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People, I did it. I discovered Ivanhoe (1982) was available for streaming on Amazon, and I watched it. Unfortunately, I think I covered the worst of it in my Top 10 Shitty 1980s TV roundup, but if I suffered through this sucker, you have to as well! I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Frock Flicks is a family!
I’ve never read the original Sir Walter Scott novel (published in 1819), nor have I seen any of the cinematic adaptations before, so I have to say the plot — particularly the resolution — surprised me. Okay, so 1819 wasn’t a particularly stellar year for anti-racism/anti-ethnocentrism, yes. But there was SO MUCH to raise one’s eyebrows at just in the general storyline, which is, in this adaptation (let’s see if I can be succinct, which I doubt): Wilfred of Ivanhoe (Anthony Andrews) is the son of a Saxon nobleman, and said father is pissed his son went to fight in the Crusades. He turns back up in England at a tournament in which Prince John is serving as regent while Richard the Lionheart is imprisoned on the continent (so 1192-93). He previously wanted to marry Lady Rowena, a Norman, but when he’s injured in the tourney, and is cared for by Jewish man Isaac of York and his daughter Rebecca (Olivia Hussey), he and Rebecca start to have A Thing. Meanwhile, Brian de Bois-Guilbert (Sam Neill) is a supporter of Prince John and pissed at Ivanhoe for beating him in the tournament. He takes Ivanhoe, Isaac, and Rebecca prisoner, and he too gets the hots for Rebecca. Robin Hood gets involved in their rescue, but then Rebecca is accused of witchcraft and Ivanhoe has to save her AND choose between her and Rowena. I think this would make way more sense reading it in a novel, because DAMN that’s a lot of twists and turns!
Okay, so to pass on what I learned to you, here’s the educational takeaways from this version of Ivanhoe:
It Was Super Easy to Heat a Giant Tub of Water
Hot tubs, y’all. They weren’t just invented in the 1970s or whenever! There’s a wacky scene where Evil Brian and his mate pull John Rhys-Davis into a steaming hot tub of water. This isn’t the Islamic world, they didn’t have plumbing, and can you IMAGINE how many hours it would take to fill this sucker, all the while the water is cooling off? Technology, people.
Sam Neill Needs to Think Carefully About How He Parts His Hair
Sam Neill as Evil Brian. I generally like Sam, so was surprised to see him as the baddie! He’s fine in the role, but HIS HAIR. WAS NOT GOOD. They tried to center part it and slick it back, but his hair resisted, and it did NOT do anything for his looks.
Medieval Textiles Were Not What I Thought They Were
Okay, so it was 1982, and I’m sure that costume designer Olga Lehmann (The Man in the Iron Mask, The Four Feathers, A Tale of Two Cities, Witness for the Prosecution, The Master of Ballantrae) was given a limited budget and the directive to “make it pretty!” There was no desire to reproduce the Magical Bog Dress of Wherever here. But nonetheless, get ready for ALL the mylar, because apparently medieval textiles were all about the sparkle!
Medieval Jewish Women Wore Quasi-Middle Eastern Clothing
Research is wrong, y’all! Scholarship tells us,
“In general Jews in European countries did not wear any clothing that was distinctive or different from that worn by their Christian neighbors, though perhaps they dressed somewhat more lavishly, particularly the women” (Medieval Jewish Civilization: An Encyclopedia).
Hey, even period imagery must be wrong! Because see these medieval Jewish women? You only THINK they are dressed in standard Western fashions:
Well, we now have a proper source — Ivanhoe! And now you know that English Jewish women of the 1190s actually wore super sparkly, quasi-Middle Eastern, highly-belly-dance-inspired clothes.
There Was a “Jewish Hat”
Okay, this one is real! I wondered why Isaac was wearing a distinctly different, pointy yellow hat throughout the film.
I did some research and discovered:
“The one exception to this [not wearing distinctively ‘Jewish’ clothing], peculiarly, was the so-called Jewish hat… Jewish custom… was that males should cover their heads especially at synagogue services and often… while studying. At some period it became customary to wear a cap or hat at all times, at least outdoors… Lacking iconographic or other evidence for an earlier period, all that we can say with certainty is that by the mid-thirteenth century Jews were wearing hats, often simply a soft cap with a peak, but also what appears… to be a hat of stiff material with a distinctive point on the top… [This hat] may have been the result of special legislation, certainly in Germany and probably in England and France, requiring Jewish men to wear such hats” (Medieval Jewish Civilization: An Encyclopedia).
