Directed by Henry Koster
Written by Gina Kaus, Albert Maltz, and Philip Dunne (based on the novel by Lloyd C. Douglas)
It wasn't so long ago that we hit a major inflection point in our examination of the Bible movies of yesterday, when we crossed from movies based upon the Tanakh into movies based on the New Testament, but the fact is, there never were all that many "New Testament films," at least not strictly defined. Studios were reluctant to touch the Christ story, and as this self-imposed restraint only loosened by the time the Bible movie fad itself was dying, what that left them with were things like 1953's Salome and 1955's The Prodigal, which could only nibble at the edges of the Gospels—and things like today's subject, less a New Testament adaptation than a New Testament spin-off. Given that the New Testament is, you know, mostly a bunch of cranky letters from Jewish Christians to other Jewish Christians about how they were still doing an unnecessary amount of Judaism and not being sufficiently accommodating to Caesar, this was probably unavoidable; but either way, The Robe, like 1951's Quo Vadis before it, sidesteps scripture, investing instead into a heavily-fictionalized, Acts-adjacent universe of dramatic conversions and pagan conflict, where major Biblical figures, like Peter or Paul, recede into glorified supporting roles. (And obviously, I'm very bummed that The Robe has no adult circumcision scene.) But while I think this is worth noting for its own sake, it also means that the "canonical order" we've been using, and which I've admitted from the beginning was a bad idea, shall become increasingly abstract and tenuous. In other words, welcome to the movie of Paul's letter to the Romans, and, no, this isn't the one Paul's in.
The Robe also gets us closer to a grand unified theory of how these mid-century Bible pictures worked, but I'll save that till I have a few more data points. For now, what we have is a cinematic watershed, for The Robe, some ten years in the making (though only the last two really count), was "the modern miracle you see without glasses"—that is, the very first film to be released in CinemaScope, the first of Hollywood's true widescreen processes that wasn't also faintly ridiculous, and indeed the most enduring innovation that the theatrical film industry embraced as it resigned itself to its generational struggle against home entertainment, which has now gone on for the better part of a century, and which it has, in 2020, finally lost.
Historical importance therefore overshadows the film itself to a burdensome degree—but it's important enough from both a historical and a genre standpoint to consider why The Robe was chosen as Hollywood's champion. The first CinemaScope feature could've been just about anything, and, hell, maybe it almost was: the second 'Scope feature to be commissioned—but the first to be completed—was the same year and same studio's How to Marry a Millionaire, just a romantic comedy, modestly entertaining, modestly handsome, and the single most ambitious use of 'Scope photography to be found in it is probably just the way its widescreen captures the full effect of a barren luxury apartment that's empty because the Lauren Bacall character, who can't really afford to live there, has sold all of its furniture. And yet I suspect it was considered insurance, in case The Robe somehow collapsed. (Spoiler: it didn't. Millionaire was held back, and The Robe was the second-highest-grossing film of 1953.) Certainly, the novelty of the tech is the only way to explain why such an aggressively-fine and extravagantly-typical romcom as Millionaire nevertheless opens with a full six minute audiovisual overture, featuring Alfred Newman and a whole 70-piece orchestra sprawled across a (remarkably poorly-framed!) Grecian-styled stage. In case you were wondering, the movie itself has nothing whatsoever to do with orchestras. It is set in Manhattan, but that's not much of an excuse for a second prologue sequence filled with travelogue footage, either. Yet I admit these eight minutes of virtually nothing probably did look pretty impressive on a sixty foot wide theater screen, back when folks weren't used to such things.
