It all comes down to this: How do you like your Ivanhoe?
Old school Hollywood, and full of romance? Then the 1952 version starring Robert Taylor and Elizabeth Taylor may be just the ticket. Most realistic and closest to the original 1819 novel by Sir Walter Scott? Then the five-hour 1997 BBC mini-series might be your thing. Classic TV? Then you gotta love Roger Moore in the 1958 series.
So where does this 1982 made-for-TV movie fit in?
Good question. And I think it depends on your mindset as you watch. If you notice that the costumes seem fresh off the rack of a theatrical wardrobe with nary a smudge or thread askew, or if you observe that these 12th-century hairdos vary from a slicked-back and parted in the middle '30s look to a layered '70s dry cut, or that the various crowns seem to be made of spray-painted tin, then you might see too many "made-for-TV" signs to keep you from truly getting into the film. Other symptoms, for those who may suffer from this dis-ease, include a gaping mouth when seeing "Jurassic Park"'s Sam Neill as an evil knight, or noticing that the cinematography has that TV look except for a few impressive long shots.
But for a TV movie, it's actually pretty good. Fans of medieval swashbucklers will be entertained by this film, which features Anthony Andrews as young and dashing Wilfred of Ivanhoe, who returns home a "disinherited knight" because he followed King Richard (Julian Glover) to the Crusades and left his homeland unprotected so that the usurper, Prince John (Ronald Pickup) could impose Norman law upon the people. He wants to reclaim his title, regain the respect of his father, and earn the hand of Lady Rowena. But, of course, he discovers that Prince John has usurped the throne, and instead has to first try to fight the conspiracy to unseat his beloved Richard.
The film gets off to a fast-enough start, with Ivanhoe dressed as a pilgrim and saving the Jewish merchant Isaac of York (James Mason) from a raiding band of Norman soldiers. In return, Isaac gives him money to outfit himself with horse and armor in order to compete the next day in the tournament. As it's been in events ranging from "Ben-Hur" to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, the contest is a matter of ethnic pride. Three Norman knights (John Rhys-Davies, Sam Neill, Stuart Wilson) have challenged all comers, and no Saxon has been able to beat them. But just when the king is ready to call it a day, along comes Ivanhoe in disguise as Desdichado, "the disinherited knight."
The tournament scenes are well done, and the dialogue and level of acting is better than most made-for-TV movies, with several exceptions. Actors like Glover and David Robb (Robin Hood) who have the burden of playing legendary figures don't distinguish themselves enough from the other characters, and Olivia Hussey's character as Rebecca the Jew comes across as a more powerful and memorable character than the Lady Rowena character (played by Lysette Anthony) who's supposed to be the dominant female. Then there's Rhys-Davies' ham-on-wry performance. Would that they all had the presence of Ronald Pickup, who, in animal robes, makes a fine Prince John with just the right mix of charisma and evil.
Director Douglas Camfield ("Dr. Who") does a good a job of handling the intrigue as he does the action, and this version of "Ivanhoe" moves along at a brisker pace than the 1952 film. He doesn't linger too long in the "talk" zone, and for that partial credit goes to screenwriter John Gay, who's made a nice living adapting literary classics for television. Yet, while Allyn Ferguson's underscore was nominated for an Emmy, it's the music that adds an exclamation point to those cheesy moments of melodrama that are bound to pop up in almost any made-for-TV movie. But as I said, overall this is an engaging version of "Ivanhoe" that follows the book in most all the basics--including Ivanhoe's wounding, which pretty much takes him out of the action for the third act and leaves Richard as "The Black Knight" to set things right. Same with the novel's complexities, which leaves a number of the character's motivations and feelings in question and draws attention to a number of period social issues. Filmed in England, "Ivanhoe" features some gorgeous local scenery and some real castles--including Alnwick, in Northumberland. And at 142 minutes, it feels epic.
So if you like your "Ivanhoe" full of color and romance and don't mind a little cheesiness with the action, this version delivers some pretty good entertainment. It's not rated, but there's nothing here that the whole family can't watch.
Production values are good for "Ivanhoe," though it would have been nice to see this one in widescreen rather than the 1.33:1 aspect ratio it was filmed in. Sometimes the frames can feel a little tight and confined, but the colors are bold and bright, black levels are strong, and there's hardly any grain for a DVD.
The audio is an English (with closed captions) Dolby Digital of unspecified nature, though it would appear to be a 2.0 mono distributed evenly across the speakers. For a no-frills track it does the job, bringing the clashes of lance and shield to vivid audio life and offering clear and precise dialogue throughout.
There are no bonus features.
Despite its flaws, this 1982 TV movie offers an enjoyable version of the Sir Walter Scott romance.