Brian de Bois-Guilbert: The Villain as Hero

His general appearance was grand and commanding; but, looking at him with attention, men read that in his dark features from which they willingly withdrew their eyes. (Sir Walter Scott, Ivanhoe) [1]

The title of Sir Walter Scott's novel Ivanhoe, first published in 1819, refers to its main protagonist Wilfred of Ivanhoe, the very embodiment of bravery and chivalry. However, the novel's fragmented structure in which the narrator breaches from time to time from the story offers other possibilities than heroic identification with a single character and allows other major characters to emerge: Rowena, Ivanhoe's love interest, and, most importantly, Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert and Rebecca. Opposing blond versus dark, the novel depicts Bois-Guilbert and Rebecca as fascinating and certainly far more complex characters than Ivanhoe and Rowena.

Ivanhoe: from novel into film

Given the website's main interest, this text aims to offer an appreciation of Bois-Guilbert's character as performed by Ciarán Hinds. Before going into detail, I will briefly recall the novel and its reception. Scott's work had a widespread influence on nineteenth-century literature and Ivanhoe is an eminent text which inspired other writers as well as composers, among them Gioacchino Rossini and Sir Arthur Sullivan, who both composed operas based on Ivanhoe's story[2]. In 1850, Thackeray published a satirical sequel to the novel, called Rebecca and Rowena[3]. The devouring love of the Templar Bois-Guilbert for the Jewish Rebecca became a focus of attention in Heinrich Marschner's opera Der Templer und die Jüdin (The Templar and the Jewess, 1829) and in Otto Nicolai's recently rediscovered Il Templario (The Templar, 1840). Rebecca, abducted by the Templar, is the subject of Leo Cognet's painting Rebecca and Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert[4]. Still today that couple and the novel's central villain figure continue to exert great fascination. Christopher Vogler's and Elmer Damasco's manga Ravenskull[5] reimagines Bois-Guilbert and Rebecca as lovers who escape after Rebecca's trial and try to find a powerful talisman. Last but not least, Bois-Guilbert's famous sentence "Look your last upon the sun" appears on t-shirts of the Swedish heavy metal band Opeth.

It is not surprising that such a popular novel mixing up adventure, spectacle and romantic love has been, since the silent era[6], adapted eleven times for the cinema or for television. The most famous is probably Richard Thorpe's adaptation from 1952 starring Robert Taylor as Ivanhoe, Elisabeth Taylor as Rebecca, Joan Fontaine as Rowena and George Sanders as Bois- Guilbert. A Soviet film from 1983[7], other British and American film and television[8] productions and the British mini series from 1997[9] with Ciarán Hinds as Bois-Guilbert confirm its ongoing appeal.

However, the novel cannot be read as simplistic entertainment. Dealing with ethnicity and inter-ethnic love, it points at the role of the Jew as the eternal Other for the English in a critical manner and gives - despite the recourse to stereotypes applied to Jews such as cowardice and avarice - Isaac and Rebecca important speeches. Set against the background of a beginning Jewish emancipation, Scott's novel is an early criticism of anti-Semitism in England before George Eliot's Daniel Deronda[10].

...Bois-Guilbert's energy and self-determination turn him into an attractive and inspirational figure.

The most interesting of its cinematic adaptations are those that showcase Bois-Guilbert and Rebecca and their discussions on loyalty, faith and the transcendence of boundaries. This is the case for the 1997 mini series or, to a lesser extent, for the 1982 television film with the Australian actor Sam Neill as Bois-Guilbert. As Satan in Milton's Paradise Lost, the villain is very often much more appealing than the "good guy". If Ivanhoe is the cliché of the flawless hero, Bois-Guilbert is his dark alter ego. The Templar is as valiant as Ivanhoe, but he is a butcher as well. He is introduced into the plot as the conventional villain, but as the novel progresses his passion for Rebecca reveals him as an ambiguous figure and a troubled character, caught in self-exploration and rebellion. Transcending ethnic boundaries and religious prejudices, rejecting law and customs he turns into outlaw and becomes the story's tragic figure. If Front-de-Boeuf and the other villains are mere clichés, Bois-Guilbert's energy and self-determination turn him into an attractive and inspirational figure. It is his failure which contributes to a rich and nuanced portrait that goes beyond mere stereotype. In the production from 1997, he is the only character who evolves, reacts in unexpected manner and reveals characteristics hidden behind a mask of arrogance, cynicism and cruelty.

