Sunday 8 April 2012

The Robe

A Robe By Any Other Name...

The Robe USA 1953
Directed by Henry Koster
20th Century Fox Classics Region 2

Warning: Some spoilers in this one.

Wow. Okay then... The Robe.

I thought I’d try to get into the swing of the whole Easter celebration thing this year by watching one of those big and glossy pseudo-Religious epics from the fifties and was originally intending to watch the William Wyler version of Ben Hur for the umpteenth time, when a record label I quite like decided to release an expanded edition of the score to The Robe and I liked the sound samples on this one so much that I ordered both the scores and the films (the films were dead cheap on Amazon, the scores less so) of The Robe and its sequel, Demetrius And The Gladiators and figured I’d watch these two for Easter instead.

Unfortunately, Amazon have been uncharacteristically slow in getting my copy of Demetrius And The Gladiators to me (indeed, at time of writing this review, it’s still not been shipped... although it was ordered at the same time as this film) and so I’m having to settle with just watching this one for now and saving the follow up for when Amazon can rustle me up one of the copies they had advertised on their site as being “in stock”.

Now then... I’d not seen this movie before but I was quite taken with the premise when I read a plot summary of this one (I’ve not read the book on which this one is based). It’s famously known, and indeed it shouts it out in the very first sentence on the back of the DVD cover, to be the “first movie to be filmed in cinemascope”. Actually... I did a little research on that one and, frankly, it’s not strictly true. I’d be less inclined to call the 20th Century Fox marketing team out and out liars if they’d perhaps reworded their claims a little but since they didn’t, I’ll just remind everyone of the facts that it was actually the second film to be shot in the new cinemascope technique... it just happened to be the first released. I think you’ll find the Marilyn Monroe vehicle How To Marry A Millionaire actually went before the cameras in cinemascope first... although that one was actually released a few months later.

Another puzzling thing I found out in my lazyish research on this one revealed that one of the establishing-this-is-Rome shots in the opening sequence actually comes from the film’s sequel, the aforementioned Demetrius And The Gladiators. How can this be, I thought to myself? Well, apparently, when I hunted further in my quest for cinematic knowledge and the means to appease my oafish curiosity, I discovered that the bean counters in Hollywoodland were already so sure of the success of The Robe that the sequel actually started shooting a mere three weeks after the shooting of the first movie had wrapped... and so were able to use footage already shot from the sequel in the first movie. There’s confidence for you. I don’t think any major studios would consider doing that today, before seeing any return on their initial investment. The closest I can think of this in living history is when they deliberately stored the sets from Stephen Sommer’s movie Van Helsing so they could rush out a sequel quick. However, I guess that tactic hammered a lesson home to them because that movie was somewhat a disappointment in terms of box office clout (if memory serves me correctly) and so a sequel was never made to that one... pity, since I actually enjoyed it lots.

Anyway, back to The Robe.

It’s really not a bad film with, as I said, an interesting idea behind it. It stars Richard Burton as the Roman Marcellus Gallio who, after reacquainting himself with his childhood sweetheart Diana, all grown up, angers Emperor Caligula by outbidding him on a slave he wanted (Demetrius, played by Victor Mature). As punishment, he is sent to Jerusalem and his last order while there is to crucify this rabble rouser know as Jesus Christ, which he duly does... and then wins his robe in a dice game he has behind the cross.

As Jesus forgives Marcellus, and all mankind, all hell breaks loose in the skies and, when The Robe burns Marcellus when he tries to wear it, Marcellus starts to go mad with remorse at what he has done. The rest of the film concerns itself with Marcellus' tracking down of The Robe and his former slave Demetrius, initially in order to destroy it but when he is confronted by it, he joins Demetrius and Simon (who Jesus called Peter and who is played here by everyone’s favourite fifties alien Michael Rennie) and becomes a Christian follower. I won’t give too much away about the ending of this one but I will say that intrigue and swordplay abound and it’s probably not letting on too much which won’t become obviously apparent by the trajectory the storyline takes as the movie progresses to reveal that both Richard Burton and Jean Simmons wouldn’t be needed for the sequel (which is just as well because Burton apparently hated making this movie above all his other work and wouldn’t sign a contract with Fox because of it).

