The Robe (1953)


(director: Henry Koster; screenwriters: Philip Dunne/adapted by Gina Kaus from the novel by Lloyd C. Douglas; cinematographer: Leon Shamroy; editor: Barbara McLean; music: Alfred Newman; cast: Richard Burton (Marcellus Gallio), Jean Simmons (Diana), Victor Mature (Demetrius), MichaelRennie (Peter), Richard Boone (Pilate), Jay Robinson (Caligula), Ernest Thesiger (Emperor Tiberius), Dawn Addams (Junia), Dean Jagger (Justus), Betta St John (Miriam), Torin Thatcher (Senator Gallio), Frank Pulaski (Quintus), Jeff Morrow (Paulus), Michael Ansara (Judas); Runtime: 135; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Frank Ross; Twentieth Century-Fox; 1953)

Important historically as the first CinemaScope feature film.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Important historically as the first CinemaScope feature film, Hollywood’s answer to the competition from television. It was based on a 1941 best-seller biblical story by American clergyman and fiction writer Lloyd C. Douglas, and is written by Philip Dunne and Gina Kaus. Henry Koster (“My Cousin Rachel”/”My Man Godfrey”/”Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation”) directs it as a leaden, stodgy and bland classic Hollywood big-budget religious epic. It’s set in ancient Rome during the eighteenth year of the reign of Tiberius, and the filmmaker seemingly beams with inane pride that the orgy weary Roman soldier played by Richard Burton turns pious by converting to Christianity. It’s all about Burton and co-star Jean Simmons getting an overwhelming religious feeling if they can retain that piece of cloth the Christ wore before his crucifixion. It amounts to retail religious hogwash, and the all-star cast responds in kind with stiff performances (except for the little regarded thesp Victor Mature, who surprisingly impresses with his mature performance in such a poorly executed drama). This Bible story, with its mix of fictional and historical characters, can’t even measure up to the doggerel-ridden shallow Bible epic of The Ten Commandments.

When Roman centurion Marcellus Gallio (Richard Burton), whose pop is a senator (Torin Thatcher), outbids the perverted heir to the empire Caligula (Jay Robinson) in a Roman market auction to purchase the educated Greek slave Demetrius (Victor Mature), he finds himself transferred to the troublesome military post at Jerusalem, in Palestine. Before leaving, Marcellus meets his long-suffering orphaned child playmate Diana (Jean Simmons), now grown to be a beautiful and sensitive woman who has become a ward of the Emperor Tiberius (Ernest Thesiger). The emperor insists she marry his fruity nephew and heir, the corrupt Caligula, but she’s buoyed by Marcellus’ promise that when he returns home he’ll marry her.

Marcellus is assigned by Pilate (Richard Boone) as one of the soldiers to crucify Christ. Afterwards Marcellus gets drunk and wins in a dice game the robe Christ last wore. The soldier visits the dying Christ on the cross and some of his blood spills on his hands, and in a whisper Christ says “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” During a rainstorm when Marcellus tries on the robe, it burns and is taken by Demetrius–who calls his master a murderer and runs away with the homespun robe.

Marcellus is ordered by Pilate to go to Capri by boat and once again hooks up with Diana. Concerned about his horrible nightmares since trying on the robe, the soldier meets with Tiberius’ soothsayer Dodinius who theorizes that the robe is bewitched and that he must destroy it to be freed of its spell. Tiberius gives Marcellus approval to return as a Roman merchant to Palestine to search for the robe. There Marcellus is intrigued by the miracles performed by Jesus, as related to him by eyewitnesses and the believers in Jesus’ resurrection. But Marcellus’ protector Tiberius has died and Caligula is now emperor, and he attempts to kill all the followers of Jesus. By now Marcellus is a reformed dandy and pledges to serve Jesus, as he’s converted by Justus (Dean Jagger) and Simon called Peter (Michael Rennie). This conversion suddenly makes Marcellus luminous, and he returns to Rome tripping out over his new godliness to the point that he’s unconcerned with his safety even though he knows that Caligula hates him with the same passion he hates all Christians.

Burton is served a death sentence to be in such a turgid film, one that ranges from being creaky to silly to just plain vulgar. The Robe makes way for the sequel the following year of Demetrius and the Gladiators,that was just as ridiculous but a bit more fun to view the Victor Mature slave character, who saved the robe for this pic, punish the Roman gladiators in the arena.