Actor and character

A closer look at Hinds' presence and performance in the context of narrative, technique and style raises questions related to the texture of the human body in movies and to the significance of the actor in the cinematic discourse. "Presence in film arises from a combination of two aesthetic factors: the indexical nature of photography (...) which provides images on the basis of the photographed object 'once having really been there'; and the art of performance"[11]. The actor's presence is not an incidental factor but part of this internal dynamic in which performance intensifies the other means of cinematic expression and, in the best case, offers a clearer reading of the role. Imbuing the character he plays with life, the actor contributes to the illusion from which emanates the fascination of movies (and of some of the products made for television).

One of my aims here is to discuss some of the moments in which the actor orientates the viewer's gaze towards the complexity of the character and the contradictions it relies upon. Of course, neither the 1997 mini series nor Hinds reinvent the novel or Bois-Guilbert's character. Given the fact that this production is much longer (270 minutes) than most of the previous adaptations produced for the silver screen and television, it offers the characters much more opportunities for development. Like the novel, to which it remains very close, it puts less emphasis on Ivanhoe, but reveals the fragmented structure of the text, shifting the focus to Bois-Guilbert.

The Irish actor's outward appearance fits perfectly with the portrayal of Bois-Guilbert's as given by Scott.

"High features, naturally strong and powerfully expressive, had been burnt almost into Negro blackness by constant exposure to the tropical sun, and might, in their ordinary state, be said to slumber after the storm of passion that had passed away; but the projection of the veins of the forehead, the readiness with which the upper lip and its thick black moustache quivered upon the slightest emotion, plainly intimated that the tempest might be again and easily awakened. His keen, piercing, dark eyes told in every glance a history of difficulties subdued and dangers dared, and seemed to challenge opposition to his wishes, for the pleasure of sweeping it from his road by a determined exertion of courage and of will; [...]"[12]

Hinds' long face and jagged features might have been a reason to cast him. The long black hair and beard are part of the mask which contributes to the wildness and violence of the character. As in the novel, external aspects become expressions of its state of mind. They emphasise the extent to which the human body in film is an object of mediation. One cannot avoid remarking that the Templar is even visually an outstanding figure compared to an athletic, but pale Ivanhoe, too much an ordinary man.

Hairstyle and make-up as well as the costume of his military order distinguish Bois-Guilbert from the other knights or the Saxon fighters and individualise him. It is Hinds' performance which supports and intensifies the portrayal of the multifaceted character as developed in the script. Bois-Guilbert is the villain, but nevertheless he is a courageous and experienced fighter who was Richard the Lionheart's champion and is now the champion of Prince John. And it is almost mostly him alone who defeats the Saxon opponents during the tournament except - and according to generic rules - Ivanhoe. Later on, when Front-de-Boeuf's castle is besieged by Robin Hood and his outlaws, he is the only one having a full picture of the situation which turns into a catastrophe for the Normans. The actor's facial and bodily expressions are that of a man of courage and will. His authoritarian voice and the way he moves, with ease and grace, make the viewer feel the strength and coolness of a man who is used to be in command. In the interplay with the other actors working for the credibility of that role and the objects and costumes, helpful to create the character, Bois-Guilbert appears as the commanding figure he is supposed to be. Hinds puts it: "As soon as you put on the sword you feel a sense of power which helps because Bois-Guilbert is a very arrogant man. [...]". Bois-Guilbert's haughtiness is displayed from the very beginning when he asserts his self-image of Norman superiority over the Saxons. Raising his voice with a presumptuous tone, Hinds plays him as a man used to "the exercise of unresisted authority"[13]. The Templar's smile is cruel when he watches his Arab slaves chasing one of Cedric the Saxon's pigs. In the excitement of the feast in Rotherwood, his indignant face and rigid body express the character's hostility and injured pride. He does not join in the "Wassail!" of the Saxons but raises his goblet while a malicious smile plays on his lips.

