Errol Flynn Slept Here Robert Matzen

Remaking Robin Hood

Title card from Ivanhoe.

I watched the 1952 version of Ivanhoe last night. It’s the first time I really consumed Ivanhoe because I will now admit, I’m not a big MGM guy or a big Robert Taylor guy, so I have seen bits and pieces of Ivanhoe over the years but never sat down and watched it until last night. And what I saw was good and then almost-great.

What really became a thing for me as I watched was realizing that Ivanhoe was a sort of remake of Errol Flynn’s The Adventures of Robin Hood a mere 14 years—and a world war—later. In that regard, Ivanhoe is a more adult, grittier picture presented to audiences now grounded in darker cinematic themes. But there are many similarities between the pictures in that both main characters face the same time period with only slightly different points of view. Robin of Locksley’s POV as a Saxon nobleman is replaced by Wilfrid of Ivanhoe’s as another Saxon nobleman, and they share the same plot: the Normans under Prince John are in power in England because King Richard is being held prisoner for ransom by the Austrians. Combating the bigotry and injustice of the Normans is an outlaw named Robin Hood who has an army of Saxon guerrilla fighters in the forest who are determined to end the oppression of the French invaders. Robin Hood, or “Locksley” as he is known here as played by British actor Harold Warrender, is a prominent character in the screen version of Ivanhoe as he was in Sir Walter Scott’s source novel, and Locksley’s band works in coordination with Wilfrid of Ivanhoe to bring down Prince John. Spoiler alert: just as in The Adventures of Robin Hood, a regal King Richard appears at the last minute to stare down his slimy brother, end the Norman reign, and declare that great things are ahead for England. We had seen Richard briefly in reel one, imprisoned all alone in an Austrian castle, which makes his appearance at the end with 100 immaculately and identically costumed knights really stupid. It’s like they were supposed to report to another movie and got sent to the wrong location.

The storybook way Richard rides in to bring the narrative to a swift conclusion works against every gritty moment that came before in Ivanhoe. It’s way too pretty and way too pat and much more like something out of the pre-war Flynn picture.

Guy Rolfe as Prince John in Ivanhow.
Guy Rolfe as Prince John–he’s half Richard Harris, half Peter O’Toole, and 100% black-hearted.

As much as I love the Flynn version and the way he built a winning team—an invincible winning team—he was so damn competent that the outcome was never really in doubt. Robert Taylor’s older and more weathered Ivanhoe, on the other hand, wins a lot but loses sometimes and when he loses, he bleeds. Up to the final confrontation, you feel like this is a real dude doing real things.

Just to ruffle feathers, I’m going to state a personal preference for George Sanders’ Sir Brian de Bois Guilbert over Basil Rathbone’s Sir Guy of Gisbourne as a villain. As laid out in Robin Hood, Sir Guy kept saying, “I’m gonna get that Robin Hood.” “I’m gonna hang that Robin Hood.” “That Robin Hood is in sooooooo much trouble!” but we never got a sense that Errol Flynn was really in trouble because he won every battle large and small except for the time he was bored and wanted to be caught so he could escape to piss Sir Guy off. Robin Hood’s wits and athleticism rendered Sir Guy into a villain who was all bark and no bite. But Sanders’ Sir Brian de Bois Guilbert is a brawny, earthy villain with a realistic perspective and a palpable lust for the “Jewess” Rebecca, played by Elizabeth Taylor. Where Rathbone’s Sir Guy had a glancing crush on Maid Marian—something more alluded to than depicted—Sanders is like, I want this girl and she’ll do whatever I say this instant! And I mean, whatever I say! His was a dark, domineering corruption of courtly love well past anything dreamed of by Sir Guy of Gisbourne.

George Sanders as de Bois Guilbert in Ivanhoe.
The awesome George Sanders as an equally awesome de Bois Guilbert, Ivanhoe’s rival.

Then there is de Bois Guilbert’s fellow Norman knight, Sir Hugh de Bracy, played by a Robert Douglas who seemed to get off on this type of character—he played basically the same snarling evildoer in Adventures of Don Juan just four years earlier. What a pair Sanders and Douglas make as foes for Wilfrid of Ivanhoe! You just don’t know what these two will do next, except it’s probably going to be lethal.

The Adventures of Robin Hood was conceived as a fantasy with sequins and tights, and you never really lost the feeling this was a comic book shot in Hollywood USA. I’ll go a step further and say you could watch the 1938 Flynn Robin Hood with today’s series of Marvel pictures and see Sir Robin as another gravity-defying superhero. Wilfred of Ivanhoe, not so much. There is literal and figurative gravity in everything about the setup of the story and the action driving it. There are bitter interpersonal conflicts, and the oppression of the Saxons by the Normans isn’t depicted through a few token outrages—it permeates the people and times. Check out the Ivanhoe trailer.

In Ivanhoe, there are two women love interests for our hero, creating a triangle, whereas for Flynn’s Robin Hood there was only Maid Marian. It’s interesting to me that MGM cast in the Marian/female lead role Olivia de Havilland’s sister and bitter rival Joan Fontaine, years older at 34 than Livvie was at 21, but sporting similar braids and looking almost creepily alike, although the interpretations of the actresses were quite divergent. Livvie’s Marian was warm, charming, and ingenuous while Joanie’s Rowena was typical of this actress—pretty but aloof, distant, and at times unengaged. Then there was Elizabeth Taylor’s Rebecca, way younger and more passionate and ready at any moment for Ivanhoe to carry her off to destinations unknown. Whatever he wanted was OK by her.

Elizabeth Taylor and Robert Taylor in Ivanhoe.
Rebecca to Ivanhoe: Take me, I’m yours!

As conceived in 1937 at Warner Bros., Flynn’s The Adventures of Robin Hood was to open with a grand jousting tournament that established the enmity of Sir Robin and Sir Guy, but for budgetary reasons this sequence was cut from the production. Ivanhoe gives us not one but two jousting sequences, one a full-scale, thrilling set of jousts with Ivanhoe unseating Norman knights bang, bang, bang, one after another. They look painfully authentic because they were, thanks to location work in England and historical accuracy provided by the British Museum. We feel the grounding of this picture in medieval times because it was shot entirely in England with the supporting players cast there and real castles used along with a modern fortress replica constructed just for the production.

The combat depicted in Ivanhoe is raw in its brutality, up to and including the final confrontation between Sir Wilfrid and Sir Brian. Just, ouch. In The Adventures of Robin Hood, a single feint and sword thrust dispatched Sir Guy after a lengthy, well-choreographed duel. In Ivanhoe, Sir Brian dies hard after many minutes of lance, ax, and chain-and-ball attacks. It’s a vicious conclusion and praise must go to George Sanders for whipping up surprising sympathy in his final moment as he declares his love to Rebecca and then expires. And up until the very last few feet of run time, we don’t know if Ivanhoe is going to choose distant, aloof Rowena or hot young Jewess Rebecca. OK, I will leave one outcome in Ivanhoe unspoiled. You’ll have to see for yourself.

Robert Taylor and Joan Fontaine in Ivanhoe.
Ivanhoe to Rowena: This is a really tough call. I mean, you’re pretty and fair and all that, but she looks just like Elizabeth Taylor. How can I say no?

Time Bombs

Here’s a thing I’ve known all my life but never really thought about: Hollywood lost five of its greatest, most famous leading men one a year for five successive years. Boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. Five legends gone. All died of “natural causes” but the eldest of the five was just 60. And the thing is, nobody seems to have flinched when Bogie, Ty, Errol, Clark, and Coop passed. It’s just the way things were in the 1950s and 60s, the era of big booze, chain smoking, and meat-and-potatoes diets.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

I’m going to guess it was difficult not to smoke around Humphrey Bogart, who here helps fourth wife Lauren Bacall light up.

