‘THE Robe’ is the biggest box office hit of 1953. Filmed in widescreen cinemascope, it got several Oscar nominations, including best picture and best actor for Richard Burton, but won only in the best art direction and best costume design categories.
We remember it was shown at Ever Theatre and, since it’s a biblical epic about the crucifixion of Christ, it was the talk of the town in the Catholic community. It’s based on the 1942 novel by Lloyd Douglas, an American pastor who also wrote the hit film, “Magnificent Obsession”, and several inspirational books like “Invitation to Live” and “The Living Faith”.
“The Robe” refers to the tunic worn by Jesus on his way to Golgotha. After his death on the cross, the Roman soldiers responsible for his crucifixion gambled on his belongings and the robe was won by the tribune Marcellus Gallo (Burton), the son of a senator. The film’s opening scene set on a busy market place where slaves are being sold is a very big one.
Gallo buys a Greek slave, Demetrius (Victor Mature), who’ll later star in the sequel to “The Robe”, “Demetrius in the Gladiator”, shown in 1954. He is also reunited with his childhood sweetheart, Diana (Jean Simmons), who’s already pledged in marriage to Caligula (Jay Robinson), who’d be the next Roman emperor. Caligula is annoyed by Gallo and quickly orders that he be banished that night to Jerusalem.
Gallo arrives in Jerusalem on the day when Jesus makes his entry, which will come to be known as Palm Sunday. Demetrius, who is with Gallo, sees Jesus and wants to know more about Him. When he learns that Jesus will be arrested, he goes looking for the Messiah to warn Him, but he meets Judas instead who tells him that Jesus has already been taken to Pilate.
Pilate orders Gallo to be in charge of the crucifixion of Jesus. He complies, not knowing it will change his life forever. The story is really about the journey of a Roman tribune to being a Christian and his conversion with the help of the robe, which he initially thinks has cursed him into madness. In the end, Gallo becomes a devout follower of Christ ready to die for his faith.
All this drama about the birth of Christianity and a Roman’s transition to being a Christian is told amidst sumptuous sets and spectacular surroundings. It’s big in scope and must have been truly impressive for its time when they don’t use CGI yet. The staging and camera work might look dated today, but it still works as a compelling and reverent tale of spirituality.
Even the acting seems dated. Richard Burton is one of the most acclaimed Shakespearean actors in Britain then who was recruited by Hollywood. He was nominated in the Oscars for seven times but never won.
In “The Robe”, he is required to do swashbuckling scenes doing swordfights convincingly, but in his dramatic scenes, you’d notice that he’s really acting, delivering his lines with his trademark baritone always in a petulant, snarling manner. But his performance is definitely more tolerable than that of Jay Robinson and his over-the-top interpretation of a ranting Caligula. All in all, “The Robe” is still worth watching specially in this solemn season of Lent.