' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: The Robe (1953)

Friday, April 15, 2022

Friday's Old Fashioned: The Robe (1953)

Henry Koster’s “The Robe” (1953) was not one of the Biblical epics we watched in my Lutheran Sunday school or Confirmation classes. No, those were “King of Kings” (1961) or, of course, Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments” (1956). The former was unendurable in any condition, at any age, but while I was more liable to point and laugh at the latter when I was younger, probably just because everyone else was, I have come to appreciate it for its soap opera grandeur. “The Robe”, I take no pleasure in reporting, trends more toward “King of Kings.” In fact, part of me is a little surprised we didn’t watch Koster’s would-be epic in Sunday school or Confirmation class. Because even if “The Robe” was the first movie released in Cinemascope, widening the image projected on screen to almost twice the size of the traditional squared off Academy ratio, it is totally square. There is a long scene where a woman sits down with a harp and sings a song about the resurrection, like Harpo Marx with a Christian bent, and it flashed me back to my little Lutheran church, singing Beautiful Savior, dreaming of getting home and putting on Boogie Down Productions.

Based on a 1942 novel by Lloyd C. Douglas, “The Robe” is a mixture of Biblical account and myth, told from the perspective of Roman military tribune Marcellus Gallio (Richard Burton), who is just sort of wandering through a slave market as the movie opens, taking in the sights and sounds, a chance to show off that Cinemascope. And Burton’s disinterested air here, hardly tempted with so many temptations surrounding him, evince the character’s drunken, spoiled (he’s the son of a senator) air. At the same time, however, when Marcellus re-encounters his childhood sweetheart Diana (Jean Simmons), now pledged to Emperor Caligula (Jay Robinson), Burton cannot transcend that rotted air to evince anything like romance and neither can Simmons. There the widescreen images only seem to emphasize the palpable dead air between them. Hot or not, Caligula still schemes to send Marcellus away, lest he interfere with his would-be marriage, dispatching the tribune to some backwater called Jerusalem.

That is where Marcellus will oversee the crucifixion of one Jesus, never seen in full, always obscured, like by the cross he is made to drag up Calvary Hill, or out of the frame entirely, a way to underscore just how little he seems to mean to this military tribune. Indeed, as Jesus is nailed up on the cross, bleeding out, Marcellus plays a game of dice behind him, which might be how picnickers looked at the Battle of Bull Run. Marcellus wins Jesus’s robe rolling dice and after the Nazarene dies, he feels some sort of mystical pull toward the Christian faith. Such histrionics might be meant as counterpoint to the movie’s overall austere sense but are not always effective. When Marcellus’s Greek slave Demetrius (Victor Mature) encounters Judas, a strike of thunder so uber-thunderous sounds when the apostle says his name that it seems as if “The Robe” has inadvertently wandered onto a Mel Brooks set. What’s more, this wind and wrack, never mind the magical powers of Jesus’s Robe itself, seem to compel Marcellus more than any theology, inadvertently underlining Rome’s accusations that Christianity is just sorcery and unintentionally suggesting that Marcellus has merely been swept up on some kind of magic carpet ride. Come to think of it, maybe that’s why they never showed it in my Sunday school class.

“The Robe”, however, is never as entertaining as the phrase magic carpet ride makes it sound. Even when the movie drifts into Robin Hood territory, with Marcellus playing prince of thieves, so to speak, Diana as Maid Marian, and Caligula as Prince John (Robinson’s performance even suggests a more hysterical Claude Rains), it never matches the suddenly merry musical score, still just a drag. And the conclusion, in which a couple characters take up Jesus’s promise of meeting him in paradise, fails to render the immense dreamlike sensation it suggests, leaving me, I swear, to imagine a David Lynch Biblical epic instead. They couldn’t have shown that one in Sunday school either. Maybe that would be more of a Midnight Mass movie. 

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