(On Cable TV, November 2019) Technicolor-era historical Hollywood adventures don’t get any more exemplary than Ivanhoe, what with a 19th-century novel being loosely adapted into a Technicolor swashbuckler. It has more than its share of issues, especially from a contemporary perspective, but it also has quite a bit of charm. Robert Taylor and Joan Fontaine may star as the lead couple, but modern viewers may be forgiven for only having eyes for Elizabeth Taylor in an early yet striking supporting role. George Sanders is also up to his usual standards playing a villain. Otherwise, the rest of the film is a succession of sex appeal, sword fights, medieval jousts, and arena combat as a climactic bow. Ivanhoe is not to be trusted as a historical document, but it’s not a bad way to spend nearly two hours—the film is easy to take in, the hero is interesting (even a bit devious in his combat style), Taylor is luminous and it all builds to an effective action sequence in a film that has a few of them. As a competent Hollywood rendition of medieval adventure, Ivanhoe was nominated for three Academy Awards back then (including Best Picture) and you can see why it was both a commercial and critical success. This less-usual take on the Robin Hood legend is quite intentional, and it prefigures other films in that vein.
(On Cable TV, April 2018) I have dim memories of watching Quo Vadis as a kid (especially the last shot of the film) but watching it now is more an exercise in historical Hollywood than an enjoyable viewing in itself. Historically, Quo Vadis was the first big success of an era in film history where Hollywood headed to Rome in order to film epic movies on a smaller budget. You can see the result on-screen with a lavish production with countless costumes, credible historical re-creations and an ambitious Bible-related subject matter palatable to international audiences. Quo Vadis is a deep dive in Roman history in the decades when Rome fought the newly popular Christianity. It’s not particularly historically accurate, but it does revel in the imaginary imagery of the era, combining swords and sandals and political/religious conflict alongside a big dash of family melodrama. It’s tedious and impressive at once, especially when you try to keep up with the very large cast and equally long running time. It does help that the film features actors such as Robert Taylor and Peter Ustinov, alongside captivating actresses such as Deborah Kerr and Marina Berti. A long list of notables had small roles among the cast and crew, but the film’s biggest impact was financial, both in terms of revenues (it reportedly saved MGM from bankruptcy) and legacy (it paved the way for very similar epics). It’s not quite as good as many of the films it would spawn, though: the highlights are few and far between, while the film’s connection to the bible is tenuous at best. It does make for an impatient viewing experience—well-known but not particularly enjoyable, Quo Vadis is a bit of an imposed viewing … unless you like that kind of thing, of course.