Monday, November 10, 2014

Better than the Shroud of Turin

Film: The Robe
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised at the number of Biblical epics that appear on the Oscars lists. There was a time when anything set in that era could almost guarantee a nomination or two, it seems. In that respect, The Robe’s presence shouldn’t be too shocking. There are even a few Biblical epics I like unabashedly. I enjoy Ben-Hur, for instance, and The Ten Commandments is surprisingly entertaining, even for a heathen like me. It seems like there’s one every other year in the 1950s.

The Robe, though, is completely overwrought as a film. I put it on a par with a film like Quo Vadis, a few good performances, but a very odd depiction of Christianity. A film like The Robe seems to have been made in no small part as a way to play in to the idea of Christian persecution. While plenty of Christians don’t live a life of paranoia, there is a set of them who like to think of themselves as under the threat of constant oppression.

The histrionic nature of the film comes in no small part from the scenery-chewing performance of Richard Burton (who was nominated for Best Actor) as Marcellus Gallio, a Roman tribune and son of a senator. Early in the film, he meets Diana (Jean Simmons), a childhood friend, and the two pretty much immediately decide they are in love with each other despite her being promised to Caligula (Jay Robinson), ward of the emperor and future emperor himself.

Caligula and Marcellus get into a bidding war over a Greek slave named Demetrius (Victor Mature). Marcellus wins and essentially frees the man, who decides to serve anyway in thanks, since he was about to be made a gladiator. In his anger, Caligula sends Marcellus off to Jerusalem. He arrives on the original Palm Sunday, which means he’s also there for the capture and trial of Christ. Because of his position, he is ordered to oversee the crucifixion himself, and in a game of dice, wins Christ’s robe, the robe of the title. When it starts raining, Marcellus throws the robe over himself, and is immediately wracked with guilt. Demetrius takes the robe and runs off, claiming to be a slave no more.

Marcellus’s madness caused by the robe sends him off to Canaan to find the robe and burn it to remove what he thinks is an enchantment. Instead, once the robe touches him, his madness leaves him and he’s immediately converted and starts going around with Demetrius and Simon Peter (the great Michael Rennie) to spread the new gospel. Eventually, they return to Rome where Caligula is now the emperor. There’s lots of fighting, rescuing, reuniting with Diana, and proselytizing until eventually the film comes to an end with martyrdom all around.

Naturally, I find a great deal of this film ridiculous, not the least of which is the theology. It’s not only simplistic, it very much tracks with the 1950s version of what people felt of as Christianity rather than what the religion’s holy text proclaims. I suppose I shouldn’t be shocked by that; other Biblical epics do the same thing, but none so much as this one, except perhaps for Quo Vadis.

The biggest complaint I have here is, without question, the melodrama that is injected into every scene, particularly those scenes (most of them) featuring Richard Burton, who decided not so much to act as to simply emote. There’s nothing that happens on screen that doesn’t seem to deserve a forearm thrown up against his forehead or a spin away from the person he is talking to so he can hide his face in the wall. Jay Robinson’s Caligula is similarly filled with chewing of the scenery, but his performance I enjoy. The reason is simple—Jay Robinson is manic and entertaining while Burton is simply maudlin.

The Robe is probably better than I’m giving it credit for being, but there’s a part of me that has trouble taking it very seriously. IMDB lists it as a history, but it comes across to me as roughly historically accurate as Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.

It is a massive spectacle, but it’s not one that has aged well. The huge cast of extras is pretty awesome. It’s one of the great things about these Biblical epics is the cast of thousands that we know are actual people, since putting in crowds with CGI hadn’t been invented yet. But in a number of the scenes, the fact that this was shot on soundstages is incredibly obvious; it’s some of the weakest matte painting work I’ve seen in a long time.

Ultimately, this isn’t one I’ll feel the need to see again.

Why to watch The Robe: Biblical epics are often interesting.
Why not to watch: It’s terribly overwrought.


  1. I have vague, confused memories of this movie. In fact, a lot of these epics start to run together in my head. John Wayne was a centurion in one of these films, if I recall correctly... he seemed horribly miscast, playing a Roman with that cowboy drawl of his. Robin Williams's sendup of Wayne in "Dead Poets' Society" was fairly spot-on.

    Anyway, I saw your tweet re: getting tired of biblical epics. I guess you can't wait for the new Bale/Edgerton film to come out.

    1. With these giant DeMille-style movies from the '50s, I'm tired of the kindergarten level of theology. It comes across not only as goofy, but dishonest.

  2. This film did nothing for me. I was glad when it ended. I'd take Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter over The Robe any day of the week. ALVH is completely insane, but if you can buy into the concept it's pretty entertaining.

    1. I have a feeling that I won't remember much beyond Burton's histrionics a month from now.

  3. I'm about half-way through The Robe and I'm finding it to be immensely entertaining. One commenter on IMDB called it "gloriously stupid" while I'm more inclined to call it "wondrously goofy" or "profoundly stupid."

    For instance: Dr. Pretorious is Tiberius and Dr. Shrinker is Caligula.

    Also, General Burkhalter is a Syrian merchant.

    Also, Harry Shearer is in this! (He looks to be about 7.)

    I love this for all the wrong reasons. Just like Quo Vadis.

    It's the opposite of Ben Hur.

  4. And I forgot to mention that when I'm done with this, I'll have seen all the Best Picture nominations for the Oscar from 1953.

    1. I'll go with either of those descriptions of this film. I'll be doing Best Picture 1953 one of these days--I've seen all the films now, so it's one I'm primed to do at some point in the future.

      I don't love this film, but I can imagine enjoying it a lot more if I went into it with the idea that it was a comedy.

    2. It did not maintain it's amusement factor for the whole 135 minutes. I had trouble during much of the second half. But the last 20 or 30 minutes was very amusing.