Humphrey Bogart was the first to go in 1957 after years battling throat cancer. He had always been an unorthodox fellow with a cantankerous lifestyle that included long pouting sessions aboard his yacht Santana, a brawling third marriage to Mayo Methot, and a cradle-robbing fourth to Lauren Bacall. Bogie drank up a storm and smoked like, well we all know what he smoked like because we see it in many of his pictures, most famously Casablanca. Seeing the way Bogart aged on screen might have made it possible to take his passing in stride in January 1957 when he succumbed at age 57—the only one of our five matinee idols to have been born prior to 1900.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

Tyrone Power becomes ill shooting this scene in Solomon and Sheba and dies within hours.

Tyrone Power died next at just 44 years of age. Ty’s personal life included passionate and highly publicized relationships with a pair of stunning-looking actresses, Annabella and Linda Christian. It’s also said that Ty’s sexuality was ambiguous, and many gay and bisexual actors in Hollywood lived a tortured existence to keep any such knowledge secret for fear of box office poisoning. I never researched Power so I don’t know about his personal demons, but I always liked his onscreen self in pictures like The Mark of Zorro, The Black Swan, Captain from Castille, and The Long Gray Line. Each of these and many others in his career called for strenuous physical work, and it was on a movie set fighting George Sanders in a duel with swords that Ty, who had served as a Marine pilot in the Pacific in WWII, collapsed and died in November 1958.

Then came the demise of Errol Flynn. Everybody who knew Errol expressed surprise when he dropped dead of a heart attack at age 50—surprise that he had managed to last so long! Imagine that your lifestyle included drinking a bottle of vodka, smoking three packs of unfiltered cigarettes, and injecting yourself with cocaine and other opiates every single day. That, my friends, is a tortured soul seeking release. It’s a wonder Flynn had any time at all for the two arts at which he excelled—the art of motion pictures and the art of seduction. I could write a book about Flynn’s unhappy existence. Oh wait, I did write one. No, I wrote two. So there went another leading man in October 1959.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

Errol Flynn parties with 18-year-old Brigitte Bardot in Cannes in 1953.

Unlucky (or would he say lucky?) number four was Clark Gable, one-time King of Hollywood who had managed to keep his reputation as a heartthrob long past the dissipation of his looks from years of smoking, drinking, and grief over the loss of his love, Carole Lombard. Gable had eased from square-shouldered leading man in pictures like The Tall Men in 1955 to paunchy, self-deprecating comedian in Teacher’s Pet in 1958 and But Not for Me in 1959. He had always been so very careful to protect his brand that I find it endearing the way he poked fun at himself in these later pictures. Then came The Misfits in 1960 and location work in the Nevada desert that was tough not just due to heat but mostly because this pro’s pro was forced to endure the shenanigans of royally messed-up Marilyn Monroe. Sitting around patiently waiting for your co-star to show up and then waiting some more so she could get her lines right can be stressful, and it’s no coincidence that Gable went down at his ranch from a heart attack days after completing production. He lasted a number of days in the hospital and then had another attack that ended him in November 1960.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

Four aging Hollywood stars party. From left: Clark Gable, Van Heflin, Gary Cooper, and James Stewart (subject of my next book and sans toupee). Clark would be gone in less than a year, and Coop soon after.

Last was tall and quiet Gary Cooper, by all accounts one of the nicest, most down-to-earth people in all Hollywood. Coop hadn’t looked young since the early 1930s but somehow he managed to play young in pictures like Pride of the Yankees when he was already past 40. He followed his contemporaries into westerns and hit pay dirt with High Noon, his last iconic role, but continued to work actively in pictures he knew were average and tried to hang on via cosmetic surgery toward the end. He had been so active as a sportsman that he’d suffered multiple hernias and thought that explained the pain he was experiencing, but it turned out to be prostate cancer and it had spread through his body. Cancer claimed him in May 1961 at the age of 60, the only one of the five to make it to the big six-oh.

These Hollywood greats would have stared blankly as you preached the evils of beef, bacon, transfats, and gluten. Theirs was a time when you went about your business, enjoying the high life and consuming what you wanted right up until the day you dropped. Three went fast and two lingered, but I can’t imagine another reality where these guys endured into their seventies or eighties. They were all men of their age, and that age was passing. In their cases, passing fast.