How many times have you watched a movie and wondered whether the book it was based on could possibly be as good? If you’re like me, the answer is probably “Never.” But if Walter Scott’s novel of Sir Wilfred of Ivanhoe’s search for redemption in a 12th century England filled with robustly pagan Saxons, arrogant Normans, fanatical Knights Templar, persecuted Jews, treacherous kings, murderers, outlaws, and court fools has half the authenticity and a quarter of the conviction of the most recent BBC film version of it, as soon as I finish this review I’m going to turn to page one and rejoin the Middle Ages already in progress.
Originally broadcast as six episodes on British television, this latest Ivanhoe, shot in 1996, has just had its North American debut on the Arts and Entertainment network. You may have a chance to catch it again on television before it makes it into any of the local video outlets. Seize the occasion if it presents itself. Lay in a big supply of popcorn. And rest assured that I’ll be vigorously campaigning to get Ivanhoe on our local video store shelves. It’s about time that someone showed us that neither Bruce Willis Dying As Hard As He Can nor Sandra Bullock Speeding Faster are the last words in heroism. Why was the Star Wars Trilogy more popular in re-release last year than most of the new films it competed against? Because Spielberg added in an extra 10 minutes of special effects? Yeah, as if. Star Wars clobbered the competition yet again because it’s Myth-sized. Mythicized. Hero-sized. Big heroes. Big villains. Big Quest. Star Wars isn’t he Odyssey or the story of King Arthur, but its creators believe what Joseph Campbell’s been telling us for decades: we live by our myths. And they’d better be splendid.
Ivanhoe’s bigger than Star Wars. The casting is flawless. Ralph Brown’s. King John’s and Christopher Lee’s Beaumanoir, Grand Master of the Order of Knights Templar, are nastier pieces of work than Darth Vader. And Darth Vader’s lucky he never had to face the wrath of Siân Phillips’ Eleanor of Aquitaine. Ivanhoe (Steve Waddington) is Hans Solo and Luke Skywalker rolled into one. Princess Leia’s more than met her match in the sublime courage, wisdom, beauty, and soul of Rebecca of York (Susan Lynch). King Cedric’s Fool is both wiser and less pompous than Obi-Wan Kenobi. And Star Wars doesn’t have Robin Hood, King Richard, Queen Eleanor, and the malefic Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert—a Luciferian fallen angel redeemed from his personal hell through love for Rebecca.
Rebecca and Bois-Guilbert are extraordinary characters. They prefigure the protagonists of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre by thirty years. They’re also proof that literature takes on a life of its own independent of its creator. As Sir Walter Scott wrote his way to the end of his novel, Bois- Guilbert became more interesting than Ivanhoe himself, and Rebecca outshadowed Ivanhoe’s betrothed, the Lady Rowena. Scott himself was aware of what had happened. After the book was published, many of his readers wrote back demanding that he marry Ivanhoe to Rebecca. (Scott replied that the “prejudices of the age” made the union of a Christian knight and a Jewish healer impossible.)
The production design of Ivanhoe, and the location shooting across England, do full justice to the players’ conviction. They inhabit their world of 1194 convincingly. It is indeed, as William Manchester described it in his history of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, a world lit only by fire. As the story progresses, we see the darkness become more than physical. This was a time when the Thousand-Year Hatred that is anti-Semitism was at one of its peaks. The Inquisition burned Jews as enthusiastically as it burned witches. The Crusades had bled Europe dry. The secret order of Templar Knights answered to no one but the Pope, and held four times the wealth and lands of the King of France.
All this is woven into the tapestry of Ivanhoe. Perhaps the only thing missing is a guest appearance by Genghis Khan. Too bad. So what if he never came within a thousand miles of England? This is a story grand enough to take on all comers.
Looking Back & Second Thoughts
It’s only with the advent of George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones novels and the accompanying TV series that a medieval epic has come along to match the 1997 televised version of Ivanhoe. And with Ivanhoe, almost all of the characters you’re rooting for actually survive the telling—which is a good thing in these trying times. The set design is spare and perfect, never trying too hard to convince and grounding the story with a sense of lived-in reality, whether in Saxon feasting hall or forbidding Norman stronghold. The casting is flawless. In many ways, the film (now released as a continuous story over two DVDs) is a Pre-Raphaelite fever dream. Victoria Smurfit and Susan Lynch could have stepped right out of the paintings of William Morris, William Holman Hunt, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Steven Waddington, Rory Edwards, Ralph Brown, Jimmy Chisholm, and Siân Phillips all have the Shakespearean gravitas that the Pre-Raphaelites loved to put on canvas. I’ve a particular fondness for Phillips as Queen Eleanor, who gets to put not just one, but two kings in their place and put medieval royalty in a truer perspective than we’re used to seeing on the screen. We’ve never had more hale & hearty Saxons than James Cosmo and Chris Walker, or more stomach-turning badasses than David Barrass, Nick Brimble, and Peter Guinness. Christopher Lee’s Lucas de Beaumanoir, fanatical grand-master of the Knights Templar, makes his inimitable Dracula seem like a softie in comparison. And Ciarán Hinds gets to act out one of the finest character arcs I know, gradually moving from blackest villainy to as noble a redemption as any lost soul has ever achieved. (Hinds also incarnated one of the best Julius Caesars I’ve seen, in the series Rome.). With the pairing of Brian de Bois-Guilbert & Rebecca and Ivanhoe and Rowena, Sir Walter Scott also gave us two great love stories that intersect brilliantly. Scott’s storytelling remains breathtaking two centuries later, and when put on screen as splendidly as it is here and in Michael Caton-Jones’ Rob Roy one simply wants to stand up and applaud. I’m hoping that I’ll still be around when someone finally makes an equally resounding success of the Arthurian tales onto the screen. How is it that we’ve never had a sublime Morte d’Arthur or a mind-blowing The Once and Future King? Or have I missed it? In the meantime, try and track down a copy of Ivanhoe. Read the book. This is what myth-making is all about.
P.S. I’m a bigger fan of the original Star Wars trilogy now than I was back in 1997. I wouldn’t want to diss anyone who’s really trying to find new ways of bringing the mythic imagination back into our lives.