Edwin Baaldorf in The Kidnap (2_33)

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Bark, Ed. "Weight of Packed Plot Sinks 'Ivanhoe.'" Dallas Morning News 20 April 1997: 1C


Weight of Packed Plot Sinks 'Ivanhoe'


by Ed Bark


Don't be fooled by the title. The namesake of A&E cable's six-hour Ivanhoe ends up being a medieval version of Murray Slaughter from The Mary Tyler Moore Show or Warren "Potsie" Weber of Happy Days.

Both were regular cast members, but neither quickened our interest or stuck to our ribs. Largely nondescript, they easily could have been written out without a peep of protest. Ivanhoe, also known as Wilfred, falls into roughly the same category.

He sets the drama in motion, although he's hardly a dramatic, galvanizing character. And when on screen, Ivanhoe often is hidden behind a suit of armor or flat on his back recovering from a serious wound. It's tough to muster a rooting interest in him. At least five other characters are considerably more compelling. Still, they, too, buckle under the weight of an elongated, oft-confusing melange of honor, bravery, treachery, bigotry, bloodletting and seriously matted hair.

This all conspires to put Ivanhoe several plateaus below last season's Pride and Prejudice, which attracted record ratings for A&E with its enthralling blend of characterization and story line.

Both ambitious productions are from the redoubtable BBC, which can't swat every one out of the park. The Brits invariably swing mightily, though. Give them that.

Sir Walter Scott's novel is crammed with characters large, small and peripheral. Here's a brief summation of the bare essentials.

We begin with the unsettling image of a battered Ivanhoe (Steven Waddington of Last of the Mohicans) being flogged for good measure. Wielding the whip is the initially sinister Sir Brian De Bois-Guilbert (Ciaran Hinds), a fellow crusader who has accused Ivanhoe of betraying the imprisoned King Richard (Rory Edwards).

Two years later, in 1194, Sir Brian is serving the usurping Prince John (Ralph Brown) while Ivanhoe is presumed dead. He instead is incognito, arriving disguised as a pilgrim in time for a well-staged jousting tournament between Prince John's home-team Normans and the visiting Saxons.

Two women emerge as well. Ivanhoe's beloved Lady Rowena (Victoria Smurfit) is now promised to Athelstane of Coningsburgh (Chris Walker), a plodding, hairy heir to the Saxon throne. The matchmaker is none other than Ivanhoe's dad, Cedric of Rotherwood (James Cosmo), who has disowned his son.

Rebecca of York (Susan Lynch) also is on hand for the tournament. She is the daughter of Prince John's banker, Isaac of York (David Horo-vitch). The Yorks are Jewish and therefore subject to random discrimination and torture.

Rebecca's religion prohibits more than platonic liaisons with Christians. Nonetheless, she is fated to join a triangle with Sir Brian and Ivanhoe, the grateful benefactor of her healing potions. But it is Sir Brian who shows true passion, repeatedly begging the resistant Rebecca to marry him while Ivanhoe has given her up for dead. Their scenes together in Tuesday's Part 3 mark one of the few times the drama stirs to a genuine boil. In comparison, the rekindled Ivanhoe-Rowena relationship is a tepid, day-old tea bag. Their big kissing scene occurs abruptly without buildup.

Perhaps you're wondering about Robin Hood and his merry men. They're here, too, flitting in and out and, of course, laughing heartily. The only name actor in the cast, ageless horrormeister Christopher Lee, plays the really mean Lucas de Beaumanoir. His specialty is burning heretics at the stake after concocting reasons why God wants it that way.

Whatever their import, most of the characters look authentically grubby and stinky. You seemingly could comb boll weevils out of their tangled masses of dirty hair and beards. This is 12th-century England, after all, where the menfolk probably practiced hygiene about as often as Mickey Rourke's name is mentioned in polite company.

The best-groomed of the lot, and the only major figure without substantial facial hair, is the ever-scheming Prince John. Mr. Brown gives Ivanhoe's best performance in the role. Still, it's sometimes hard to understand what he's saying. All the king's horses and all the king's men can't always make sense out of mumbled British dialogue.

It all makes for a jumble, albeit an ambitious one. Ivanhoe has moments of power and pageantry. Its fight scenes and competitions are convincing without being unduly graphic.

But, alas, the broth is wanting. Or, as Rebecca finally tells Sir Brian, "There are noble things which cross over thy powerful mind. But it is the garden of the sluggard, and the weeds have rushed up and conspired to choke the fair and wholesome blossom."


Few jewels in medieval setting

Hercules and Xena: Warrior Princess are thriving in syndication, but otherwise it has been tough for medieval times to survive as the setting for TV series. Some slings and arrows:

* The Adventures of Robin Hood (1955) - Little Barky loved watching his favorite archer zing one through a bottle of Wild Root Creme Oil at the start of each CBS episode. Richard Greene played the title role and future James Bond villain Donald Pleasance was the evil Prince John.

* Sir Lancelot (1956) - NBC quickly said good night to this British import after good knight Lancelot failed in the ratings opposite two juggernaut comedies, The Burns and Allen Show and The Danny Thomas Show. William Russell starred with help from Bobby Scroggins as Brian the Squire.

* Ivanhoe (1958) - Resuming our James Bond motif, a pre-007 Roger Moore played the noble knight in this barely seen syndicated series. In 1972, a serialized, 10-episode version starred Errol Flynn's son, Eric.

* When Things Were Rotten (1975) - Mel Brooks' failed movie Robin Hood: Men in Tights was preceded by his equally ill-fated ABC spoof. Dick Gautier was Robin, and future Love Boat doctor Bernie Kopell played Alan-a-Dale. Aggravating Dick Van Patten somehow managed to overplay the role of Friar Tuck.

* Wizards and Warriors (1983) - This vastly underappreciated satire starred former Taxi regular Jeff Conaway as Prince Erik Greystone. He battled the evil Prince Dirk Blackpool (Duncan Regehr), who yearned to win the heart of Greystone's ditzy fiancee, Princess Ariel (Julia Duffy). Yours truly still remembers an exasperated Mr. Conaway banging his head off an elevator door late one night during a springtime CBS press event. If Wizards didn't make it, he wailed, his career would pretty much be shot. He got that right.

* Robin of Sherwood (1984) - Back to Bond: A decently made Showtime cable series featured Sean Connery's son, Jason, in the title role.

* Covington Cross (1992) - A Bonanza for the Middle Ages, with the widowed Lord Thomas Gray (Nigel Terry) sharing his castle with four rowdy offspring whose swords always seemed to be at cross-purposes.


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