The Robe (1952) dir. Henry Koster
Starring: Richard Burton, Jean Simmons, Michael Rennie, Victor Mature
The first ever Cinemascope film gets a stylish Blu-Ray treatment timed well with Easter. Like most Bible-themed epics the intended scope and grandeur of the form is met with often laborious old-world dialogue, and heavy-handed symbolism.
In his breakout role, a young 28-year-old Richard Burton plays Marcellus Gallio a Roman tribune, both a playboy and antagonizer who quarrels with the Emperor incumbent Caligula. Gallio and his Greek slave/assistant Demetrius (Victor Mature) is exiled to Jerusalem. Once there, a certain Messiah named Jesus is making waves amongst the Romans, and when it comes to his Crucifixion Gallio finds himself involved.
Things changes when Gallio wins Jesus robe in a bet. Though he thinks nothing of it, the robe starts to haunt him, causing him nightmares and mental instability – the effect of which would ultimately change his outlook against the prevailing witchhunt against Christianity.
“The Robe” is a cinema benchmark and so, regardless of the quality of the film, it makes for interesting viewing. A fine High Def featurette explains in a comprehensive history lesson of the cinemascope process, from both business and creative points of view. We learn about the impact of “This is Cinerama”, which wasn’t really a movie but a theatrical showcase of the power of widescreen photography. The development of Cinemascope and the difficulties shooting are given the right amount of detail to satisfy the techie cinephile.
Even the making-of featurette summarizes a good chunk of post-war Hollywood, complete with all the Golden Era nostalgia, anecdotes and tall tales about the great moguls like Darryl F. Zanuck and William Fox. The history of the screenplay involves many of the people involved with McCarthy House of UnAmerican Activies Committee and the imprisoned Hollywood Ten, which enlightens the non-so-subtle witchhunt allegories in the film.
“The Robe” falls in the middle ground of this period of sword and sandal film – for my money, somewhere between John Huston’s “The Bible” and “Fall of the Roman Empire”. Other than the Cinemascope achievements, watch out for the great Ray Kellogg’s amazing matte photography work which realistically puts the audience into the Roman Period with maximum visual grandeur.
“The Robe” is available on Blu-Ray from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment