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The Robe (1953)
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The Robe

No getting around it, The Robe (1953) is a mastodon, the first film ever made in CinemaScope, and therefore a film that endeavored to subsume and overwhelm its audience with the sheer magnificence of its size, breadth and appetites. Everything about it is humongous - Lloyd Douglas's fat bestseller held the #1 slot on the New York Times bestseller list for almost a solid year; the theatrical screen image itself, 86% larger than an ordinary movie's, was wide enough to require you to move your head to see from one edge to the other; the subject was nothing less than the ground zero of Christendom; the box-office receipts exceeded any other film's of the 1950s by at least 80%; Victor Mature's pecs, cheekbones and nose tower over those of ordinary mortals. Many a film has striven to bulldoze and outsize the competition by becoming not merely the season's "event" but a grand temple built to immortalize its maker. (D.W. Griffith, Erich von Stroheim and David O. Selznick might've all made paradigmatic Roman emperors in a different age.) In contrast, The Robe had no monumental ego driving it - no single filmmaker or studio head risked their career or sanity on it. It was purely a Gargantua built by Hollywood itself, by the film industry's own tendencies and beliefs. It was, in effect, one of the things Hollywood was best at doing: adapting a pulpy-but-earnest mega-bestseller, peopling it with beautiful movie stars, cluttering it with a small nation's worth of sets and locations and extras, and earning back a bajillion bucks for its trouble.

The director was Henry Koster, whose long filmography reads like a protracted exercise in efficient anonymity, from Deanna Durbin musicals to historical pageants to forgettable comedies. The Robe is not an auteurist experience - watching, you could get the sense of a movie made by an entire industry city, not a passionate team of artisans, and CinemaScope has a lot to do with it - the demands of the anamorphic process all but elided the possibility of close-ups. (The same distorting effect that stretched the 35mm image into a monstrous rectangle the shape of a car windshield also stretched actors' features if the camera got too close.) Just as the theatricality of early talkies is a by-product of the then-primitive sound recording technology, The Robe's pioneering 'Scope-itude keeps every scene at a broad and medium distance. The effect is of seeing entire scenes play out in real time, the busy peripheral and background diverting our attention in errant moments, and our position becomes framed as a kind of voyeurism, as though we were across the room, unnoticed, amid the larger drama and unable to get closer.

Of course The Robe is a Biblical epic, the most popular genre of American film in the mid-century and the one we've long since given up making or even trying to completely understand. Douglas's tale famously speculates on the life of the Roman guard who gambled for Jesus's discarded robe on Calvary and won - who was he, and what happened to him? The taciturn Richard Burton is Marcellus, a self-indulgent wine-&-women libertine who, as a tribune, irks soon-to-be emperor Caligula and is sent to Jerusalem - the empire's outskirts. He leaves behind Jean Simmons's doe-eyed sweetheart, and takes with him Mature's defiant Greek slave, but there he administers the crucifixion of Jesus, and thus haunted and guilt-ridden watches his spoiled life spiral out of control.

The redemption tale therein eventually has Marcellus join the Christian underground, led by Michael Rennie's Peter, in open rebellion against the ruling state, and for its third act The Robe becomes a swollen parable of resistance against imperialism that echoes, perhaps uncomfortably for some, entire swatches of 20th-century post-colonialist struggle, from Havana to Phnom Penh. (The interrogation-torture scene centered on Mature's converted rebel has particular resonance today.) The same could be said for Cecil B. DeMille's still-entertaining The Ten Commandments (1956), after a fashion, but unfortunately Koster's film doesn't deliver the payload of overripe melodrama and ludicrous stunt-casting set-pieces that has made DeMille's movie such a delicious camp favorite in the last few decades. (It is the only movie to choose for Passover viewing - there is no substitute.) The Robe is in fact a very reserved film, with Burton and Mature trying to outdo each others' macho implacability, and the supporting roles going to actors who though perfectly capable of putting on a show (Richard Boone as Pilate, Michael Ansara as Judas) are discouraged from doing so. (It's incidental, but fans of genre pulp will be distracted by the matinee vibe brought on by the presence of The Day the Earth Stood Still's [1951] Rennie, The Bride of Frankenstein's [1935] Ernest Thesiger, This Island Earth's [1955] Jeff Morrow, and The 7th Voyage of Sinbad's [1958] Torin Thatcher.) Actually, the largest dose of performance energy comes straight from Jay Robinson as Caligula, who falls dutifully into a long line of Roman emperor-portrayals by preening, whining and shrieking like a developmentally arrested prom queen. If you happen to conjure the image of Martin Short while you're watching, there's no turning back.

The naive, rampaging piety of New Testament epics, resplendent with angel choruses and magical lighting whenever Jesus is near or even thought about, is a difficult dynamic to parse nowadays, until you consider them as only a subgenre of ancient-history epics in general (Samson and Delilah [1949], The Egyptian [1954], David and Bathsheba [1951], Quo Vadis [1951], Ivanhoe [1952], and The Vikings [1958] were all top-ten moneymakers in the '50s). The past is a big country, and so to do battle, market-wise, with the rise of television, movies not only became larger in every dimension, but reveled in the scope and scale of history, the older the better. There was little point, after all, in filling a breathtaking CinemaScope screen with lavish matte-painting vistas unless those landscapes were imagined visions of antiquities we cannot see any other way.

The Robe was nominated for a slew of Oscars®, including Best Picture, mostly out of respect for its size and cost and popularity, and today the film stands, in all of its extra-wide tableaux, mostly as a big picture window opening on the experience of the 1950s. You cannot be blamed, watching it on the largest screen available to you, for getting a more potent dose of America during the Eisenhower administration than you might of ancient Rome and Judea. Movies are history, after all, and here the mysterious mid-century hearts and minds of our parents and grandparents in their postwar idyll are trapped in amber.

Producer: Frank Ross
Director: Henry Koster
Screenplay: Philip Dunne, Albert Maltz (screenplay); Lloyd C. Douglas (novel)
Cinematography: Leon Shamroy
Art Direction: George W. Davis, Lyle Wheeler
Music: Alfred Newman
Film Editing: Barbara McLean
Cast: Richard Burton (Marcellus Gallio), Jean Simmons (Diana), Victor Mature (Demetrius), Michael Rennie (Peter), Jay Robinson (Caligula), Dean Jagger (Justus), Torin Thatcher (Sen. Gallio), Richard Boone (Pontius Pilate), Betta St. John (Miriam), Jeff Morrow (Paulus), Ernest Thesiger (Emperor Tiberius).
C-135m. Letterboxed.

by Michael Atkinson

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