I knew only two things about The Robe before I saw it this week, for this blog. One: it was the first film released in the brand-spanking-new Cinemascope format, in which the aspect ration is 1 to 2:35 instead of the then-standard 1 to 1:33. Film had been taking a commercial drubbing from the nascently popular medium known as television, and so film producers had to come up with something that would make it worth audiences’ while to get out of the house. And boy, is it widescreen; screens would later normalize to the more modest 1 to 1:85 ratio, but at the time this must’ve seemed like a panorama. Of course, that was entirely the intention.
And the other thing: it’s a historical epic. Or more specifically, a historical-Biblical epic from the 50s. And to me, when I was growing up, that meant only one thing – booooring. Terror visions of having to sit and watch all four hours of The Ten Commandments, or sitting helplessly by as Mom and Dad commandeered the set for a marathon viewing of Ben Hur. Not my cup of tea, never was.
But the great surprise and delight of watching The Robe for the first time is that I quite rather enjoyed it. This is nothing if not an entertaining film, actually riveting at etimes, with a fine, endearing celebration of the mantra of Christianity, affecting even if you’re not particularly religious, like me. This transcends the stereotypical “costume drama” (even though they are eye-cachingly resplendent) to become a well structured, clearly told story, as satisfying as any contemporary saga. And seeing some of these great actors, like Richard Burton and Jean Simmons, early in their respective careers is just icing on the cake.
The Robe introduces us to the fictional character of Marcellus Gallio (Burton), as he interacts with the clearly real figures of the Roman Empire, circa 37 A.D. A tribune, and son of an esteemed senator, he manages to woo the heart of his childhood sweetheart, Diana (Simmons), at about the same time he incites the ire of emperor-apparent Caligula by winning a Greek slave named Demitrius at an auction. His penalty: to work the beat in Palestine, where some dude named Jesus is stirring things up and causing a bit of a commotion.
In Jerusalem, he is assigned the thankless task of crucifying the savior, a job he’s more than a bit apprehensive about, made worse by Demitrius’s anger at him for accepting it. Well, you know how it goes, and after the crosses are nailed, Marcellus wins the sacred robe of Jesus at a poker game. Only problem is, it somehow possesses him, causing him great stress and strife all the way back to Rome (his slave has already run away with the robe, disgusted by his master’s actions). Emperor Tiberius calls upon him for a report, but he is so ill he can barely manage an explanation. The court physician concludes that the robe must have bewitched him, and so Tiberius orders the tribune to return to the Holy Land, burn the robe, and possibly stymie this troublesome new movement, which he considers a threat to the empire.
But when Marcellus interacts with the new Christians he develops an appreciation for their tenets – an ideology based on giving, caring and nonviolence. When he finally confront Demetrius and the robe, the slave tells him that the garment merely represents his crisis of conscience – if he were to confront that truth, and accept that Jesus has already forgiven him, he may continue on without compunction. Marcellus des so, and follows Demetrius and the fisherman Peter, Jesus’ former apostle, in travelling throughout Rome to spread the word.
But Caligula, now emperor, will have none of it. He orders the arrest of the rogue tribune, torturing Demitrius to get information to this end. Diana has gotten back in touch with her old love, but she is so in love that she will stand by him no matter what, and when he is captured, that turns out to be his execution. As they both march off to death, they are elated that their new marriage will continue in the kingdom of heaven.
Hopefully, I haven’t put you to sleep wit that not exactly-brief synopsis, but I got so involved in the story that I’d be loathe to leave any detail out. I suppose I’ll start by praising the ingenious way it tells the story of Jesus obliquely, through a fictional character, in much the same way later great works such as Amadeus, Ragtime and Little Big Man did. We never actually see Jesus, which is a good thing – his visage would have necessarily shifted the focus, and made anything which happens after his death an afterthought. But his message, and core ideology, is front and center in the film’s theme as it is espoused by Marcellus, and the latter’s change is what hammers that theme home so well. His epiphany, in fact, reminded me of that by the Vincent Price character in The Song of Bernadette, another Fox epic that examined Christianity through character change.
Thinking about it more, I think I responded better to this oblique view of Jesus than I would’ve a direct one. George Steven’s The Greatest Story Ever Told, for example, is a stunning epic, but damned if it isn’t a thundering tirade too. The Robe manages to sneak in its true agenda under the slight guise of Roman history, and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t work. I might even recommend this as good Easter viewing over the more traditional fare, including the perennially dubious choice of The Ten Commandments, a perfect choice…. for Passover!
And of course, one can’t help but ponder over the current state of Christianity, as it seems to now represent irrational zealotry and rigidity. But back then, in the years before, during and after its founding, it seemed to be so essentially good, espousing the virtues of peace, charity, and justice. (Wow, what concepts!) Jesus was a cool dude, by all accounts (including this one), and it really does seem to bear up the classic Gandhi quote – “I’d like to be a Christian, but I never met one who resembled Christ.”
As far as the other particulars – phenomenal music score by Alfred Newman, and wondrous performances, as I mentioned, by Burton and the luminescent Jean Simmons (one of my al-time faves). And Jay Robinson is perfectly unctuous as the mad ruler Caligula, having the best, crazily demonic scenes in the film’s final act.
So don’t let the moniker of “historical epic” deter you, like it did me for all these years. The Robe is grandly entertaining and powerfully poignant, even if you have to watch it on the small screen.