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The Robe Review

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by Chris McEneany Apr 12, 2009

    The Robe Review

    “Plainly, there was a curse on the robe. His only chance is to find it and destroy it.”

    I've already discussed the advent of the second big Hollywood embrace of the Biblical Epic in the recent review for Quo Vadis, and here, with Henry Koster's stirring adaptation of Lloyd C. Douglas' novel The Robe, another major milestone in movie presentation was unveiled. Quo Vadis had boasted the same fabulous Technicolor as Koster's sumptuous costume extravaganza, of course, but The Robe was to usher in the super-wide imagery of full-on CinemaScope in Hollywood's big drive to lure audiences away from their television sets. Wrapping up goggle-eyed viewers in a sensational 2.55:1 ratio, The Robe may not have been the first to adopt such a widescreen approach - Abel Gance had attempted such an innovation in 1927 for his epic telling of Napoleon, and even Raoul (They Died With Their Boots On) Walsh incorporated a massive early version of 70mm called, appropriately enough, “Grandeur” for the 1930 John Wayne oater, The Big Trail. But it was The Robe that brought the concept home to the masses, attaining a level of detail, scale and dimensionality that ensured the TV set was but a finite pin-prick in comparison. But it also has to be said that the makers of the film made sure to hedge their bets in case the notion failed, and simultaneously filmed an Academy ratio, or “flat” version, which is included on this luxurious BD release from Fox as a PiP track. Critics nowadays remark on the primitive nature of the widescreen techniques that Koster employed, and the obvious use of matte-painted backdrops, but I have to say that The Robe is still, for me, one of the most opulent and retina-soothing motion pictures that I have ever seen, and that the broad image is packed with such wonderful detail that you feel actively encouraged to explore each and every frame, and those much-derided backdrops only add to the semi-surreal, vaguely supernatural feel of the story.

    And that story is one of those vitally overwritten, overacted and over-the-top displays of emotional odyssey so popular from this era, that chronicles the early struggle of Christianity in a world of hellish persecution, palatial etiquette and skulduggery, and scorching landscape-hopping for two principles who take pride in their brooding magnificence. Richard Burton plays Roman Tribune Marcellus Gallio, who comes to own Victor Mature's beefcake Greek slave Demetrius during a bout of auction showboating designed purely to infuriate the preening arrogance of Jay Robinson's heir to the Imperial Throne of Rome, Caligula. In retaliation for this flagrant display of disrespect, Caligula contrives to have Marcellus whisked off to garrison duty in the “sink-hole” of Jerusalem. After an emotional farewell to his childhood sweetheart, Diana (a breath-snatching Jean Simmons), Marcellus and Demetrius take a fateful voyage to what will become the Holy Land, whereupon both encounter Jesus Christ - Demetrius falling under his charismatic spell and Marcellus, in a horrific twist of fate, taking charge of the crucifixion party that will put the Messiah to death on the cross. Beneath a vengeful storm atop the hill of execution, Marcellus wins the robe of Christ in another victorious game of chance, but finds that as soon as it touches his flesh, he becomes stricken with a powerfully psychological curse that rocks him to his very soul. When Demetrius takes the garment and deserts his former master, Marcellus makes the harrowing and haunted journey back home to confess to Diana that his mind has been eroded and finds, in the words of the Emperor Tiberius' soothsayer, that he must locate the robe and destroy it if he is to regain his sanity. Yet Tiberius, fearing for the Empire, also tasks the bewitched Tribune with compiling a list of all those subversives who followed Jesus with a view to stamping out this new religion.

    That Marcellus will come to learn the error of his ways and find his faith, and hope, even at the terrible cost that his commanders will enforce for such sedition, should come as no surprise in a tale that proudly weaves moral certainty, personal revelation and the indomitable force of religious conviction. That it does so so with such a mesmerising “darkness” as well, should.

