The Robe Movie Review

The Biblical epic is one of the most tired of Hollywood genres. Instead of taking the Good Book for all its fire and brimstone brazenness, concentrating on all the death, sex, and betrayal involved, Hollywood goes strictly for the houses of the holy. Within the vacuous walls of this sanctimonious, self-righteous abode are enough high-minded false prophecies to make even the most dedicated Messiah balk. A good example of this is 1953's The Robe. Based on a best-selling novel by Lloyd C. Douglas, this oversized spectacle is noted as being the first film ever released in the fledgling Cinemascope format. It's also a highly cheesy bit of faith-based falderal that still manages to manipulate the audience into appreciating its preaching.

When he angers Caligula (Jay Robinson) by buying Demetrius (Victor Mature), a slave he had wanted, military officer Marcellus Gallio (Richard Burton) is exiled to Jerusalem. There, he encounters talk of a new 'messiah' named Jesus. When Pilate condemns this well-meaning man, Marcellus is placed in charge of the crucifixion. After the deed, he wins Christ's robe in a dice game. A strange event involving the garment shakes Marcellus to his core, causing Demetrius to steal it and disappear. Returning to Rome, Marcellus is charged by Emperor Tiberius (Ernest Thesiger) to retrieve the shroud and destroy it. Starting his search in Galilee, our hero begins to learn the teachings of Jesus. After coming in contact with former disciple Peter (Michael Rennie), Marcellus repents and returns to Rome to spread the word and win back his former flame Diana (Jean Simmons). Naturally, he too is condemned.

Sadly, the above description cannot do justice to the excessively complicated plot mechanics that mangle The Robe like a wrinkled overcoat. For all its visual splendor and Oscar-winning art direction/costume design, this is the epitome of a paltry period piece. The acting runs the gamut from horrific (Burton, in full Method madness mode) to hysterical (Robinson as a Caligula so fey he practically prances), and director Henry Koster's camera is so busy it almost does backflips. This is a movie where everything except the drama is used to keep audiences engaged. This is especially true of the strange interludes Marcellus experiences once he comes into possession of Jesus' hand-me-downs. These nightmares and dreamscapes are illustrated in ways that make the hammy theatrics even more pork-laden.

Still, you have to admire a movie that doesn't know when to stop. Everything here is hyperactive and stagey. The only times things simmer down is when the necessary Gospel gimmicks are tossed in. Many have praised The Robe for avoiding the pomp and circumstance of other Christian epics, using the story of Christ and his horrific fate as mere subtext to everything else happening around it. Of course, this only works when what's occurring elsewhere is equally as moving. Instead, Douglas's book seems strident in its desire to turn Marcellus into a martyr. It's all suffer, sadness, and sudden epiphanies. We don't really care for his conversion so much as realize it's necessary for the narrative to meander forward.

Audiences in the early '50s must have eaten this up, especially in the new widescreen set-up (invented to give 3D a run for its fresh fad novelty). In fact, The Robe was so successful that it warranted a sand-and-sandal sequel starring Mature: Demetrius and the Gladiators. In the follow-up, actions and stunts replaced silence and purposeful piousness. If you're interested in big production set pieces of varying visual splendor, housing some relatively hackneyed Golden Age hokum, The Robe will reward you greatly. All others seek sanctuary elsewhere.

Fits like a glove.

Cast & Crew

Director : Henry Koster

Producer : Frank Ross


The Robe Rating

" Grim "

Rating: NR, 1953


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