Still, when Daryl F. Zanuck at 20th Century Fox decided that 3-D and Cinerama would never be more than gimmicks, and it was therefore up to him to save feature films, his first choice for the unveiling of his new visual technology (along with stereophonic sound, in its own way just as big an advance) was obviously going to be a movie that allowed him to really show it off, while also yoking it to an established blockbuster genre. Zanuck had purchased The Robe from RKO a little earlier, and, initially, he'd intended it as just a less-talky follow-up to David and Bathsheba. By the time it entered production, however, it had been anointed itself, as Fox's first 'Scope spectacular, something Zanuck imposed upon director Henry Koster and cinematographer Leon Shamroy, who approached their jobs with understandable trepidation. That they do as well as they do is a credit to their abilities, though it becomes very apparent that the technical aspects consumed virtually all of Koster's attention, and he left his actors to their own devices. But one can excuse that, perhaps, especially considering that he was required to make his movie twice, in 'Scope and Academy simultaneously—just in case theaters weren't as eager to completely renovate themselves as Zanuck hoped they'd be.
The possibilities and pitfalls of the new format are summed up, almost as if on purpose, by the first images of each version of the film: the horizontally-oriented frame would have a problem with headspace, and so we have the very first proper shot of the narrative, with our hero, Marcellus Gallio (Richard Burton), hanging out before a statue of Bacchus in Rome, and the film's equation of the god of wine and the embarrassing drunk whose family name has earned him a cushy tribuneship is rather clearer when we can see both Burton and the statue in the shot at the same time. Indeed, the most significant detail—that a sculptor is still chipping away at Bacchus, in the same way that a higher power is still working on Marcellus—is nearly lost in the 'Scope version. Yet almost as quickly, The Robe makes a much stronger case for its format, moving us past some granite pillars to reveal the intoxicating scale of the marketplace just as Marcellus enters it, literally opening up a wider world as the in-camera compositional elements take us out of its suggestion of Academy ratio and into something far more all-encompassing than Academy could have ever managed.
And it goes on like that, with a number of 'Scope compositions where Koster plainly isn't sure how to deal with all that negative space, but with a larger number of shots that work better because they're widescreen, including several dynamic close-ups that wouldn't have properly come off if they'd been boxed into an Academy square. So: let us proceed with our hung-over tribune out to market, who, by chance, reunites with his childhood sweetheart, Diana (Jean Simmons); rather less pleasantly, he also runs into the adopted son of Emperor Tiberius (Ernest Thesiger), a certain Gaius Caesar Germanicus (Jay Robinson), better known as (and exclusively referred to here) as Caligula. Marcellus is bitter to discover that the Claudian dynasty has maneuvered Diana into something of an informal betrothal with the idiot heir; he's needled further at Caligula's arrogance, and that's when he does something stupid, getting into an expensive pissing contest and somehow managing to outbid the son of Tiberius for a random slave named Demetrius (Victor Mature). Now possessed of a strapping but rather recalcitrant Greek, Marcellus indifferently tasks him with the duties of his personal valet, and when Caligula's retribution inevitably arrives—an imperial order sending Marcellus off to Judea, practically an exile, and potentially a death sentence—Marcellus drags Demetrius along with him.
Once there, Marcellus falls deeper into drunkenness and indolence, and though a thousand miles away Diana intercedes with Tiberius on his behalf, allowing him to return home years before he'd otherwise have any right to expect to, Marcellus is assigned one last task before he goes—the crucifixion of some Jewish revolutionary he's never heard of. He approaches the job with the same lack of enthusiasm as everything else, and spends most of the crucifixion throwing dice next to the criminal's cross, winning, amongst other things, the condemned man's clothes. But he happens to look into the dying man's eyes, and this starts to shake something loose inside Marcellus; and, upon the man's death, a hellish rainstorm arrives. To shield himself from the torrent, Marcellus demands the dead man's robe from Demetrius, but the slave unleashes all the bile he's held in for his Roman master and runs away with the robe, and Marcellus isn't likely to do much about that, for upon the touch of the cloth, Marcellus had been overcome with searing pain and, seemingly, stricken mad. Still half-crazed weeks afterward, he's given imperial sanction to find this cursed robe and destroy it, along with the followers of the so-called "Christ" he crucified. But Marcellus soon finds that the cure to his condition lies not in vengeance, but forgiveness.