The film is actually pretty good, I have to say. I was gripped right from the start and although Richard Burton’s performance in this was described as wooden at the time, it wasn’t wooden enough to prevent him securing an Oscar nomination for his performance here. Actually, my own impression of Burton in this one is that he’s the least wooden and most emotive I’ve seen him be in it... sometimes to the point of overreacting in one particular scene and making Victor Mature seem like a master of understatement in comparison (no easy thing, although I have to admit I have a soft spot for that big lug Mature). He’s pretty acceptable in it, I would have said, although I personally wouldn’t have thought his performance was particularly Oscar-worthy. But then again, I’ve never gotten along with the politics of awards ceremonies and the Oscars are something which really aren’t a blip on my radar, it has to be said.

There’s some great dialogue in this movie and, although I found the last third dragging a little more than the previous two thirds of the film, I’d have to say that I really enjoyed this one. There are some great shot compositions in this one with some great use of perspective and depth. One of the sequences in particular, when Demetrius regains consciousness after an incident and arrives on the scene of the crucifixion, looks absolutely stunning and made me realise how effective this film could have been if it had been shot in a 3D process.

Alfred Newman’s score was pretty cool too, although in one of the later action sequences it did suddenly go into a cue that seemed more than a little out of place with the general tone of the rest of the score, reminding me more of Korngold’s music to The Adventures Of Robin Hood in this particular scene, than what had come before. It’s interesting to note that Alfred Newman’s famous “Cinemascope extension” bars to the 20th Century Fox fanfare music was not actually used in this first cinemascope release... in fact, the actual score to the movie starts while the logo first appears on screen, strangely shown as a cut out of the famous moving searchlights against a red theatrical curtain. I don’t remember seeing anything similar being done with the actual logo before or since... although I’m sure stuff like this has been done with it many times (just musically speaking, for example, take a listen to the version of the Fox Fanfare which plays at the start of Alien 3... that’s pretty interesting).

All in all, this was a pretty entertaining film... more so than I thought it would be and definitely a good pick for my Easter viewing. Am looking forward to watching the sequel when it eventually arrives through my letterbox. If you like biblical epics like Ben Hur and The Egyptian, then you could do a lot worse than sticking this one on your DVD player. Definitely worth a watch.


  1. Great article! Really like it and I think you where right on! I was surprised to read that you never had seen The Robe and secondly learned something again, with not knowing before that there is a sequel to this film. I most definitely will have to check it out!! For whatever reason I have always loved movies like that and from that time period. Maybe because I grew up watching them. To this day I feel captivated and gripped every time I see this movie or The Ten Commandments and Ben Hur to mention just a couple. I even started to introduce my 11 year old to them, simple because they are so pure and ...., well hard for me to find the right word. Guess what I am trying to say, they don't delude the christian story in the way it is going through nowadays. Come to think about it is really, really close to what I learned in Religion in Germany. And looking at what has happened to Religion over the last years, I still prefer it the old way. But not wanting to make this a Religion discussion, but rather stick with the movie. I love the way they have depicted the death of Jesus. The scenery and help of the new developed cinemascope really brought it out wonderfully! So this will always be a favorite in my house among so many others of course!

  2. Hi there Petra,

    Not really a big religious person myself... then again I'm not exactly an atheist either. Quite enjoy these kinds of movies though... along with about a gazillion other genres.

    I think Ben Hur is probably my favourite of this genre... just because Miklos Rozsa's sweeping score on that one is so cool.

    In modern set films, I think my favourite movie covering similar material would be the phenomenal Canadian movie Jesus Of Montreal. Now that's an interesting watch.

    THanks so much for taking the time to read this review and comment on here. It's very much appreciated.