    The film has a rare power - almost a supernatural “glamour” - that makes the first half absolutely riveting. Demetrius' frantic attempts to warn Jesus before his ultimate sacrifice, the entire crucifixion set-piece, which ranks as one of classic Cinema's most gripping and atmospheric, and the mental disarray that smites Marcellus down completely play against the conventions of the religious movie, transforming Koster's intensely visual saga into something that acts and feels like a horror film. The intensity of this incredibly strong half cannot be exaggerated, except, maybe, by Burton's ripe performance, but this level of heart-stopping conviction is, sadly, not maintained until the end. Frustratingly, the second half loses steam and momentous gaps in the narrative rob what could have been heralded as one of the most renowned, albeit strangest versions of the “greatest story ever told” of a lot of its profoundly good foundation work. The film is long, yet far too many elements that are necessary to our complete investment in it are truncated or skipped-over utterly. After a truly wonderful and sensitive quest to find Demetrius and the robe, meeting the devout and hearing their tales of the Saviour, the reunion of the two is horribly swift and the scintillating outburst that the slave hurled at his master during their parting in Jerusalem is almost literally forgotten about. The return to Rome and the capture of Demetrius by Caligula, who has now assumed the throne after Tiberius' death, is unbelievably inept. If this was a TV series, you would assume that you had, perhaps, missed an entire episode, or two, as something definitely seems to have gone astray. Much too long is spent “magically” repairing the damaged Demetrius, further compacting the impression that, no matter how much both Burton and Mature spout about their divine bond and immortal friendship, we really haven't seen them bonding at all. These and many other flaws - some of which we will come to soon enough - dog a movie that actually does scale the heights and yet, for all of its lofty ambition, still damningly falls back down again, denying it the full glory that it could so rightfully have deserved.

    “And you lost your wits when he looked at you?”

    “No. It was later ... when I put on the robe.”

    The cast-list is a veritable smorgasbord of mainstream talent and genre icons. So let's have a look at who donned this celluloid robe.

    Burton is Burton. No more and certainly no less. Like Jack Nicholson, the Welshman is virtually unable to transform his own arch persona into anything even resembling that of another character. It is a unique style, however, and one that has to be accepted right from the start, or else all is lost. He is not a versatile performer and his overtly melodramatic line delivery, so ripe for parody yet riveting at the same time, often brings his roles perilously close to hammy caricature. As Marcellus, he brings both the best and the worst of his excessive scene-chewing to the mix and comes to embody the film at large - both can be devastatingly poignant at times, riotously inane at others. But, and here's the crunch - it works. Of course his emoting of such pivotal lines as “You're right, I am ill. But the truth is ... it's in my mind. You see, Diana ... I'm ... mad,”makes you roll your eyes in veritable cringing dismay, but his power is unmatched when confronting brutish Centurions, or when failing to hide his own bitterness and resentment at these tall tales of Christ and his doings. I am tempted to defend him by assuming that he merely believes that his character simply is nothing more than a tall tale, himself, but I know this isn't true. Burton had his problems with the shoot, but he is clearly giving his all to Marcellus. Rightly or wrongly, Burton brings everything he can to the role, barking commands and insults with surly disdain and dropping his voice low for soothing intonations that he surely thinks are subtle but, of course, are anything but. Glowering with self-hate and misdirected malevolence during the superior first half, Burton's uncanny skill at undermining some of the film's biggest emotional scenes later on is assuaged only by his addictive intensity.

    “That you should be Caesar - vicious, treacherous, drunk with power ... an evil, insane monster posing as Emperor!”

    Jean Simmons is simply radiant. As always. The narrative hook that has her confessing her love for Marcellus is not, in itself, believable at all, yet the actress still makes us buy into it by virtue of the sincerity in her eyes. She would go on to look at Kirk Douglas' Spartacus with the same smouldering combination of lust and life-sacrificing love and, whether or not you class such a gift as this as acting talent, there is no denying her hypnotic aura of divine beauty. She would go on to star alongside Victor Mature in another gargantuan costume drama in Michael Curtiz's The Egyptian (1957), which would take The Robe's cinematographer Leon Shamroy and composer, Alfred Newman, as well. Simmons combines elegance with an indefinable sort of what can only be described as resilient vulnerability. Apart from her young turn as the native vixen troublemaker Kanchi in Black Narcissus (1947), she has made this unique trait her hallmark. A cliff-top exchange between her and Burton sees her diffusing his sky-climbing performance with delicate ease, and her crucial, life-affirming loyalty to the Tribune during Caligula's despicable trial of his rival is, at least, as moving as Burton's attitude is peaceably defiant. The two work well together, and with their differing styles - she somewhat naïve and innocent and, he, arch and Shakespearean - that can't have been easy.

