Judge Mike Rubino's robe is not cursed. It just smells.
Our review of The Robe (Blu-Ray), published April 8th, 2009, is also available.
"The first motion picture in CinemaScope—the modern miracle you see without glasses!"
It must have been an amazing experience seeing The Robe in theaters back in 1953. The red curtain in front of the screen opens to its normal width, and then keeps going and going. Then, not to be outdone, the film starts and there's a curtain behind the credits! So many curtains—this had to be a big movie, right?
Facts of the Case
The Robe, based on the novel by Lloyd C. Douglas, is the story of a Roman tribune named Marcellus Gallio (Richard Burton), who is responsible for crucifying Jesus and is subsequently driven mad after touching Christ's robe. He then goes on a mission to retrieve and destroy the robe, which was carried off by Marcellus's fleeing servant Demetrius (Victor Mature). The question must then be answered: is the robe actually cursed, or is Marcellus looking for a way to deal with the weight of his guilt?
To some extent, however slight it may be, the massive widescreen HDTV you have in your living room right now exists thanks to The Robe. This seemingly standard sword and sandals epic not only set the tone for an entire sub-genre of religious films in the '50s, it was also the first movie to debut in the Cinemascope aspect ratio of 2.55:1. Fox took the gamble of releasing the film with this "gimmick" of a wider screen and different sound system, and it paid off big time. If it had failed, if people had not been enamored with the widescreen format, epics like Ben Hur and The Ten Commandments would have never come to light and theaters may have stuck with their 1.33:1 screen size. Okay, maybe that's a slight exaggeration…but either way, this movie is fairly important.
The Robe is also very good. The fictional tale of the haunted centurion who nailed Jesus to the cross is downright brilliant, in my opinion, and is handled with just the right amount of melodrama and reverence. The focus stays strictly on Marcellus and Demetrius for much of the film, and you never actually see Jesus' face. The script, written by Albert Maltz and Philip Dunne, is a blend of nondenominational Christianity with a side of anti-HUAC commentary thrown in for good measure. All of this is brought together under the excellent direction of Henry Koster (Harvey).
What's impressive about the look of the film is how Koster was able to adapt to what was essentially a new style of shooting. He and cinematographer Leon Shamroy experiment with a greater depth of field and asymmetrical composition. For the most, part they succeed. The matte painted backgrounds, however, don't look so hot, especially with this cleaned up transfer.
Koster filled the movie with actors just as colorful as the costumes and sets. Marcellus is played by the very capable Richard Burton (Dr. Faustus), who is apparently quite adept at going crazy with guilt. He's shown up only slightly by Victor Mature, the gargoyle-like strongman who played Demetrius the Slave. His excellent portrayal, along with the movie's financial success, allowed Fox to immediately go into production on a sequel called Demetrius and the Gladiators. The other notable stars in the film are Jay Robinson and Jean Simmons. Robinson plays a lispy Caligula, who goes from a sniveling governor to all-powerful Caesar by the third act. Simmons does an admirable, if somewhat one-dimensional, job as Diana, Marcellus's devoted love interest.
The Robe isn't necessarily better than something like The Ten Commandments or Ben Hur, but it certainly holds its own with a unique story and a solid cast.
The Robe is being released for only the second time on DVD, and comes with a newly remastered and restored transfer. The picture looks decent, and the colors are certainly bright, but there is still a fair amount of inconsistency from shot to shot. Some scenes look sharp and clean, while others are grainy or have flickering colors. It's not terribly noticeable, however, and is certainly better than any other version out there. The audio is excellent overall, with a thoughtful score by Alfred Newman (The King and I). It comes in both Dolby 5.1 and 4.0 surround tracks.
The DVD also comes with a slew of top-notch special features. The film opens with a short introduction by Martin Scorsese, who regales us with a story about when he first saw it in theaters and experienced the movie curtains opening wider than ever before. He also talks briefly about the restoration process involved with the film. Accompanying the film is a very detailed and thorough commentary track with film composer David Newman and film historians Jon Burlingame, Julie Kirgo, and Nick Redman. These four offer an incredible amount of information about the film, the stories behind it, and especially the musical score. You can also watch the film with just Newman's score. For folks not looking to watch the entire 133minute movie with a commentary track, the making-of featurette is a good substitute. It has high production values and interviews with many people involved with The Robe. There are also interactive (read: slideshow) galleries and press books from the film's opening. Oddly enough, I couldn't locate the advertised featurette on the story of Cinemascope. Either it didn't make the cut, or it's one really well-hidden Easter egg.
The Robe is a classic, Oscar-winning, epic that not only inspired countless other films but also ushered in a new film format. Sure, widescreen may have showed up regardless, but this film can always say it was first. If you're a fan of Biblical epics, The Robe is a solid, if slightly melodramatic, entry with a great DVD treatment.
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