He is the ambiguous hero, hard-hearted and high-spirited, cruel and tender, voluptuous and vulnerable.

From the very beginning it becomes clear that Bois-Guilbert is also an impulsive man who looses his temper quickly. During a dinner with Prince John he learns that "the Saxon has returned both my horse and my gold I offered him in honourable forfeit." Springing to his feet, he upsets a goblet. Prince John, hardly amused by his champion's bad manners, tries to bring him to senses, reminding him that he is not "in the dirt of Palestine". Bois-Guilbert's eyes are flashing fire when he rushes out of the tent; the actor's gaze and body express the aggressiveness that inhabits the character. This Bois-Guilbert is the proud, audacious man who defends authorities. He is the ambiguous hero, hard-hearted and high-spirited, cruel and tender, voluptuous and vulnerable.

The figure as created by Scott and represented in the film of 1997 reminds of the image the Templar monk-knights had in their time, that of proud and haughty men. It is also known that many of them strayed from vows such as poverty and chastity[14]. The lecherous Bois-Guilbert is such an amoral Templar, as Front-de-Boeuf puts it: "He who has ravished his way from Jerusalem to Paris." Bois-Guilbert himself, telling Rebecca: "Do you know how many godless harlot like you I had?", confirms his licentiousness. It is said of him that he joined the Templars not for religious or spiritual ideals but because of selfish motivations: he was betrayed by the woman he loved. Driven by ambition, he aspires to become Grand Master of the order[15]. However, rejecting most of its doctrines, he turns into a heretic. In the face of the Grand-Master's fanaticism and of his wish to condemn Rebecca to the stake, he protests violently: "There is no sorcery". For him, the supposed proofs are superstitious "nonsense", and the trial an abomination. Hardly able to suppress his anger, he foams with indignation, his tone is sharp, a glance of disdain flashes from his fierce eye: Hinds' performance makes the tensions that inhabit the character palpable. If Prince John or the Templar Conrad de Montfichet do not believe in the argument of sorcery either, it is Bois-Guilbert who expresses his ideas and feelings openly and vent his emotions or his spleen.

A dark hero

His revolt is very much comparable to that of heroes fashionable in the early nineteenth century. The contradictory and tormented Bois-Guilbert is a close parent to the dark romantic hero. In the 1997 mini series, Bois-Guilbert becomes a free-spirit as was suggested in the novel, a modern figure who, not unlike the Byronic hero, preaches absolute individualism. Black hair, pale skin and keen, piercing eyes are the attributes of Ambrosio (The Monk, 1796, Matthew Lewis), Melmoth (Melmoth, the Wanderer, 1820, Charles Robert Maturin) and other protagonists of Gothic literature who are described as handsome men. Dark romanticism and Gothic literature are peopled with suffering and doomed errants, part victim, part villain, alienated from society and from themselves. The mini series fully reveals Bois-Guilbert as the outsider whose worst enemy is himself.

However it is Rebecca who reveals the hidden face of the Templar, reawakening his capacity for love and bringing back what he had repressed. As Bois-Guilbert explains to her, he became the hard-hearted man he is as a result of unrequited love. In the beginning, his longing for Rebecca is possessive and his motivations are selfish, and he is guided by lust rather than by deeper feelings. He threatens her verbally, treats her with brutality, kidnaps her. The television production with Hinds underlines the Templar's aggressive sexuality through his behaviour as well as through the character's wild looks and the actor's performance, his aggressiveness expressed through his body, face and voice. To Rebecca's outcry: "You may abuse and destroy my body as you will, but you will never touch my soul", he replies scornfully: "And who will touch your soul, lady?", while his hands on her body make clear that it is not her soul that is at stake. Despite the romantic tune that serves as soundtrack for the compilation of scenes showing Bois-Guilbert and Rebecca in a short video posted on YouTube, the focus on passion and violence evokes the male character's underlying rapist fantasies (and perhaps as well those of the maker of the Youtube compilation?[16]). Scott's novel, a product of its time, only implies carnal passion whereas in the mini series sexuality becomes far more blatant.

Hinds' performance helps to deepen the portrait of Bois-Guilbert as a character who, agitated by strong contending passions, becomes the prisoner of his very feelings. His impatient gestures and tone of voice bring to light how much he is controlled by impulses. The actor reveals the emotional sufferings and the many facets of a man who is consumed by lust but who will learn again to love. With almost convulsed features the jealous Bois-Guilbert pounces on his wounded rival Ivanhoe; fear (for the woman he loves) and resignation are reflected in his face when he meets Rebecca the night before the trial by ordeal. Unable to break her resistance, Bois-Guilbert fulfils the highest ideal of heroism and sacrifices himself for Rebecca. Badly wounded during the duel, he asks his victorious opponent Ivanhoe to kill him off: "Do it!". In the novel, the Templar dies of a stroke, as if his strong passion had killed him. In marked contrast, the film presents Bois-Guilbert as a man who chooses death over a life without the woman he loves.

Hinds' Bois-Guilbert makes us believe in the debauched and haunted Templar who, prisoner of an all-consuming passion, is a tormented soul and a conflicted character, torn between anguish and despair. His eyes flashes fire when he says, still self-righteous and in a passionate tone: "I will arouse your passion." Unnerved by her steadfastness, he explodes, jumping up from his chair, pacing in the room with impatience and shouting. "Dear God! If our soldiers had had but one tenth of your pig-headedness we could have argued our way to Jerusalem." The smile brought to Rebecca's face by this exclamation lets Bois-Guilbert stop for a moment. His face in close-up shows anger and frustration that give way to astonishment and hope, while a romantic tune underlines his changing attitude. However, the impulsive man continues to urge Rebecca when he sees her try to suppress her smile, asking her: "Why do you hide it now?" His eyes sparkle, he pounces on her, his muscles tight, face and body tense with excitement.

Knowing that he cannot win Rebecca by force, Bois-Guilbert changes tactics. "Does the scent of yarrow reaches across the river?", he scornfully asks. He is not completely wrong when he says that he understands her desire for freedom better than her. He knows that it is not only the freedom of the spirit she is looking for (as she pretends to), but also the possibility to escape the chamber in which she is held a prisoner. The wide open spaces he shows her from the tower of the Templar's castle become an image of desire. Acknowledging her longing for wisdom, it is a world of discovery and erudition that he is willing to offer her. Rebecca, however, as she is reminded of his power and wealth, asks him if he would spend his money for diamonds. Bois-Guilbert replies slyly that he intends to offer her books. He imagines that they could live peacefully in France: "No one would dare to slight the wife of Bois-Guilbert to be a Jew. You could talk to the greatest doctors in Europe without fear." While making plans for their shared future, his tone is still complacent, that of a man who tries to make the young woman feel that he understands her most intimate wishes and is willing to please her. It is with blank astonishment that he reacts to her refusal. Hinds' facial and bodily expressions are exemplary in their revealing of the character's confusion. Torn between passion and irresolution, he looks baffled, the eyes wide open, his body retracts. Her faithfulness and determination will command his admiration and prompt him to change his mind once again.

Driven by shame, Bois-Guilbert begs Rebecca to escape with him the night before the trial by combat. This time, he does not react angrily when she declines his offer, but just says with a slightly tired voice: "Then you go on your own. Just go." When he utters her name, it sounds like a last desperate plea. He is willing to give up all his ambitions and let Ivanhoe win should she ask him. Hinds' voice is that of a character at odds with himself, and Susan Lynch's Rebecca appears as the woman that knows about his inner conflict when they sit, side by side, in silence.

Reinvigorating a major literary figure

In so doing Hinds embodies perfectly a style of acting at once highly theatrical but impressively human.

