Monday, April 13, 2020

Movie Review: "The Robe" (1953)

The Robe

Director: Henry Koster

Screenplay: Gina Kaus, Albert Maltz, Philip Dunne

Based on: The Robe by Lloyd C. Douglas

Cinematographer: Leon Shamroy

Music by: Alfred Newman

Starring: Donald C. Klune as Jesus, also Richard Burton, Jean Simmons, Victor Mature, Michael Rennie

Production company: 20th Century Fox

Country: United States

Initial release: September 16, 1953

Run Time: 135 minutes

Following the success of Quo Vadis? in 1951, which was made to take advantage of the post-World War 2 "return to religion" in America, 20th Century Fox produced The Robe in 1953, directed by Henry Koster, and based on the novel by Lloyd C. Douglas. This was the first film produced in the new wide-screen Cinemascope. Richard Burton has the central role as Marcellus, the Roman Tribune responsible for carrying out the crucifixion of Jesus.

Marcellus is notoriously known as a ladies’ man, but is captivated by the reappearance of his childhood sweetheart, Diana (Jean Simmons), ward of the Emperor Tiberius. Diana is unofficially pledged in marriage to Tiberius's regent and the future emperor, Caligula.

In a slave market Marcellus bids against Caligula for a defiant Greek slave, Demetrius (Victor Mature), and wins. Angrily, Caligula issues orders for Marcellus to receive a military transfer to Jerusalem in Judea.

Marcellus rides into Jerusalem with the centurion Paulus (Jeff Morrow) on the same day as Jesus's triumphal entry on Palm Sunday. Demetrius locks eyes with Jesus and feels compelled to follow him.

Jesus is soon after arrested and condemned by Pontius Pilate (Richard Boone), the procurator. Marcellus is ordered to take charge of the detail of Roman soldiers assigned to crucify Jesus. Marcellus wins the robe worn by Jesus in a dice game and is told it will be a reminder of Marcellus's first crucifixion.

Returning from the crucifixion with Demetrius, Marcellus uses the robe in an attempt to shield himself from a rain squall, but feels a sudden crushing guilt for crucifying Jesus and tears the robe off. In a fit of rage for what was done to Jesus, Demetrius curses Marcellus and the Roman Empire and runs away, taking the robe with him. Marcellus now behaves like a madman haunted by nightmares of the crucifixion. He reports to Emperor Tiberius at Capri, who gives him an imperial commission to find and destroy the robe, while gathering a list of names of Jesus' followers.

Marcellus travels to Palestine, seeking to ingratiate himself with Justus (Dean Jagger), a weaver in Cana, and the Christian community that he leads. He sees examples of Christian life in Justus's miraculously healed grandson and in the paralytic Miriam.

Marcellus finds Demetrius alone in an inn and demands that he destroy the robe, believing it has cursed him into madness. Demetrius tells him the robe has no real power, that it only reminds Marcellus of what he did, and it is his guilt over the killing of an innocent man that has caused him to become so troubled.

Demetrius gives the robe to Marcellus, who refuses to touch it. He is terrified, but as the robe touches him, he is relieved from the burden and becomes a Christian. As the story goes on, it concludes with both Marcellus and Diana, who is holding the robe, dying as Christian martyrs at the hands of the crazed Emperor Caligula.

The first 20 minutes of the film take place in Rome, and it is only then that Jesus makes an appearance, first far away riding on a donkey as he enters Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, and then later at the crucifixion where we only see his back or from the knees down, and his voice is only heard when he says: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."

The film, which cost eight million dollars, was a resounding international success at the box office. The critics, on the other hand, were not as enthusiastic. They noted how the spectacular production values, the wide-screen photography, the monumental sets, the huge cast, the elaborate choreography, the constantly swelling musical score, militated against any hope of real, credible or spiritual development in the characters.

In reviewing this film, I may be a bit biased based on nostalgia. When I was in high school, I had a deep desire to watch every biblical film I could get my hands on, and this was aided by a fairly large selection at my local video store that I would frequent weekly. When I discovered The Robe at around 17 years old, I was very excited by the find and probably rented it a dozen times, and I was equally excited to discover it had a sequel that came out a year later called Demetrius and the Gladiators. I loved both of these films, but the The Robe I was especially inspired by.

First of all, the acting in this film is excellent. The choice of Richard Burton and Jean Simmons for leading roles was especially perfect, adding a Shakespearean element to this biblical epic, but similar praise can be issued for other roles as well. The portrayal of Jesus was reverent and strong, although brief, but Jesus is not the main character of this film. This is a film about a man's journey towards faith and the impact Jesus and his followers had on his life. It does this well, despite what the critics said. It is also a beautiful romance film, with a powerful final scene. The attention to detail is remarkable, even if they get some historical facts wrong. I find everything about this film to be spectacular, though the story is a simple one if you strip away the extravagance.

Out of a score of 1 through 10, I give The Robe a 9.4.

The entire film can be seen here. Below is the trailer: