The Beginning of the American Swashbuckler Film

Tristan Ettleman
May 13, 2018 · 7 min read
IVANHOE (1913) — Herbert Brenon

Note: This is the seventy-second in a series of historical/critical essays examining the best in film from each year. Essentially, I am watching films from the beginning of cinematic history that interest me and/or hold some critical or cultural impact. My personal, living list of favorites is being created at Mubi, showcasing five films per year. All this being explained, what follows is an examination of my second favorite 1913 film, IVANHOE, directed by Herbert Brenon.

As one of the earliest feature films, in America or elsewhere, IVANHOE (1913) has a lot of power over its short contemporaries with its relatively massive scope. Today, it can appear at times to be a sluggish and primitive thing, a romantic medieval story that lacks a lot of the visual flash that films even a few years later would have. But it’s impressive in its very connection to those films; in it’s own way, IVANHOE is a predecessor to the Douglas Fairbanks swashbucklers of the 1920s, even today still renowned for their thrills and romantic portrayal of heroes, villains, and romantic interests. IVANHOE has all that in spades, and just moves a little bit slower as filmmakers were still trying to figure out how to manage a sudden wealth of screen time.

FROM THE MANGER TO THE CROSS (1912) — Sidney Olcott

As features were getting underway from about 1912 to 1914, they had some trouble stretching the short and traditionally stage bound tradition of film. I mean, they really did just stretch those forms for a longer run time, rather than reworking cinematic language for lengthier storytelling. Of course, many of the basics established by filmmakers like Alice Guy-Blaché, Georges Méliès, Edwin S. Porter, and James Williamson were still at the foundation of the budding features, just as they often are today. But playing with camera distance and creating a greater sense of depth in a modern sense was a rare thing, and that’s only more glaring in features of the time. Films like CLEOPATRA (1912) and FROM THE MANGER TO THE CROSS (1912) are impressive in their historical context, but they certainly drag. IVANHOE, at about 52 minutes, does as well, but director Herbert Brenon did just a bit more with sets and his camera so as to mark the movie as a more clear landmark in the transition into early feature filmmaking.

Frankly, much of the power of the film lies in its setting. IVANHOE, like FROM THE MANGER TO THE CROSS, is one of the earliest American films to be shot on location, and certainly one of the first features. Filmed in the United Kingdom, IVANHOE’s castle and surrounding woods and meadows make the film one of the more open seen by 1913. The locations alone give it an epic feel, much like how FROM THE MANGER TO THE CROSS was lent a sense of authenticity by the genuine Palestine sights. It serves to enliven a film rife with stage-trained actors whose performances are less than electrifying, let’s say. IVANHOE is played like a straight prestige picture, but it’s really a goofy, fun action film with swooning damsels, silly costumes, and flailing sword fighting choreography.

But that element doesn’t really come into play until the final 20 or 25 minutes. So at that point, I guess about half the film is the goofy fun film, but the first half is a slow set-up that relies solely on those aforementioned stage-like performances. When all hell breaks loose and Robin Hood and Richard the Lion-Hearted join Ivanhoe to save his father Sir Cedric, his love Lady Rowena, and the travelers Isaac of York and Isaac’s daughter Rebecca is when IVANHOE steps fully into camp territory.

The “massive” battle scenes are initially impressive in their scope. Then you realize all of the extras are just flailing around, and some are just standing around in confusion! In multiple shots, there’s a man on the ground making snow angel motions in a stiff rhythm. It’s so bizarre. But then the idea of getting all these people together in cheap-y medieval costumes kind of comes back into focus as an admirable thing. For all the seams in the production, the size of the battles in IVANHOE were certainly not common by 1913. They indicate the sense that film was growing, and the circumstances and people surrounding IVANHOE drive that home.

Carl Laemmle

IVANHOE was an Independent Moving Pictures production. IMP, founded by Carl Laemmle in 1909, was created to answer the control of the Motion Picture Patents Company, spearheaded by Thomas Edison. IMP, alongside Fox Film Corporation predecessor Box Office Attractions Film Company and Paramount predecessor Famous Players Film company, would use unauthorized equipment and make films “undercover” to avoid litigation. Based in New York City and Fort Lee, New Jersey, like all of the film industry, IMP quickly expanded to Hollywood in 1910 with a select few pioneers. But IMP itself quickly folded in 1912 and was incorporated into the newly formed Universal Film Manufacturing Company, at which Carl Laemmle became an early driving force not unlike his fellow “pirates” William Fox of Fox and Adolph Zukor of Paramount did for their respective and future film monoliths. IVANHOE, released in 1913, was distributed by Universal and is one of its earliest notable films.

Universal, firmly based in Hollywood from the jump, touted IVANHOE as a massive feat, especially considering its foreign shoot. Literary adaptations were also big artistic pluses for the time (and I suppose that’s the case still today), and Sir Walter Scott’s 1820 novel was credited for reviving romantic medieval interest and establishing the modern personality of Robin Hood that runs through Douglas Fairbanks, Errol Flynn, and Disney. But perhaps the most novel thing Universal did (and IMP before it) was bill its stars! We of course are used to films being sold with big names, but before the early 1910s, it simply wasn’t done. Names like “the Biograph Girl” or “the Vitagraph Girl” were affixed to Florence Lawrence, Mary Pickford, and Florence Turner because those studios knew their actresses were becoming recognized and gaining fame of their own. But when IMP lured Florence Lawrence away from Biograph, it began crediting her by name, breaking a “long-standing” film tradition that morphed into the backbone of film marketing. And if Florence Lawrence was IMP’s top billed actress, her male counterpart was King Baggot.

King Baggot

King Baggot was the first “King” of the movies/Hollywood, but he was a stage actor initially hesitant to jump into what was considered the gimmicky film world. But jump he did in 1909, landing immediately with IMP. He made over 300 films before his death in 1948, although his peak had ended long before that. Baggot’s “reign” as an actor ended around World War I as filmmaking styles broke into something new post THE BIRTH OF A NATION (1915). He wrote screenplays and directed movies, but alcoholism allegedly reduced him to a bit part and extra appearance here and there throughout the ’30s and ‘40s.

Director Herbert Brenon, who also starred as Isaac of York, had a bit of a longer, more successful tail. He was hired by Laemmle as a writer and directed his first film in 1911. He made DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1913), also starring Baggot, and a long run of films through the ’30s including the first PETER PAN and now-lost THE GREAT GATSBY adaptations (1924 and 1926, respectively) and LAUGH, CLOWN, LAUGH (1928), for which he was nominated for the first Academy Award for Best Director. His ability to evolve and stay relevant is clear with IVANHOE, as he transitioned from shorts to one of the more competent early American features seemingly overnight.

Full film

IVANHOE is a landmark film in cementing the legitimacy of feature films, but it’s also a fun experience if you come to it expecting a primitive swashbuckler that errs on the side of romanticism rather than accuracy or realism. The stage-style performances are a drag on something longer than the contemporary short, but Baggot is a likable and capable enough character to sustain the high drama of the film. IVANHOE’s scope is appreciated and its battle scenes enjoyed for their sheer ambitiousness and silliness, and really stands out among my favorite films of 1913.

Make sure to catch up on and keep up with all of my essays on my favorite films here.

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