Fox // 1953 // 134 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Steve Power (Retired) // April 8th, 2009
"From this day on, I am enlisted in His service. I offer Him my sword,
my fortune, and my life. And this I pledge on my honor as a Roman."
-- Marcellus Gallio
When it was released in 1953, The Robe had the distinct honor of being the first major studio film to popularize the widescreen format. It wasn't the first widescreen picture ever released, but it was definitely the first truly successful effort. The first film produced in 20th Century Fox's "Cinemascope" format, it was talked about frequently, and hailed as a marvel. Nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Actor, it captured audiences and enjoyed a success that easily justified the toils of producer Frank Ross, the efforts of Fox chief Darryl F. Zanuck and the eye of director Henry Koster. In the interceding years, however, it would become little more than a factoid, a nugget of movie trivia that cinephiles could tuck away in their fact-stuffed minds.
Beyond the presentation, the film was also often credited with kick-starting the revival of the "Biblical epic," and its success directly led to films like Ben-Hur (1959), The Ten Commandments (1956), and even an ill-planned sequel (Demetrius and the Gladiators). It was a huge hit for Fox, and made a star out of 27-year-old leading man, Richard Burton. These days, it's a film more people have heard of and respect for its contributions to film history than for the actual film itself. What lies at the heart of the storied production is a solid film in its own right.
The Robe tells the story of Marcellus Gallio (Richard Burton, The Wild Geese, Cleopatra), a simple Roman Tribune who raises the ire of Roman Politician -- and later Emperor -- Caligula (Jay Robinson, Bram Stoker's Dracula). He finds himself shipped off to the Jersualem Garrison, a den of ruffians and layabouts, the scum of the Roman military. Caligula intends this to be a death sentence for the young Tribune, while back in Rome he attempts to sway the affections of the lovely Diana (Jean Simmons, Spartacus), who has committed herself to Marcellus. Marcellus' time in Jerusalem happens to coincide with the arrival of a certain Carpenter from Galilee and a throng of fanatical followers. Events transpire, and Marcellus finds himself at the foot of the cross, overseeing the crucifixion of the so-called Messiah, much to the disdain of his Greek manservant, Demetrius (Victor Mature, My Darling Clementine). Marcellus inherits Christ's robe in a game of chance, and his mind and body are racked with torment. Amidst nightmares and misfortunes, he returns to the Holy land to seek out his wayward slave and destroy the robe, thus ending his suffering. Ultimately, it becomes a journey that will purify his tarnished soul, and give the jaded soldier something he's never had, faith.
In the early 1950s, Hollywood was desperate to get the public into the theater. Television was taking over and 3-D had fizzled. Enter French Professor Henri Chrétien and his invention, the Anamorphoscope. For 25 years, he had peddled the idea of using a special "anamorphic" lens to project images in a wider format. Enter 20th Century Fox President Spyros Skouras, and Darryl F. Zanuck, who saw potential in his creation.
Meanwhile, producer Frank Ross had been struggling since the mid 1940s at RKO pictures to get an adaptation of Loyd C. Douglas' acclaimed novel, The Robe off the ground. After some wrangling with Howard Hughes, Zanuck snatched up the rights, and production began. Within a week of starting, Zanuck realized that the film would be the perfect showcase for 20th Century Fox's new technology, now renamed "Cinemascope," and filming was restarted, this time with the new anamorphic "scope" in mind.
The first thing I noticed while watching The Robe was the sets and costumes. The costumes are universally excellent, from the opening scenes in the slave market to the finale in Caligula's court, every costume shines with color and detail. Armor looks surprisingly real, and has a colorful aesthetic that's pleasing to the eye. Meanwhile, the set design is absolutely stunning. Gold inlays, intricate carvings, beautiful tile work and tapestries abound, and when we get out of Rome, Jerusalem looks suitably gritty. Matte paintings are used to great effect and give scenes a sense of added grandeur that you could never get on a film today without a massive CGI budget. The film won an Oscar for its lavish production design, and it was well earned. It's a shame the actual weaponry looks like it was borrowed from the local Shakespeare company, but it's a small flaw I can live with. I'm sure whether a Roman Gladius looked authentic wasn't the first thing on a viewer's mind back in 1953.
The Robe doesn't exactly tread new narrative ground. As Biblical epics or swords and sandals movies go, it's pretty light on action, but what it does right, it does very right. The script does have some issues, which I'll get to in a bit, but the overriding strength is in how it handles the Christ angle of the story. Much like Ben-Hur a few years later, you never see Christ's face, and his influence is felt more than actually seen. This affords the film a less oppressive narrative drive. Sure, the film is about faith and Christianity, and it definitely preaches the word as it were, but it doesn't cram ideals down the viewer's throat so much as it seeks to inspire, nor does it hammer home the traditional Passion imagery. The film may not have been as respected as those that followed since, but it has certainly aged better than most, and feels less like a Christ propaganda piece than other, more grandiose productions.
