Monday, June 19, 2017

Ivanhoe

Last night, for Father's Day, I really only had one ambition: to watch the 1952 Ivanhoe, which I had a copy of from the public library (I really should own my own copy; but the fact that it's there makes it easy to forego.)  There was an interesting line in a trailer in the special features; this one was for Stewart Grainger's Scaramouche, which came out the following year.  "The hot-blooded adventures of masterful men! The bold intrigues of seductive women! The pageantry of a swashbuckling era comes to life!"

The reason this movie works so well is encapsulated in that quote, even though it wasn't meant to refer to it specifically.  Rebecca and Rowena are attractive, virtuous, feminine women.  This means that the hot-blooded, masterful men who fight for them makes sense.  Who wouldn't?

Now; of course, the movie is old.  One thing that has come a very long way since this movie was made is visual design.  A modern movie would look much better.  It would have better sets, better costumes, better fight choreography (well, presumably.  Sometimes they don't.)  Better special effects.  Maybe even better pacing.

But it absolutely would not have better characters.  In a modern swashbuckling adventure, like The Force Awakens, which is pretty capable as a stand-in, the characters are generally stupid, unappealing, unlikable, unattractive, and unbelievable.  The men would have to be turned into malicious, bumbling idiots.  The grrl-power characters wouldn't need saving from Front-de-Bouef's castle.  With the power of their snarky wits and bizarrely super-powered ninja skills, they'd save themselves.   Rather than pining in jealousy over Ivanhoe, Rebecca and Rowena (a thoroughly feminine emotion; but the SJWs of Hollywood don't have any understanding whatsoever of healthy, normal human emotions) would exclaim dubiously how they don't really like men anyway, except as pets and boy-toys, and inexplicably, one of them would end up with Ivanhoe at the end of the movie anyway, even though nobody would understand the motivation for it.  The bizarrely inappropriate inserted noble minority side-kick character, who would probably be black (heck, they even had Morgan Freeman do it in the stupid early 90s Robin Hood movie) would constantly do very little other than remind the audience that the principle protagonists are mostly white—except for Rebecca, I suppose—and that the Crusades from which Ivanhoe had just returned were white colonialism and oppression.

A great novel of incredible cultural significance, largely because it is capable of showing incredible nobility of spirit and champions values that are unique to Western civilization, would be bowdlerized into an absolutely terrible parody of itself with caricatures of SJW strawmen as characters.  Everyone would hate it.  It'd flop, and Hollywood analysts would conclude that nobody likes swashbuckling period pieces.  Probably because they don't have enough "strong women".

Sigh.

It's too bad.  I'd love to see this movie remade with better fight choreography and graphic design.  But you can't get young Elizabeth Taylor back again—or Robert Taylor or Joan Fontaine or George Sanders, for that matter.  Sure, they've done remakes in the years since, and they're not necessary bad takes on it.  The 1997 one in particular is pretty well done, and Ciaran Hinds is if anything, a better Brian de Bois-Guilbert than any of the others cast before or since. The casting of Cedric, and many of the other smaller characters (like Wamba, Gurth, and Athelstane) is pretty much perfect.  Rowena is even well-cast, and the changes to her character don't feel forced, because everyone's known a woman like that in real life.  She's still feminine, even if she's not the same interpretation as Joan Fontaine's Rowena (even though Fontaine's Rowena has got nothing at all on de Havilland's Maid Marian.  Seriously; nothing at all). It's also a more faithful reproduction to the plot of the novel.

But Rebecca is smart-mouthed, big-nosed, mostly unlikable and unattractive.  This right here is the lynch-pin (no pun intended; Susan Lynch played her) of the entire plot.  How are we to believe that de Bois-Guilbert goes to such lengths to win her, if she's not as alluring, beautiful and feminine as Elizabeth Taylor?  How are we to believe that Rowena was jealous of her because of her obvious love for Ivanhoe?  If de Bois-Guilbert really wanted her, how are we to believe that she wouldn't be thrilled at the offer, or that anyone else would do anything other than shrug and say, "whatever floats your boat, man."

For that matter, Ivanhoe himself is a bit of a cypher in this version.  He's just plain boring.  Too serious, and lacking in any charisma or chemistry, he's credibly cast for the proper look of Ivanhoe, I'll give you that, but he just doesn't have the presence to carry off the part.

And that's a relatively good adaptation made twenty years ago.  I doubt anyone could possibly even equal that, much less beat it today.



In any case, I've been thinking for quite some time about using the name Desdichado as a pen-name, and I've changed my blogger profile name to represent it (although I might change it back later).  In the novel (although not this version) that's what Ivanhoe calls himself at the lists of Ashby, the word meaning disinherited.  (According to Sir Walter Scott, anyway. It actually means unhappy or unfortunate.)  It applied to him, who had had a falling out with his father in the backstory, but it applies to us as well; the orphans of Western civilization who have had our culture and our nations stolen from us and broken, maybe beyond repair.  Ivanhoe is a great example of our stolen birthright; not just in the sense of the world that it portrays of Medieval England struggling to restore its rightful king over a tyrant and pretender, but also in the sense of the world of 1950 America which would make such a movie.

One small quibble with it, on the other hand, is the obsequious posturing with regards to the poor Jews.  Isaac of York speaks of his wife being murdered in Spain, which is absurd, because there was no Spain during the Third Crusade; the Reconquista wouldn't be complete for another three hundred years, and Spain was formed at the conclusion of the Reconquista by dynastic union with the marriage of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castille in 1469.  I suppose it could refer to the general Iberian peninsula, which was sometimes called Hispania still as a legacy of the Roman province.  It is possible that his wife would have been killed as the Almohads replaced the Almoravids.  The Christian reconquistadores were not only tolerant of the Jews, but even appreciated their knowledge of the Moors, and gave them favored status in many regards.  Not that the the Jews often repaid the favor well; there are many documented cases of Jewish treachery during the Reconquista.  The truth is, the long history of Jewish persecution is mostly written by the Jews, and naturally ignores their own role in provoking eventual persecution by being such poor guests in the host countries of Christendom.  That said, Sir Walter Scott's novel contains much of this same element, so at least it's consistent with the pro-Zionist posture that the author himself had.

PS:  Curiously, in Rebecca's letter to her father, Isaac, begging for aid in securing a champion, she refers to life among the Moors as safer for the Jews than England.  This is ahistorical nonsense.  The exact opposite was true, especially in the time period covered by the novel.  Then again, this is Sir Walter Scott, who believes that Desdichado means disinherited in Spanish, and that Zernebock was an old Anglo-Saxon pagan god.

Nonetheless, it's an intriguing moment in its own right.  We take for granted, nowadays, the "woke" that Jewish propaganda about our own cultural unworthiness is a feature of modern life.  But it goes way back, if Sir Walter Scott was a purveyor of of it as well.  Even so, his presentation of the Jews, and Isaac, isn't entirely lacking in merit—he was no fool, and he understood Jewish culture better than he lets on sometimes.  Even after Isaac receives this letter, he and another elder of the Jews express their contempt for Christians, and try to haggle for the price of Rebecca's life.  Isaac does not receive a flattering portrait.  Indeed, nobody does with the exception of Rebecca, Ivanhoe himself, and Rowena.

But especially Rebecca.

PPS: What's the difference exactly between calling yourself the Master Race and calling yourself the Chosen People?

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