It’s my understanding that as this hat may have been a requirement by Christian authorities, it’s not a very happy thing for modern Jewish people, so please don’t run out and recreate your own without serious thought. But hey, I actually learned something educational!
And a Bonus: Apparently This Airs on TV Every New Year’s Day in Sweden
To everyone’s, including Sam Neill’s, amuseument:
Have you learned anything educational from bad frock flicks lately?
large multi person bathtubs were a thing throughout the middle ages, most large towns had specialist bathhouses, where the water was heated, and btahing was communal and often mixed sex. It was only after the black death that thet began to be officially clsoed down as they were seen as palces the disease could spread. often there were snacks and prostitutes available thereien
I don’t think anyone is questioning whether multiperson bathtubs existed at the time, or whether there were heated bathhouses at the time. I think it’s where the concepts are crossed – a stand alone multiperson bath with no heating element, yet clearly so hot that it is steaming – that tests credulity.
Then again, how cold is the room it’s standing in? Get a whole squad of servitors running all together from the kitchen with buckets of hot water to fill the bath, and if that’s an unheated room in a Midlands winter it will steam and stay steamy for quite some time, I promise you!
A knight cleaning up after a long day in the saddle would sponge off with the help of his squire or a body servant, probably using unheated water.
A bath was an EVENT! and a very elaborate process. . A big wooden tub would be used but it would be lined with linen cloth to protect from splinters and tented to keep the heat in. Snacks might be served and music played. A bath was more about relaxation than getting clean. When the bathers had had enough they would be carefully dried and retire to a warm bed to let their pores close and their flesh ‘harden’.
Could it have been placed over a natural hot spring? Not to excuse anything ridiculous, but there are hot springs in Britain (e.g. Bath).
Don’t trust Sir Walter Scott as a source for historical accuracy. The Norman-Saxon tension is often brought up in the Robin Hood legendry, and Scott plays on it. But Scott also tells us in another story (cinematized as “King Richard and the Crusaders” that a European knight’s sword can split an anvil (it can’t, any more than a samurai katana can) or that the Saracen scimitar is so sharp that it can split a piece of silk wafting through the air. Mark Twain tells us in “Connecticut Yankee” that a suit of armour is so heavy knights had to be hoisted onto their horses. While this may occasionally have been true for jousting armour, it was not the case for war harness. “King Richard***” also has one of the most inane lines ever uttered on film by his sister, visiting at a battle site “War, war, war! That’s all you ever think about, Dickie Plantagenet.”
In fairness to Sir Walter he was following to historical thought of his time, which was pretty inaccurate. Making Conisburgh Castle, a Norman keep, Athelstan’s seat for example.
That is a fabulous line. (Are we sure it’s “Dickie,” as opposed to “Dick” or “Dickon”?) Must try it out on the little man one of these evenings: “Handel, Handel, Handel! That’s all you ever think about, Hubby!”
I definitely remember it as ‘Dick”, but I could be wrong. it’s been a while.
Gosh, all the mylar and sparkle. Must be alchemists involved to chance silks and nice warm wool to such crap. Maybe it was due to threat or maybe whatever. Lol. But check out SnappyDragon on YouTube as she actually has blogs on what Jewish women wore. And the garments were regional.
Hahaha, this is great. That version was more of a hot mess than any of the other Ivanhoe versions, of which there have been many, on stage (Scott attended one in 1826, shortly after the book’s publication) and the big and small screen. Perhaps the most notable film version starred Elizabeth Taylor and Robert Taylor in 1952. I have seen the various versions and can confidently say that the costuming is bad in all of them, but this one wins the best worst award! The best is probably the 1997 TV miniseries, but it’s a low bar.
I’ve been an Ivanhoe fan since Junior High, when my English teacher forced us to read the novel and analyze it chapter by chapter, and actually ACT OUT the last Ivanhoe/Bois Guilbert fight scene. (I think she had a “thing” for the novel. I got extra credit because my father made a really nice wooden sword for the event, and I let the teacher keep it. Yeah, a real suck-up.)
The book has about four simultaneous plots, and even without Scott’s writing style can be realllly slow going. The anachronisms in the plot are astounding and become humorous. BTW Rowena is the ward of Cedric, Ivanhoe’s father, and the last descendent of a noble Saxon line. Cedric is determined that she marry Athelstane to rebuild the Saxon dynasty, but she loves Ivanhoe (sad trombone). In reality Normans and Saxons had already integrated by this point in history, but whatev.