The film really hinges on Richard Burton's performance as Marcellus, and Burton shines. This was only his second Hollywood role, and his first as a real leading man. His previous stage career serves him well, giving him a commanding presence and a mastery of line delivery, and yet it also works as a handicap, giving his more emotional scenes a sense of the theatrical. Supporting player Jay Robinson brings a swagger and slightly over-the-top bravado to Emperor Caligula and Victor Mature's Demetrius is a character of raw emotion, and both actors perform admirably. Other standouts include Michael Rennie as Peter the big fisherman, Jesus' chief apostle, and Jeff Morrow in a small role as the centurion Paulus. In typical "swords and sandals" fashion, Jean Simmons isn't given a whole lot to do but pine for her love, but she plays her role well enough.
The Robe is presented in its original Cinemascope aspect ratio of 2.55.1. The newly restored print, presented in 1080p, looks solid for the most part. Noise reduction is present, but a natural looking grain is prevalent throughout the film. Some edge enhancement is apparent at times, and, in long shots, I noticed some peculiarities with color and some softness, probably more a result of source material and the Technicolor process, but overall the film looks clean, warm, and inviting, capturing the cinematography of the age very well. There are some amazing looking scenes in this film, where the extremely wide frame allows for some majestic composition that has never looked better, and the Technicolor hues pop off of the screen.
The sound is clear and crisp, with little distortion or static, but the DTS 5.1 Master Audio track feels almost entirely front-loaded. The 4.0 Dolby Digital track emulates the original four-channel quadraphonic stereo of the theatrical release, and sounds fine, but doesn't have the dynamic range of the DTS. Also included are Portuguese and French language options in Mono.
Fox has given The Robe a pretty thorough selection of special features to accompany the film. First up is an introduction by director Martin Scorsese, who loaned the studio a print of the film from his private collection to aid in the restoration. Marty focuses more on the film's technical merits than the content of the film itself. Several featurettes cover the early genesis and making of the film, the Cinemascope process and its origins, and a sort of rudimentary crash course in scripture on screen. Neither is exceptionally in depth, but each does an adequate job in educating the viewer on its chosen topic. Also included is an isolated score track, featuring Alfred Newman's fantastic music, and a commentary track with film historians John Burlingame, Julie Kirgo, and Nick Redman, as well as composer David Newman. The commentary is worth a listen if only for the wealth of information it brings to the table, and the participants -- who are all together on the track rather than recorded separately -- speak gingerly about the picture while keeping things pretty casual and entertaining. It really is an excellent track. There's an audio interview with screenwriter Phillip Dunne recorded in 1969, which didn't really hold my attention for long, some standard fare still galleries, and an interactive pressbook, which is nice to have, but ultimately more a novelty than anything else. The marketing efforts are well represented by trailers, as well as a series of horribly staged introductions by several high-profile actors from the Fox stable, all singing the praises of the film, and Cinemascope of course. They're great for a chuckle.
The Blu-ray also boasts some picture-in-picture features, one of which compares the widescreen version of the film to the standard Academy ratio (filmed separately from the cinemascope variety), and the other a look at the historical nature of Christ and the pursuit of Christ's actual robe. The first of the two is a curiosity, demonstrating why no one in their right mind should want to see this film in fullscreen, the second is the more interesting of the two, though I would have preferred to see it as a separate featurette, as I find picture in picture to be generally a distasteful gimmick.
If there's any reason why The Robe isn't as fondly looked upon as its "Bible-epic" peers, it's definitely because of the screenplay. It's certainly not a bad effort, and the dialogue works fairly well, but the narrative just sort of plods along without ever really connecting all of the dots. Marcellus Gallio's journey feels more like a tour than an odyssey. Burton does his best to sell it, and in truth he succeeds, but at the same time, the spectacle of it all just feels a little hollow.
Koster's direction also falters at times. There's no real action to speak of, save for two scenes which feel like they would be more at home in an Errol Flynn piece than this style of movie, and the degree of melodrama that creeps in, particularly in the later scenes kind of smacks of reach exceeding grasp. Even in the early 50s, it seems like the studio, and indeed the director, put an unhealthy amount of focus on the new Cinemascope technique rather than perfecting the narrative flow in the screenplay, or working with the actors on their performances. For the most part, the film works, and the fromage-factor remains relatively light, but had the care been put into the narrative side of the film that went into the visuals, the film could very well have been more fondly remembered today as more than just a historical footnote.
While not without its flaws, The Robe is a fantastic film in the Biblical epic genre. It's an important film with some gorgeous visuals and decent storytelling that's often overlooked. It might be a nice choice to replace yet another re-run of Ben-Hur or The Ten Commandments when in the mood for some good ol' Christian fun. Fox's Blu-ray treatment is top drawer, and well worth a purchase for fans of this particular era of filmmaking. The healthy smattering of extras gives a great window into the era in which the film made its debut, and why the film has a valuable place in film history.
I wash my hands of this. Not guilty!
Review content copyright © 2009 Steve Power; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.55:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 4.0 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Portuguese)
Running Time: 134 Minutes
Release Year: 1953
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Isolated Score
* Audio Interview
* Fox Movietonenews
* Photo Galleries
* Interactive Pressbook