A&E's version of Sir Walter Scott's story is the best attempt yet
By Jean Prescott
Someone's finally gotten it right. They've finally dramatized Sir Walter Scott's "Ivanhoe" and gotten the look, the tone and, more importantly, the characterizations dead on the money.
Believe it or not, this story's been told on film six times before this, MGM's 1952 big-screen version being the one most people recall.
But Robert Taylor as a Saxon lord?
"More like a cut-cost Erroll Flynn leapin' around in his tights," says Ciaran Hinds, a remarkable Irish actor who plays Ivanhoe's adversary, the Templar Knight Sir Brian de Bois Guilbert, in this new TV miniseries of "Ivanhoe."
"Only someone who never opened (Scott's) book" could have crafted a movie like that "glorious Technicolor epic" Hinds says with a scornful tone that's part Irish humor and part genuine disdain.
His own character, for example, is a great, dark, menacing creature portrayed in the past by a sinister but effete George Sanders (the '52 film) and an equally unsuitable Sam Neill (the 1982 TV miniseries).
Hinds says screenwriter Deborah Cook "chose what to keep in and what to leave out" of Scott's vivid tale of medieval England. But he admits there's "a bit of me mixed in" to the complex character of Bois Guilbert.
And the actor makes the character fairly leap from the screen. Truth be told, he steals the show from Steven Waddington in the title role.
Follow the plot
For those who've never opened Scott's book, "Ivanhoe" is three, four, maybe more stories in one. Underscoring all other threads is the uneasy alliance between Norman and Saxon.
Ever present, too, is the serious sibling rivalry between King Richard and Prince John. Layer on the triangular love story among Lady Rowena, Ivanhoe and the Rebecca of York, who is Jewish.
Dark times for the Roman church intrude in the person of Lucas de Beaumanoir, Grand Master of the Templars, played with icy lunacy by Christopher Lee, who's prepared to burn anything secular for a heretic.
And, at the heart of it all is the conflict between Ivanhoe and Bois Guilbert, who rode together beside Richard on the Third Crusade. Ivanhoe remained true to the king even in captivity; Bois Guilbert deserted them both and aligned himself with the power of the moment, John.
"(Bois Guilbert) started out a good man," Hinds says, "but he gave over to the darker side of it. He carried terrible resentment, and he took no prisoners. If it was a man, kill it; if it was a woman, shag it.
"The Knights Templar were supposed to be these noble holy men - monks - and we know, of course, that they really were greedy, misogynistic bastards.
"And what happens? Who finally gets to him? A Jew! And a woman!"
Hinds' scenes with that woman, Susan Lynch, who plays Rebecca to perfection, are some of the most emotionally charged of the six-hour series. It's only make-believe, after all, but the investment of emotional energy must be taxing.
"Exhausting," Hinds says, "but luckily Stewart (Orme, the director) gave us room to experiment. Susan's so young, but it works, don't you think?"
Beyond the mental and emotional demands of the roles were the physical ones, for the principals all did their own stunts, something that sounded frankly dangerous to us. But before we can say the word, Hinds fills in the blank: " 'Stupid' comes to mind," he says and laughs.
"It's what happens when you use what passes for a brain. But we had a great stunt coordinator, and the only thing we didn't do were the jousting scenes. That would have been beyond stupid - crass. You put on those helmets, and you can't see a thing."
But Hinds and Waddington toughed out their final fight scene. "They had doubles at the ready," Hinds says. "It was pretty wicked, but we did it all."
And as a result, Waddington ended up in the hospital.
"They should have kept him there, the ninnie," Hinds says with mock scorn. "He got the merest graze and had to lie down for a week.
"But actually, we were in this very complicated violent dance together (a broadsword fight to the death), and I heard this sound - just something not right, not metal on metal - and this feeling of horror came over me. And then a few moments later - you know you don't feel it right away - and Steven had this chunk of flesh out of his hand. But he mended quickly."
Almost as quickly as Hinds moves from project to project.
American viewers will see "Ivanhoe," which was finished last August, for the first time on Sunday. In the interim, Hinds has portrayed Rochester in another A&E/ITV coproduction, of "Jane Eyre" (we'll see that one here toward year's end), played "a priest who collects glass" in an Australian film titled "Oscar and Lucinda," and on the day we spoke, was in rehearsals for a play in London.
American audiences also have seen him as Captain Wentworth in "Persuasion," which turned up again a week or so ago on PBS, as Edward Parker-Jones, a kind of pimp for pedophiles in "Prime Suspect 3," also on PBS, and in such big-screen films as "Mary Reilly," "Some Mother's Son," "Circle of Friends" and the wonderfully surreal "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover."
A workaholic? "It's a job," Hinds says. "A lot of actors maybe get the notion they want to take only roles that are the romantic lead. Or they want to be hilariously funny or do character parts. Really, you just take a role, do it the best you can and then see what happens."
What's happened in the case of "Ivanhoe" is a wholly authentic visit to medieval England, one we highly recommend.