It is the twelfth century and King Richard has been absent from England for too long, having gone to the Crusades in the Middle East and not returned. For now, his brother Prince John (Guy Rolfe) has taken charge of the country, which is already divided between the Saxons and the Normans, but while this rivalry rages, one Saxon, Ivanhoe (Robert Taylor), has taken it upon himself to track down Richard as he poses as a travelling minstrel. Currently he is making his way through Austria, visiting the castles should there be the chance his King is imprisoned in one - and as luck would have it...
Ivanhoe was one of the big moneymakers of its year for its studio MGM, and many were captivated by its sweeping tales of chivalry, even if at this remove it looks decidedly stagey and artificial. But that was the style of historical epics in those days, and in loosely adapting Sir Walter Scott's classic novel they obviously had in mind another prestigious production along the lines of The Adventures of Robin Hood. However, Robert Taylor was no Errol Flynn and proved a somewhat stiff hero, lacking in charisma and therefore at his best when he was dressed head to foot in his armour.
For that reason it's awkward that so much should be resting on Taylor's shoulders as not only the man of action at the heart of the story, but also the embodiment of hope and liberty for the people of the land. Ivanhoe must summon up the ransom on King Richard's head, so starts scouting around for someone who will cough up, knowing he will then be in their debt. The way out of that situation is to get the cash from someone who is in your debt, although it takes him practically the whole film to get into that position and involves much derring-do.
Which naturally takes the form of a jousting match, being de rigueur for this kind of film. Well, OK, not only a jousting match, but these are days of old when knights were bold, and our Ivanhoe finds himself fighting for not one but two lovely ladies. First, there's Lady Rowena (Joan Fontaine), companion to his estranged father Sir Cedric (Finlay Currie) who feels she can bring back together with his son, this being one of the major themes of the story. Second, there is Rebecca, the versed-in-medicine daughter of an elderly Jew Ivanhoe has rescued, Isaac of York (Felix Aylmer); she is in love with the hero too.
Now, Elizabeth Taylor felt she was miscast as Rebecca, and do you know? She was absolutely right. She may look as pretty as a picture in her medieval gowns, but as for personality we needed someone feisty and Taylor here has as much fire in her as a small glass of water. Still, she doesn't do too much damage to the tale's overriding point here, which is bringing the Christianity and Judaism together to the benefit of them both. Tradition and prejudice has separated the two sides, but we're shown how needless such bigotry is, and oddly enough in the character of one of the Norman villains more than anyone else. George Sanders plays that man, Guilbert, who falls for Rebecca and sticks up for her when she is being tried as a witch; in other circumstances they would have made a lovely, progressive couple - if she had loved him back. Ivanhoe largely has the look of the dressing up box about it, but does have a few thoughts in its head to its credit, perhaps due to its blacklisted writer Marguerite Roberts' inspiration. Music by Miklos Rosza.