    “You crucified him! You ... my master! But you've freed me. I'll never serve you again, you Roman pig! Masters of the world, you call yourselves. Thieves! Murderers! Jungle animals! A curse on you! A curse on your Empire!

    The unsung hero of the film is, of course, the brawny Victor Mature. Long derided for his bison-hide superficiality and supposed lack of talent, Mature, in The Robe, is absolutely brilliant. His conviction for the character of Demetrius is right up there on show. Every scene he is in has a power and a raw energy that has been sparked-off by his own combination of sincerity and sensitivity. Sure, his character, along with so many others has been severely short-changed by the screenplay. We actually know next to nothing about this Greek slave, yet despite a ham-fisted and disjointed attempt at portraying his relationship with Marcellus, he possesses a dignity and a strength of character that many critics have utterly, and erroneously, refused to notice. That crucial scene at the foot of the cross when Demetrius looks up in horror, pain and grief at what has been done to Christ is amazingly well-wrought by Mature. With a pause for solemn reflection, a soft undulating creep of twilight across his face, he then shifts to an expression of complete awe and serenity that is the lull before his own violent storm when, moments later, he wrenches the robe from a crippled Marcellus and, lashed with rain and punctuated by thunderclaps, he unleashes his curse upon the sick empire that enslaved him. It is bravura stuff, and incredibly effective. When viewed today, you have to remind yourself of the style of the times to understand just how much he is putting into it. And, as is pertinently mentioned in the commentary track for the movie, Mature's big, almost muscular face makes you think that he is over-egging things, his features broad and unsubtle, when that is not the case. Later on he will be rudely swerved around by a screenplay that only sees fit to lie him down in varying states of semi-consciousness, but he continues to imbue The Robe with the kind of presence and charisma that he would be allowed to exhibit only rarely in his career. Mature would take his character onwards into the film's action-packed but considerably less worthy sequel from Delmer (3.10 To Yuma) Daves, Demetrius And The Gladiators, which was released a year after. Thus, it would seem that he was, at least, rewarded for his stunning work here.

    Jay Robinson creates an impact as Caligula. The very English stage-actor had to be stylistically held down in terms of his wildly over-the-top portrayal of the debauched Caesar. Acutely sizzling with camp ferocity, he comes across as an acid-tripping combination of David Walliams and Carry On's Kenneth Williams, but it is not necessarily a bad thing. Regal hissy-fits sound much more venomous when the vowels are licked with relish and the arrogant sneer has the preening excess of a drama queen. Robinson's pursed-pout and flamboyant pose - all chin and stoop - makes him resemble a praying mantis in a toga. His scenes during the final stages are sky-high, yet his innate frustration at this whole Christian embuggerance only makes him more deviously oily. You can't quite imagine this Caligula indulging in any orgiastic practices - even Peter Ustinov's childish fop, Nero, in Quo Vadis makes for a better letch - but Robinson, nevertheless, fabricates a blend of pompous sauciness that would certainly make him uncomfortable to be be around. He would also be rounded-up for the sequel.

    “When it comes, this is how it will start - some obscure martyr in some forgotten province ... then madness ... infecting the Legions, rocking the Empire ... then the finish of Rome.”