Bois-Guilbert is thus fully revealed as a broken character who fights his inner demons. In bringing to light the Templar's flaws, Hinds reinvigorates the figure, which becomes an eloquent example of masculine emotional display, characterised by a problematic masculinity far from all heroic clichés. In the television production, Bois-Guilbert who evolves because of his feelings for a woman, is humanised and becomes a more internal and nuanced model of male identity. This representation of maleness only suggested in the novel but brought to the surface by the film endows the character appealing to a modern audience.

Ivanhoe is just another example proving to what extent Hinds' face and body is able to conform to characters of various historical periods. He is an actor who knows how to wear costumes, be it a redingote or a gown, jeans or lace. His ability to adopt the demeanour of different times and to reimagine them, is just another proof of his ability to disappear behind a role[17]. In so doing Hinds embodies perfectly a style of acting at once highly theatrical but impressively human. His talent is ideally suited to Bois-Guilbert's contradictory facets, his performance exploring his flaws, while engaging the spectator's imagination.


[1]London, Penguin (Penguin Classics), 1994, p. 499.[Retour]
[2]First performed in 1826 (Rossini) and in 1891 (Sullivan). There are lesser known operas from the nineteenth century by Bartolomeo Pisani and A. Castagnier, both inspired by the figure of Rebecca, as well as a recent composition by Thomas Sari (Ivanhoe). [Retour]
[3]Published in 1850. [Retour]
[4]Oil on canvas, 42x53,5 cm, 1828, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. [Retour]
[5]Written by Christopher Vogler, illustrated by Elmer Damasco, published by Seven Seas Entertainment (Canada), 2006. [Retour]
[6]Ivanhoe, UK, 1913, directed by Herbert Brenon. [Retour]
[7]The Ballad of the Valiant Knight, directed by Sergey Tarasov, with songs by Vladimir Vysotsky. [Retour]
[8]Among them Ivanhoe, directed for television by Douglas Camfield (UK, 1982) with Sam Neill as Bois-Guilbert and Young Ivanhoe (USA, 1994), directed by Ralph Thomas. In the late 50s, a television series based on the character of Ivanhoe has been produced in Great Britain with Roger Moore in the leading role. [Retour]
[9]USA/UK, produced for the Manhattan-based A&E Television Networks and the BBC, directed by Stuart Orme, with Steven Waddington (Ivanhoe), Victoria Smurfit (Rowena), Susan Lynch (Rebecca). [Retour]
[10]1876. [Retour]
[11]Christine Gledhill, "Signs of Melodrama", in: Christine Gledhill, ed. Stardom: Industry of Desire, London/New York, Routledge, 1991, p. 219 (p. 207-229). [Retour]
[12]Ivanhoe, op. cit., p. 19. Hinds' complexion isn't perhaps as swarthy as described by Scott, but his hair is curly as it is depicted in the novel. This bearded Bois-Guilbert reminds very much of the figure in Cogniet's painting. [Retour]
[13]Sir Walter Scott, Ivanhoe, op. cit., p. 40. [Retour]
[14]Cf. Alain Demurger, Les Templiers, Paris, Seuil, 2005. [Retour]
[15]"But brother Brian came into our order a moody and disappointed man, stirred, I doubt me, to take our vows and to renounce the world, not in sincerity of soul, but as one whom some touch of light discontent had driven into penitence. Since then he hath become an active member and earnest agitator, a murmurer, and a machinator, and a leader amongst those who impugn our authority; not considering that the rule is given to the Master even by the symbol of the staff and the rod - the staff to support the infirmities of the weak, the rod to correct the faults of delinquents." (Sir Walter Scott, op.cit., p. 395-396). [Retour]
[16]A clip which I have discovered on YouTube in 2008. Very sadly, the self-perception of the woman who posted the compilation revealed through such a projection of desire, remains ambiguous. [Retour]
[17]Cf. Andrea Grunert, "Disparaître derrière les masques : Ciarán Hinds, acteur",, March 2008. [Retour]

Source: Internal
Author: Andrea Grunert
Date: June 07, 2009


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