What irritates the heck out of me in the book is how Rebecca, a woman so out of his class it isn’t funny, yearns for Ivanhoe and announces her intent to remain unmarried for his sake when he’s showed clearly that he considers her beyond the pale. Mind you I’m not blaming Wilfred for that, of course a Twelfth century Christian would feel like that. I’m just desperately annoyed that Rebecca isn’t regarding him as a Twelfth century Jewish woman would regard a gentile!
You can blame Scott and 18th C attitudes for that one. Jews are beyond the Pale, whereas Christians are desirable, and Any Respectable Person would want one. Readers at the time who loved Rebecca and wanted a better outcome for her wanted her to become Christian as the solution. W.M. Thakeray, who famously wrote a fanfic at the time to resolve this unsatisfactory ending, had her converting and marrying Ivanhoe. You actually have to give Scott credit for presenting a positive, strong, and endearing Jewish heroine and arguing against the prejudice she and Jews faced in the Middle Ages–especially given that anti-Semitism hadn’t improved much in his time (indeed, that was what he was indirectly pointing to).
I enjoyed the Rebecca-Ivanhoe story as a tragic, impossible love story. He doesn’t say “If only you were of my race,” – he says (I’m paraphrasing, I don’t remember the exact words), “Had I been of your race …” and he nearly gets killed to save her at the end.
Wilfred certainly finds Rebecca attractive, he’s prejudiced not dead but he isn’t in love with her. He risks his life to save her because he owes her his life and because caring for him is what put her in danger. He is in love with Rowena, who isn’t all that bad.
I am of course thinking of the book. Wilfred and Isaac and Rebecca’s relationship is a complicated web of debts and benefits. Wilfred saves Isaac so Isaac gives him the armor to joust in. Wilfred then pays Isaac back the price of the armour which makes them quits until he’s wounded and Rebecca takes him to nurse. Which gets her captured, carried off by Brian de B-G and threatened with burning. Which I rather think is anachronistic btw. Honorably Wilfred can do nothing but try to save her. It probably would have been wiser to send somebody who wasn’t recovering from wounds though!
Yeah, it’s some bullshit!
TIL that Sam Neill is freakin’ hilarious. :)
The book is VERY romantic and not wealth of accuracy, of course, so not going museum curator on it is understandable. But repeated cliches in 80s synthetics was not the way to go.
If you want a fun take on Ivanhoe, I recommend a YA book, “Knigh’s Castle,” by Edward Eager.
I adore this book and am so glad to see someone mention it! It is so much fun to see how the kids respond to the 1952 movie. I still remember Rowena in their adventure being sanctimonious and addicted to bonbons.
As for the eighties version, I remember watching it at the time and dubbing Rowena the Breck Girl, because her hair was always so lustrous and bouncy.
If you want to learn about actual medieval Jewish women’s clothing, SnappyDragon on YouTube has a few video essays on the topic that are really great. She talks about what the evidence says they were wearing, what was imposed on them by the Christians, and has some discussion of differences in clothing by area. And she’s made some really beautiful recreations.
Thanks for the rec!
Ahhh, yes, Ivanhoe! I loved the book as a teen – but only as long as I read it in German. I think some of Scott’s long-windedness was lost in the translation I read. When I went back and read the original in English, I could barely make it. Saw the 1952 film a few times because it was always on in TNT’s “Swashbuckling Season” and I watched the heck out of that! The cut out a lot of the story in that film though. I hadn’t seen it in years, but actually watched it together with a friend for laughs a few weeks ago. And we did have a good giggle. Ah, cone-shaped bras under medieval gowns!
Anyway, fast forward a few years after reading Ivanhoe, I developed a “thing” for Anthony Andrews (blame it on the Scarlet Pimpernel!) and when I found out about THIS TV version, of course I had to see it! It’s pretty faithful to the book story-wise, much more so than the 50s film, but I agree, the costumes are a mess. This Rowena in my view is Medieval Barbie doll! As for Sam Neill, I think that was his first TV or movie role outside of Australia/New Zealand.
I have seen the 90s version on TV too – but remember pretty much nothing. Clearly, it left no lasting impression…
I learned that a tambourine can make a really good headpiece from the first image, and that the sequin fabric that you can stroke to change colour would make really good chain mail. If only they had access to it in 1982. But seriously (?) this takes way more inspiration from Hollywood takes on the era rather than the actual time period, so if you think of it as an accurate tribute to THAT era, it’s kind of accurate, or meta accurate? It’s a stretch! (velvet)
Today I learned if you can’t be bothered to go period, use lots of shiny synthetics to blind the audience.