    And then we move on to the supporting cast who have, in fact, an even more notable pedigree. Ernest Thesiger actually brings his usual over-the-top style (as seen in Bride Of Frankenstein and The Old Dark House) right down to an almost grandfatherly resignation as the benign - unless you happen to be a Christian, that is - Emperor Tiberius. Strutting dreamily about his palatial chamber, he delivers a couple of wry witticisms in the face of the empty platitudes of his brown-nosing soothsayers, and then heralds the unstoppable demise of the Roman Empire with one of the film's best, and most metaphorical speeches, considering that the prevalent Hollywood Blacklist at the time had denied screenwriter Albert Maltz a credit. It is strange to see the pinch-faced actor looking virtually no different here than he did way back in 1935. Torin Thatcher, The 7th Voyage Of Sinbad's evil sorcerer, Sokurah, even crops up as Marcellus' long-suffering senator father and, once again, it is great to see such a familiar face from fantasy dropping the theatricals down several notches. Then again, perhaps both Thesiger and Thatcher only seem calmer and more controlled when they are compared to Burton's unbridled melodrama. The wonderfully enigmatic Michael Rennie, fresh from his superior turn as Klaatu in Robert Wise's classic The Day The Earth Stood Still is majestic as Simon Peter, the big fisherman now trawling for shoals of fresh disciples. Looking resplendent with his granite-coloured locks and displaying such a beautific presence that you could actually imagine how convincing he would have been as Jesus, himself, Rennie lends the film a state of grace and wise gravitas despite being sort of led out in front of the cameras in-amidst throngs of adoring believers. TV veteran Michael Ansara (Klingon warrior-captain, Kang, from the classic Star Trek episode, Day Of The Dove) also makes a terrifically bravura - and uncredited - appearance as Judas Iscariot, full of sonorous grief and anguished guilt at his deadly betrayal. Dean Jagger, a pseudo Prof. Quatermass for Hammer's spooky X-The Unknown, gives a pretty bland show as the benevolent Justus of Cana, the town that sees Marcellus have his epiphany, placating his people with a mellow Transatlantic drawl. And Richard Boone sleepwalks through his brief spell as a totally indifferent and depressing Pontius Pilate - a performance that may, of course, be purely deliberate, but is disappointing, just the same.

    Betta St. John slows the film down during the sojourn in Cana, with her lyrical turn as the crippled songstress Miriam, but her sage-like charity and prophetic words are a lot easier to swallow than Jagger's languorous exposition, by virtue of her ethereal beauty. Her Song of the Resurrection hails from Golden Age ballad rhapsodising, but Koster and a gathering of wonder-filled extras make the sequence quite extraordinary, especially with the confused and reluctantly enraptured presence of Marcellus lurking in the shadows. St. John is dubbed by Carole Richard for the actual singing.

    But the best of the lot has got to be This Island Earth's Jeff Morrow as the brutal Centurion Paulus. With his impressive build, sick, war-mongering grin and vicious scar, he looks as though he was the prototype for Charles McGraw's nasty, grizzled gladiator-trainer, Marcellus (yep, another one), in the epic to top them all, Spartacus. His big fight with Marcellus is, undoubtedly, one of the high-points of the movie. Swinging his sword with a madman's zeal and hurling his pugilist's bulk after the wiry Tribune all over a terrifically utilised outdoor set, he genuinely inspires fear and intimidation. The fight choreography, by the way, is superlative and kudos has to go to both actors who performed the entire sequence with no stunt-doubles. Burton even received wounds to his hand and to his head, but always maintained that he thoroughly enjoyed the frenzied physicality of the duel more than anything else that he did on the film which, considering he got to hug and kiss Jean Simmons on several occasion, is certainly saying something.

    “Ohhh, you are a fool. I've split more men from head to foot than you see in this square.”