There are two things wrong with The Robe, and the first is that Burton is Goddamned terrible. That he hated The Robe is known, though you could know it anyway just by watching his performance; it almost dovetails with the needs of the film for its first act, when "hating what you're doing and drinking heavily" makes it seem like perhaps it was an awkward exercise in what was then being described as "the Method." It stops dovetailing in any way whatsoever when Burton is asked to play crazified trauma, which he alternately over- and under-acts to such a humiliating degree it's a wonder he had a career in Hollywood still ahead of him; a scene with the Christians where he locks his body into an immobile lump and stares dead-eyed straight ahead comes off less as "guilt-ridden agony," and more as a heroic physical effort to accurately recite his lines without vomiting. Now, Burton is not the only actor making questionable choices in The Robe, but he's by far the most damaging. (Dude was nominated for Best Actor for this, in case you thought there was some point in history when the Oscars weren't a joke.) Still, for her part, Simmons rarely makes any particular choices at all; meanwhile, the usually-reliable Jeff Morrow, playing Marcellus's lieutenant Paulus, is the prototype for all Bible movie parodies. Tasked with expositional dialogue that he delivers with stiffly-articulated grizzledness, Morrow would be unremarkable amongst the great sweep of fakey Bible movie performances, except that for some reason he spends most of his screentime squinting his right eye, I thought to represent its loss in battle—albeit in literally the cheapest, chintziest, least-convincing way a major studio production could do that—yet there are enough shots of Morrow with his right eye plainly visible anyway that even this threadbare illusion is rapidly shattered.
The other thing wrong with The Robe is that it's about a robe, and it is sometimes extremely hard to take that seriously. The idea is not necessarily ill-conceived: with its suggestion of the veneration of relics, it tilts The Robe towards Catholicism (well, non-Protestantism) more than I think it meant to—as it's the rarest thing in these mid-century Bible movies to find any sectarian distinction greater than "Jews and Christians are slightly different," it's interesting just to see any religious specificity at all—and while I confess I find the practice of relic veneration both morbid and slightly silly, the seamless robe of Christ means something to many, and it wouldn't be absurd to think it would mean even more to the man who crucified him. It also manages a fairly robust presentation of an ancient world where belief in real magic persists, with some characters (like our oddly-whitewashed Emperor Tiberius) preferring rational explanation above all, while others remain quite convinced of the existence of sorcerers. It's kind of all in the presentation of The Robe's robe, then, and may simply be a special case of Burton being such fucking clownshoes. It's hard to imagine who else could have really convincingly essayed Marcellus's mortal terror toward a big shirt, but it's not impossible to imagine that any other actor might not have so obviously dropped it on his own face on purpose, and perhaps most other actors would have found some better way to sell Marcellus's conversion experience than "rubbing a piece of wool all over himself while pretending it's made of lava."
Foundationally, however, The Robe is a very sturdy thing, hard to knock over no matter how hard one man might've been trying, and it might be, to some extent, actor-proof. (Though it fortunately does not test that hypothesis further, and at least the rest of the cast are able to somewhat compensate: Mature—Victor Mature!—is even intermittently great here, especially when Demetrius's righteous rage over Roman barbarism explodes across Mature's face in a faintly grotesque vortex of shadows and bared teeth. Meanwhile, Michael Rennie finds the right notes of empathy and self-doubt for his retiring Peter—and, of course, there's Robinson, who plays Caligula as a lisping gremlin, bringing matinee energy to a film that's in need of precisely this kind of maniacally evil yet spiritually hollow villain.) But sturdy, I said, and it should be: The Robe was based on the book by minister-turned-novelist Lloyd Douglas, whose first novel was Magnificent Obsession, and it's notable how much The Robe retreads that exact same standardized Christian plot with the same kind of untethered melodrama, only this time it does it with the actual Jesus: it is one more story of a dissolute piece of shit offered forgiveness in the blood of Christ, except the wrinkle now is that he's the one who shed that blood—and could there even be a better high-concept for a Bible flick? It even justifies the roaring ahistoricity of a story that requires its Caligula to know what a Jesus is.