Good to see a guest appearance by the French soldier who farts in your general direction. Judging from his expression, he didn’t think much of Sam Neill’s hair, either
Ok, y’all, I don’t HATE Sam Neill’s hair here. I mean, it’s not great, but…he still manages to be a hottie. I just learned that the 90’s era Ivanhoe is also streaming on Amazon. I watched about 5 minutes of it…eh… the good news was Ciaran Hinds and the guy who gets set on fire in Last of the Mohicans. The bad news…everything else. Maybe one day when I’m not soo tired I’ll try to watch both versions and/or read the book. Also, please tell I’m the only who thinks “Jesus’s Mom!” every time I see Oliva Hussey on screen.
I think Juliet too. You and I may be dating ourselves ☹️
True, but it’s still my favourite version of the movie and I adore the Danilo Donati costumes.
…and every damn year starts with Ivanhoe choosing the wrong girl. Again and again.
As I recall I liked the costumes in the Eighties Ivanhoe. I was young and loved sparkly. Come to that I still do! But even back then I knew that wasn’t what was actually worn.
Personally I’d rather see Rebecca end up with Brian than Wilfred. The bland blonds deserve each other. Brian is a villain but by the end he’s so serious about Rebecca he’s ready to abandon his entire life and every ambition he’s ever had if she’ll take him. But for me, as a Jew, was his offer to start their lives over in the Homeland. Rebecca is of course far too moral to accept this unscrupulous bastard. I’m not. I’d be tempted.
Totally agree with you regarding the Rebecca/Bois Guilbert pairing! Ivanhoe has to be one of the dullest protagonists in literature. Which is why the 1997 version is by far my favorite. I mean, I Iiked Sam Neill in the role, but watching Ciarán Hinds as Bois Guilbert…
Because it was a TV six-episode miniseries it followed the book’s plot(s?) more closely, which is not necessarily a good thing, given that the book sets records for verbosity and tediousness.
But do try to watch it again! Skip over the boring parts if you must, but I’d hate for you to miss the Rebecca and Brian scenes. The miniseries extends them more than the other films and even the book, which IS FINE BY ME. Sometimes I just re-watch the last few episodes, which is where most of the action is .
Definitely have to check that out! I’m not saying Brian is a good romantic choice but he’s miles more interesting than Wilfred, he’s not in love with another woman and by God he’s interested in Rebecca!
A while back, while griping about PFG somebody posted that historical novels get costume wrong too. Sir Walter is no exception. Rowena and Rebecca are described in ensembles right out of Liberty’s collection.
Rowena first appears with her hair falling in ringlets over her shoulders, and ams bare to the elbows in a loose crimson robe worn over a sea green ‘gown and kirtle’. She wears jewels in her hair and a sort of drapery round her shoulders.
Rebecca also wears ringlets flowing beneath a yellow turban with a plume attached by a glittering jewel. She has a diamond necklace also sparkling, obviously cut stones. And she wears a flowing robe, purple embroidered with a floral design, fastened by jeweled clasps.
As for the men Brian wears an authentic mail suit while traveling but otherwise the men are clad in fourteenth century tourney armour and fourteenth century fashions.
I always thought Wilford was a goop and Rowena deserved to get him. Rebecca deserved someone MUCH better, and who better than a reformed bad boy? as for the costumes? they’re traditional Hollywood “Ye Olde Tyme” so spot on! glimmer and shine on!
The actress in the thankless role of Rowena, Lysette Anthony, later played a far more dynamic character, the witch Angelique, in the 1991 remake of Dark Shadows – unfortunately, it only lasted one season.
The character of Rebecca in Scott’s novel was said to be inspired by Rebecca Gratz of Philadelphia, a Jewish philanthropist and educator. Gratz and Scott had a mutual friend in Washington Irving, who spoke admiringly to Scott of Rebecca Gratz. Gratz had been asked to marry a Gentile, but had refused to marry him due to her faith. (she never married anyone) Gratz seems to have been attractive, sophisticated, and intelligent.
The “berber” circlet looks a lot like one Guinevere wears in Boorman’s Excalibur.
So funny that in Soviet Union another adaptation was made (Ballad of the Valiant Knight Ivanhoe) about the same time, 1982 or 1983. I even thought this post was about it! Not sure about its costumes, but male ones seemed fine.
This movie (well, miniseries) is such a guilty pleasure for me, costume-wise.* It’s basically just one big ol’ Ren Faire, with minimal historical accuracy, improbable colors, clearly modern fabrics, and obviously glass jewels. But, well, I love Ren Faires! And besides, what is Ivanhoe but a Ren Faire of a story, what with all the tournaments and Templars and a guest appearance by Robin Hood?
*In terms of performances, though, it has nothing to apologize for. What a cast!