Directed by Henry Koster
September 16, 1953 (Premiere) / September 17, 1953 (New York City)
In the Roman province of Judea, a Roman military tribune is part of the group that crucifies Jesus, and he is racked with guilt afterwards as he struggles to comes to terms with what he has done.
They do not make Biblical epics like this anymore. In fact, I cannot remember the last Biblical epic they did make. I am talking the reverential kind that are not some bit of revisionism. I am looking at you Exodus: Gods and Kings. Today the Biblical film is the purview of the low budget Christian filmmaker who cannot afford quality production values.
The Robe is a story about faith and the transformative power of God. It is how faith can transform a person and even affect an empire.
Jay Robinson as Caligula steals the show here. He is not in much of the film but what he is in is absolutely amazing. He starts out as smarmy and slimy and by the end was rage spitting insanity screaming at his nemesis that has beaten him even in defeat.
Richard Burton as Marcellus Gallio is the character who must chase after the titular robe that was worn by Jesus during his crucifixion. He is a bit of a cocky individual whose attitude gets him stationed in Judea. Marcellus has an open dislike for Caligula and is not above mocking him whenever possible. After the Crucifixion Marcellus is convinced that his issues of the mind are because the robe was bewitched and not because on some level he understands just how wrong what he did was. During his journey he sees the young Christian community and how it is and he is transformed by his experience.
Diana (Jean Simmons) is a love from Marcellus’s youth who has been holding a torch for him ever since. The strength of that relationship was iffy for me. I felt in the film that the character cared about Marcellus but that she loved him never really came across. This was an unfortunate side effect of the film of the times. They would have these kinds of love interests that never really clicked. My general theory is it had something to do with the film censors of the time.
Victor Mature was instantly good as Demetrius. It was as if he was the character from the get-go. He is immediately drawn to Jesus whom he only sees at first from a distance. Demetrius was a belligerent slave, a bit of a parallel to Marcellus in attitude, but why he was the way he was never really came through. Marcellus was a snotty privileged kid. What was Demetrius’s excuse? This film received a sequel called Demetrius and the Gladiators and perhaps that question is addressed there.
Interestingly they never show Jesus in the few instances where he is in the actual scene. His face is blocked or obscured in some way. Cameron Mitchell provides his voice though. There are many movies where a figure is transformed by Jesus, but you always get to see Jesus. He shows up in full view-even briefly. This film is unusual in that.
The film does not smack you in the face when there are Biblical characters in it. For example when Demetrius is scrambling through the city to warn Jesus and the Disciples, he meets a man who turns out to Judas (Michael Ansara) that eventually walks towards a tree that is implied to be the one from which he hangs himself. Interestingly according to this film it was Marcellus that provides the money used to bribe Judas.
Director Henry Koster does a nice job of communicating the death of Marcellus and Diana. They do not show any death scene or them actually arriving at the gallows. I applaud the creativity and after seeing it and knowing what was to come, I now get the fan theory concerning Grease and the car going up into the sky. Grease does pretty much the same thing visually as was done here.
The Robe is an enjoyable entry into the catalogue of Biblical film epic. It has got a good score and the acting in total is good. I say watch it!