The Robe

Director: Henry Koster
Screenplay: Albert Maltz and Philip Dunne (adaptation by Gina Kaus; based on the novel by Lloyd C. Douglas)
Stars: 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), Dawn Addams (Junia), Leon Askin (Abidor)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1953
Country: U.S.
The Robe Blu-Ray
The RobeHad it not been the first film shot in CinemaScope, the anamorphic widescreen process that started as a technological gamble by 20th Century-Fox and would go on to fundamentally alter the way movies forever looked, very few people would probably be talking about The Robe. It would likely be mentioned in film history books given that it is was one of the first of the biblically themed sword-and-sandal epics that would come to dominate Hollywood in the 1950s (not a particularly surprising development given it was an era of political conservatism, increased church attendance, and the inclusion of “one nation under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance). However, the film also has an interesting political subtext, with its pious surface story about early Christianity playing cover for some rather pointed jabs at the nature of power run amok, then embodied by the U.S. House on Un-American Activities Committee. Like the film’s religious emphasis, the political subtext is not terribly surprising given that Albert Maltz, one of the film’s screenwriters, was a member of the “Hollywood Ten” (he went uncredited on the film until 1997) and the director, Henry Koster, was a German Jew who had fled his homeland after the rise of Hitler.

The main character is Marcellus Gallio (Richard Burton), a Roman tribune who is, in many ways, the epitome of Hollywood’s view of Roman decadence. Portrayed as a casual womanizer whose empty and vacuous life affords him little meaning or spirit, Marcellus is a prime candidate for redemption, which comes in the form of Demetrius (Victor Mature), his Greek slave who is moved to spiritual heights after witnessing Christ’s crucifixion (which Marcellus, not incidentally, is in charge of). Jesus is never clearly seen, but is rather depicted only in long shots or, in the case of the walk to Golgotha, as a beaten body whose face is obscured by the cross he bears. Thus, the idea of Christ and the salvation he offers is made more abstract and therefore appreciable even to non-Christian viewers (an important point during an era when Hollywood’s audience was being rapidly eroded by the spread of television).

The majority of the film’s narrative traces Marcellus’s spiritual journey as he comes across various people who knew Jesus and are working to keep his teachings alive, including an elderly man from Nazareth named Justus (Dean Jagger) and a crippled woman named Miriam (Betta St. John) who has a crucial conversation with the tribune that forces him to rethink his admonition that it is only power that matters. Marcellus’s love interest is a woman named Diana (Jean Simmons), who has been promised to the corrupt Roman emperor Caligula (Jay Robinson), but is smitten with Marcellus and ultimately comes to embrace his newfound Christianity, which leads to the film’s heavy-handed final images of them walking arm in arm toward martyrdom, which conveniently elides the brutality of a martyr’s death in favor of the glorious rise to heaven.

Like all the subsequent sword-and-sandal Hollywood movies of the 1950s and early 1960s, there is something inherently hokey about The Robe, with its historically accurate, yet ridiculously clean and well-pressed costumes and its insistence on then-contemporary hair styles that never allow a single strand to be out of place (to realize just how insistent this style was, note that even the great Stanley Kubrick couldn’t get past it in Spartacus). The film is also fairly static, which was an unfortunate result of the CinemaScope process, which required two lenses that had to be focused separately, meaning that significant camera movement was difficult, if not impossible. Despite having no models to emulate, director Henry Koster and veteran cinematographer Leon Shamroy (one of only six cinematographers immortalized on the Hollywood “Walk of Fame”) seem to have an intuitive understanding of what the wider frame offers, particularly the opportunity to combine close-ups with wide shots, which helps to situate the characters’ emotions within a larger context.

Koster, who began his career by making light comedies and had a special gift for directing actors, also does an admirable job of keeping the film’s energy up, even when it bogs down into talky sequences that are ultimately necessary to establishing the idea of early Christianity and how it posed a social and political threat to the ruling Roman order. This leads to what is easily the film’s best sequence, which finds Marcellus being tried before Caligula for treason against Rome. The manner in which Caligula demands that Marcellus reaffirm his allegiance to Rome and renounce Christ has unavoidable echoes of the HUAC meetings, particularly the manner in which Marcellus agrees to the former but refuses the latter, which has a neat symmetry with how “unfriendly witnesses” insisted that they could be good Americans but hold leftist political views at the same time.

The scene also works beautifully because of Jay Robinson’s portrayal of Caligula. Although Koster was highly regarded for directing actors and the film is packed with movie stars both established (Victor Mature, Jean Simmons, Michael Rennie) and rising (Richard Burton), it is only Robinson, then a theater actor making his film debut, who makes a genuine impact on the screen with his high-pitched, snaky performance as one of Rome’s most notorious Caesars. With his wild, leering eyes and voice that combines a kind of whiny insouciance with ego-centric power-tripping, Robinson embodies Caligula’s unsettling psychosis more fully than all the graphic imagery in Tinto Brass and Bob Guccione’s notorious 1980 porn/historical spectacle Caligula combined.

