile integrity redefined his image for the rest of his career), a Saxon knight who fought for King Richard in the Crusades, makes an effort to raise the ransom to free his King. Isaac of York (Sir Felix Aylmer), and his daughter Rebecca (Elizabeth Taylor) help Ivanhoe raise the ransom. They are taken prisoner by De Bois-Guilbert (George Sanders), leader of the Normans. Although deeply in love with Rebecca, De Bois-Guilbert takes her to John, who sentences her to the stake as a witch. Ivanhoe steps forward to fight for her freedom and wins just as King Richard returns to reclaim the throne.
To pull off such a grand story MGM needed to perfect the ambience and detail of medieval England, which on the surface was no easy task. First, and most importantly, was the budget, which the studios could cover based on the millions of dollars they had accumulated in British banks during the war but were restricted from taking out of the country. The studio had to spend their money in England, and they invested a majority of it in Ivanhoe. So extravagant were the expenditures that when a suitable castle was not found MGM built one especially for the film and allowed it to age for almost a year before any scenes were shot! To top that, an average day's shooting for some of the more elaborate sequences like the Ashby Tournament called for the presence of all the principal actors plus 12 trumpeters, 15 Norman and 15 Saxon squires, 25 special foresters, 135 ordinary foresters, 160 members of a rough Saxon crowd, 120 Normans, 60 horses, a truckload of arrows and 6 cows!
Even more interesting was how MGM worked around the strict British labor laws (it specifically denied visas for American actors in British films unless strong reasons could be presented) for importing Hollywood talent. Three of the film's four stars (Liz Taylor, Joan Fontaine and George Sanders) were British born, making work visas for them easily attainable and Schary had no qualms while he was there to utilize some of the finest British actors of the day such as Emlyn Williams, Finlay Currie, Sebastien Cabot and Sir Felix Aylmer to add authenticity and grandeur.
The technicians recruited for Ivanhoe were amongst the best in their field: cinematographer Freddie Young, who would later find fame and Oscar recognition for his collaborations with David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia, 1962), Alfred Junge chosen as art director for his work with Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger on Black Narcissus (1947), and composer Miklos Rozsa, well respected for his symphonic works in Oscar-winning films like Spellbound (1945) and A Double Life (1947).
Finally, one cannot undervalue the direction of Richard Thorpe. Indeed, it's a testament to his skill as a director, that despite all the professional sheen and polish in every technical aspect of this movie, he never lets the majestic pageantry overwhelm the general excitement of the story, for he keeps the film moving at a consistent pace that is brisk, vigorous and sweeping.
It all proved to be money, time and creative energy well spent. Released in the summer of 1952, Ivanhoe was MGM's highest grossing film for the year and one of the top four moneymakers of 1952, grossing over $6.2 million. It also earned three Academy Award Nominations for Best Picture, Best Score and Best Cinematography. Yet, most importantly, Ivanhoe possesses a timeless popularity that makes the film as entertaining today as it was when it was released nearly 50 years ago.
Director: Richard Thorpe
Producer: Pandro S. Berman
Screenplay: Marguerite Roberts, Noel Langley, based on the novel by Sir Walter Scott
Cinematography: F.A. Young
Editor: Frank Clarke
Art Direction: Alfred Junge
Music: Miklos Rozsa
Cast: Robert Taylor (Ivanhoe), Elizabeth Taylor (Rebecca), Joan Fontaine (Lady Rowena), George Sanders (Sir Brian De Bois-Guilbert), Emlyn Williams (Wamba)
C-107m. Close captioning.
by Michael T. Toole