The Robe (1953)
The Robe (1953)

Genre: Drama Running Time: 2 hrs. 15 min.

Release Date: September 16th, 1953 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: Henry Koster Actors: Richard Burton, Jean Simmons, Victor Mature, Michael Rennie, Jay Robinson, Dean Jagger, Torin Thatcher, Richard Boone, Betta St. John

 


 

E

mperor Tiberius (Ernest Thesiger) presides over the populous Rome, inhabited more by slaves than by citizens. In this brutal yet complex world, regularly-drunken tribune Marcellus Gallio (Richard Burton) peruses the bustling market, where women and children are sold on every corner. Activity is up today, as Caligula (Jay Robinson, providing the most fitting portrayal of the historical profligate) is scheduled to arrive to purchase gladiators – one of whom will be Demetrius (Victor Mature), a particularly troublemaking prisoner. After quarreling with a woman over alcohol-blurred events from the night before, Marcellus runs into childhood friend Diana (Jean Simmons), who is the ward of Tiberius’ household.

Once a bitter bidding war with Caligula ends (first over Macedonian twins and then over Demetrius), Gallio’s father, a senator, scolds his son for meddling with powerful political figures. Sure enough, reprisal comes in the form of an order for Marcellus to board a ship to Jerusalem – a hazardous journey full of assassins, which would normally be the death of the tribune. Though Diana professes her love to the soldier as he departs, promising to wait for him, Marcellus is out of options. Once in Jerusalem, the Roman is acquainted with peculiar religious beliefs and rituals – especially one about a messiah, who just might be a mysterious carpenter with long hair and a white tunic.

Amid the hotheaded political altercations and general debauchery, Marcellus comes across as unfeeling, untactful, and unconcerned. He’s not sympathetic and his predicaments are all of his own making – so it’s not surprising when his actions reflect those qualities. This is further complicated by a single official task by Governor Pontius Pilate (Richard Boone) before Gallio is reassigned: to lead the crucifixion proceedings of a fanatic named Jesus. With grandiose, operatic, moving music by Alfred Newman, iconic imagery graces the screen, recreating the significant execution of the celebrated prophet. Curiously, though Burton is the leading star, it’s actually Mature who is the foremost protagonist, sensing the profundity of the king of the Jews and the value of his red robe, discarded at the base of the massive wooden cross and designated as a battle trophy by gambling centurions. “A curse on your empire!”

With mythological relish, Marcellus’ heinous acts have seemingly supernatural consequences – from earth-moving tempests to mind-shattering nightmares to disruptive hallucinations. These penalties work to counter his character faults, though it’s still an uphill battle to root for his wellbeing and the success of his relationship with Diana; it’s odd to focus on the personal interactions of a largely villainous persona, whose chance at redemption is initially outlined as a mission to continue the persecution of Jesus’ followers. In the realm of Roman emperors, faith proves to be the most dangerous foe. “It’s beyond reason that anybody should think as you do.”

Historical, informative, and never unbearably preachy, “The Robe” is clearly an exercise in transforming an uninformed, uninvolved unbeliever into someone more understanding and multi-faceted. Measuring military resolve and pragmatism against religious ideals isn’t new, but the nuance here is effective; the emotional struggles, especially when they’re tinged with unequivocal forgiveness and a hope for justice and generosity, are astounding. Despite the wait, Marcellus’ steady change is made more impactful by his introductory coldness; the more drastic his shift in perspective, the more striking his revelations and atonement. “If you die, I’ll believe that you died for nothing.”

Of course, there are also the theatrical components of armed combat, harrowing chases and escapes, enemies outnumbering heroes, and Rome’s crushing oppression to enliven this tale of the rise of Christianity. It’s an epic picture, predating the action-packed likes of “Ben-Hur” and “Spartacus,” though its centered around drama more than excitement, most apparent at the climax. But the love story is what is most absorbing, similarly amplified by heroic sacrifices of individual happiness for the greater good. The final acts of defiance are superbly monumental; the finale here more than makes up for the shaky start.

– Mike Massie

  • 9/10