    Henry Koster had previously helmed the charming James Stewart comedy, Harvey, and had even worked with Burton before, in the previous year's My Cousin Rachel, the actor's Hollwood debut, but he would never be assigned anything of the scope, the majesty or as noble as this again. Indeed, his direction is unremarkable for the much of the time - vast chambers in Rome and much emoting in front of colossal backdrops - but he still comes up with the goods when pressed. We have that hyper-fluid fight scene, of course. But there is also a rampaging wagon chase and his marshalling of hordes of extras has to be admired. Yet it is the grand moments that make this film so memorable, and even if most of these are primarily propelled by the performances, themselves, it is his hand at the wheel that has steered them. The carriage of the cross and the painful aftermath of the crucifixion is devastating - it is so much more powerful having Demetrius actually miss it all until it is too late, lying there, bruised on the street and, sensing the elemental anger arising in the atmosphere in the skies above and asking quietly of a woman tending to his wounds, “Is it night?” We know the story, all right, but Koster still imbues the whole scene with an alarming freshness and a brilliant abstraction that keeps our attention on Demetrius and Marcellus yet never forgets the awful deed that has taken place. The blood dripping onto the Tribune and uneasiness of the soldiers as the storm begins - it is stunningly depicted. Koster does well with the dockside parting of Diana and Marcellus, too, the mist adding a veil of sleepy dread as the galley pulls away. There is a great, though sadly amusing scene set aboard the vessel that eventually brings the half-demented Marcellus back to the province of Capri, the Tribune's nightmares conjuring up spectral images of Christ being nailed to the cross, the hammer chiming in unison with the oar-master's drum. Another clinch romantic down in the catacombs between our star-crossed lovers and the sheer audacity of the final image also leave an indelible impression.

    “Tribune Gallio's first battle trophy ... for victory over the King of the Jews!”

    Equally as important as the lavish CinemaScope format is Alfred Newman's unforgettable score. His main themes - that for the romance of Marcellus and Diana, and the momentous theme for the robe, itself - have been incredibly influential over the years. Clearly an inspiration for composers as diverse as John Williams, Basil Poledouris (whose Conan The Barbarian score owes a lot to this) and Craig Safan (whose awesome score for the Custer TV miniseries, Son Of The Morning Star, makes a magical combination of both Vaughan Williams and Newman's own heart-rending love theme from The Robe). This love theme is searingly beautiful, and it is magnificent the way in which he is able to alter it from the tragically intimate to the triumphantly epic. The grandstanding sequence, once again, just has to be the crucifixion of Christ. Seething dread and sadness eventually rear up into a roaring benediction of justified rage, the choral accompaniment splendidly evoking the enormity and the madness of the atrocity. But time and again, it is that exquisite string passage of the love theme - heard several times in the film for Marcellus and Diana - that I return to. I don't care how tough you think you are, this simple, soul-stirring piece will get inside you and break your heart. Every damn time. Despite the mixed reactions to the film, especially from viewers these days, no-one could deny the grandeur and beauty of Newman's music. Well, I say no-one, but back then, the Academy managed to do just that by not even granting the score an Oscar nomination. That the film would be nominated for five awards - including Best Picture and Best Actor for Richard Burton - and actually won two (for Art Direction and Costume Design) was not enough to thwart what was an obvious outrage and a subsequent scandal at Newman's omission in Best Music category.

    Often held up against Mervyn LeRoy's Quo Vadis (see separate review), critics tend to find that The Robe comes up short. Certainly, this is no Spartacus or Ben-Hur (whichever version you choose to look at), but it is one of those movies that has a unique atmosphere borne not merely from its lustrous imagery, or its rich score, but from somewhere much deeper, somewhere beyond the elegant, and often inelegant, sum of its parts. For some reason I am loathe to just come out and say it, and I shouldn't be since the whole explanation for this spellbinding resonance and almost hypnotic power is quite simple - the film is profoundly spiritual, and whether you “believe” or not, it connects with the viewer in a massively inspirational way.

    Epic, yet intimate. Devotional, yet moving in a much darker manner than you may expect from a Biblical story. Broodingly intense, yet elevated by the sweetest, most tear-jerking love theme ever composed. Flaws and all, I can't help but recommend Fox's new Blu-ray edition of The Robe. The film has a style and an atmosphere that tries to do the unthinkable and reach into the heart of darkness on the way to transcendence. That it is only partially successful is still enough to warrant a truly cinematic experience that resonates magnificently. I wish that I could award it more than 7 out of 10 - and there are many who will, no doubt, disagree most vehemently about me giving The Robe a 7 in the first place - but the screenplay takes a few unfortunate dives which I feel are more unforgivable than some of those over-the-top performances could ever be. However, this is a landmark motion picture that, warts 'n' all, deserves a place on every film aficionado's shelf.