We have the Holocaust subtext that invariably attends these films of Jewish and early Christian repression (rather close to the surface in this case, with both director Koster and scenarist Gina Kaus being Holocaust refugees); to that is added echoes of American authoritarianism, mirrored rather effectively in the kangaroo court Caligula holds before his Senate (and this too was direct, with blacklisted screenwriter Albert Maltz only getting his rightful screen credit in 1997). And all that's good, meaty sociopolitical resonance, though maybe the thorniest material inheres to what are, unfortunately, probably the most thoroughly Burton-sandbagged scenes, with Koster and his screenwriters grappling with Jesus's alleged divinity (and of course Jesus isn't really "in" The Robe, which began the 1950s' curious tradition of iconophobia regarding the messiah, obscuring his face in ways that really want you to recognize how respectful they're being). As for his miracles, The Robe clearly wants to situate itself in a very secularized Christianity. The miracle it cares about, and the only miracle that it ever gives any direct proof of, is the possibility of humans actually being nice to each other—and even that stupid, titular robe is at least supposed to be just the physical token of Marcellus's own dawning awareness that he's been a soldier of darkness, and it's time for him to stop. That's what I meant by sturdy: that arc just works, with Burton's help or without it, and Marcellus's growth from avatar of Roman decadence to gentile apostle is pursued with what I strongly presume must be the cleanest, clearest three-act structure of any Bible flick of its era.
That a certain inherent loginess remains, despite some third-act swashbuckling, is just the genre being the genre, but The Robe looks and moves better than many of its fellows, too: reinventing cinematic language on the fly, Koster and Shamroy established the rules that widescreen spectacle would use for years to come, allowing conversations to play out in wide, tableau-like shots, emphasizing the scale of the production and the distance (physical as well as psychological) between the characters, without ever simply letting the film congeal around a series of talky group scenes. In fact, Shamroy's photography is rather better than "not-boring" suggests; at turns, it's both over-the-top bombastic and subtly beautiful, capturing art directors Lyle Wheeler and George Davis's shiny Rome and dusty Judea in all their deeply-staged splendor, while also gesturing towards at least the notion of "ancient times" in a more subliminal register, filling the night scenes and interiors with subdued golden glows that allude to firelight with just enough force to give the sense of entering an old world, maybe even a sacred world, even if it's very far from naturalistic. Alfred Newman's lush score is a nearly-constant companion here, too, and it's appropriately ethereal and soaring.
But ultimately the success of The Robe comes down to simply having the guts to allow its story its only logical conclusion, and whatever else has gone wrong, its finale is just about perfect. Even Burton and Simmons's general constipation work to help sell the upright Christian commandos they've now become. The serenity with which early Christians faced persecution still fascinates today, just as it fascinated their pagan contemporaries, and when The Robe swerves suddenly into its ending, it exults in the borrowed power of Christian martyrdom, and has the perverse courage to treat their deaths in a way that early Christianity's most committed despisers of the body would've found gratifying—that is, as a joyous triumph. From the way the sound design hollows out the echoing voice of Robinson's shrieking Caligula while allowing Burton's voice to retain an even-keeled richness, to the surprisingly-affecting film-ending process shot that moves death into a completely subjective space, this is where The Robe genuinely gets me, despite being much more hit-and-miss than one would prefer their vital pieces of film history to be.
Reviews in this series:
The Bible: In the Beginning (1966) (בְּרֵאשִׁית/Genesis)
The Ten Commandments (1956) (שְׁמֹות/Exodus)
Samson and Delilah (1949) (שופטים/Judges)
The Story of Ruth (1960) (רות/Ruth)
David and Bathsheba (1951) (שְׁמוּאֵל/Samuel)
Solomon and Sheba (1959) (מלכים/Kings)
Esther and the King (1960) (אֶסְתֵּר/Esther)
The Prodigal (1955) (Λουκᾶν/Luke)
Salome (1953) (Ματθαῖον καί Μᾶρκον/Matthew and Mark)
The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) (Ἰωάννην/John)
The Robe (1953) (Ρωμαιους/Romans)
Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954) (Κορινθίους/Corinthians)
Barabbas (1962) (Ἑβραίους/Hebrews)
Quo Vadis (1951) (Αποκάλυψις/Revelation)
...plus! Ben-Hur (1959)