The Robe "Special Edition" Blu-Ray

Aspect Ratio2.55:1
  • English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround
  • English Dolby Digital 4.0 surround
  • French Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural
  • Portuguese Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural
  • Subtitles English, Spanish, Portuguese, Thai, Cantonese, Mandarin, Korean
  • Audio commentary by film composer David Newman and film historians Jon Burlingame, Julie Kirgo, and Nick Redman
  • Isolated music track
  • BONUSVIEW picture-in-picture mode
  • Introduction by Martin Scorsese
  • “The Making of The Robe” featurette
  • Vintage celebrity introductions by Richard Widmark, Susan Hayworth, Robert Wagner, Clifton Webb and Dan Dailey
  • “The CinemaScope Story” featurette
  • “From Scripture to Script: The Bible and Hollywood” featurette
  • The Robe Times Two: A Comparison of Widescreen and Standard Versions” featurette
  • “A Seamless Faith: The Real-Life Search for The Robe” featurettes
  • Audio interview with screenwriter Philip Dunne (1969)
  • Movietone News segments
  • Original theatrical trailers
  • TV spots
  • Still galleries
  • Interactive pressbook
  • Distributor20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
    Release DateMarch 17, 2009

    As Martin Scorsese notes in his brief introduction on this disc, Fox has gone to great lengths to restore The Robe and make it look as a good as possible, which they have done admirably. The 1080p high-definition transfer was authored in BD-J with AVEC (MPEG 4) compression on a dual-layer 50GB disc, and it looks as good as we could possible expect. Because The Robe was the first film shot in CinemaScope, the lenses used during production were not as sharp and refined as later lenses, which results in the film as a whole having a somewhat soft look. This is also exacerbated by the fact that it was shot in three-strip Technicolor, which requires perfect alignment of the three negatives to produce the sharpest possible image. These inherent imperfections aside, the image, which is presented in its full 2.55:1 ’Scope aspect ratio, looks wonderful, with bold, deeply saturated colors that pop off the screen and rarely a sign of dust, dirt, or age. The original four-track stereophonic soundtrack is available in four-channel Dolby Digital or you can opt to listen to a newly mixed DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. Both offer clean sound and surprisingly good surround effects. Fans of legendary composer Alfred Newman can also enjoy his score as an isolated track.
    The screen-specific audio commentary is hosted by documentary and music producer Nick Redman, who is joined by film historian Julie Kirgo, USC film music historian and Variety reporter John Burlingame, and film composer David Newman, who is also the son of composer Alfred Newman. The four of them were recorded together, and given that three of them work primarily on music, there is a lot of discussion about the film’s score, film music in general, and soundtrack technologies, although plenty of other topics are covered (particularly by Kirgo), including the film’s complex production history and the background on CinemaScope.

    In addition to the commentary, you can also choose to watch the film using the “BonusView” feature, which utilizes picture-in-picture technology to show behind-the-scenes footage and interviews while you’re watching the film. You also have the option of viewing all of these segments individually, which include “The Robe Times Two: A Comparison of Widescreen and Standard Versions” and “A Seamless Faith: The Real-Life Search for The Robe,” which is composed of 10 featurettes about the film’s historical background.

    The first of this Blu-Ray’s many featurettes its “The Making of The Robe,” a half-hour retrospective about the film’s decade-long trip to the big screen that includes interviews with film historians Scott McIsaac, Rick Jewell, and Rudy Behlmer, UCLA film professor Jonathan Kuntz, Institute of the American Musical president Miles Krueger, actor Jay Robinson, Robert Koster (son of the film’s director), and Jessica Dunne (daughter of the film’s screenwriter). “The CinemaScope Story” is an 18-minute featurette that traces the development of the widescreen process that changed the look of movies forever. It features interviews with most of the same participants from the “Making of” featurette, as well as film historian Aubrey Solomon and Fox publicity writer Julian Myers, who wrote all the publicity pieces on CinemaScope. “From Scripture to Script: The Bible in Hollywood” is a 25-minute featurette that charts the appeal of biblical stories and themes to the film industry. Interviewees include Fuller Theological Seminary professor Robert K. Johnson, Loyola Marymount biblical studies professor Daniel L. Smith-Christopher, USC classical arts and archaeology professor John Pollini, and USC history, religion, and gender professor Lisa Bitel. In a separate piece, one of The Robe’s screenwriters, Philip Dunne, offers his recollections about the film in an audio interview from 1969.

    There is also a significant collection of supplements in the section titled “Advertising The Robe.” There are vintage celebrity introductions to the film by the likes of Richard Widmark, Susan Hayworth, Robert Wagner, Clifton Webb, and Dan Dailey, all of which run only a few seconds and look like they were filmed for television. There are also five Movietone News segments (“CinemaScope Hailed by Public and Press,” “Broadway Hails The Robe in CinemaScope,” “The Robe (Christian Herald Award),” “Millionth Patron Sees The Robe,” and “CinemaScope and The Robe Win Oscars”), numerous trailers and TV spots, an interactive press book, a poster gallery, and galleries of lobby cards and publicity stills. All in all, a fantastic set of supplements that put this historically important film in all its various social, political, and cinematic contexts.

    Copyright ©2009 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

    Overall Rating: (2.5)

    James Kendrick

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