Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Robe (1953)

Director: Henry Koster                                      Writers: Philip Dunne & Albert Maltz
Film Score: Alfred Newman                               Cinematography: Leon Shamroy
Starring: Richard Burton, Jean Simmons, Victor Mature and Michael Rennie

Ever since Ben-Hur back in 1925 there has been a desire to make Biblical epics that tie into the Jesus story. This one stars Richard Burton and Victor Mature and deals with the efforts of the Roman Empire to quell the nascent movement of Christianity. The Robe was based on the best-selling novel by Lloyd C. Douglas published in 1942. In fact, it was originally optioned by RKO studios that year, and Mervyn LeRoy was tabbed as director. But wartime restrictions on materials and the requirements for large casts of extras made the estimated costs for the film so prohibitive that it didn’t make sense for a studio facing bankruptcy to go forward with the project. When Douglas died and his heirs wanted to sue RKO to get the rights back they were sold to 20th Century Fox who had tabbed Tyrone Power for the role of Marcellus and Jeff Chandler for the role of Demetrius, and when it went before the cameras with the final cast it was filmed in a new widescreen process called CinemaScope.

The story begins in the Roman slave market, where Roman tribune Richard Burton meets Jean Simmons and she reminds him that they promised to marry when they were children. Enchanted by her, he agrees to honor his promise. Later Burton defies the heir to the empire, Jay Robinson, by outbidding him to buy gladiator Victor Mature. But by humiliating Robinson, Burton has earned himself an assignment to Jerusalem, one of the worst places in the empire. He takes along Mature as his personal servant, and when they arrive and Mature sees Jesus, he defies Burton in order to warn the man of the plot against him. But he’s too late. Simmons, meanwhile, has interceded on Burton’s behalf with the present emperor, Ernest Thesiger, and he is recalled, but not before he is given orders by Richard Boone to crucify Jesus. While Jesus is dying on the cross, Burton plays dice at the base of the cross, and with a roll of the dice wins the man’s red robe. A violent storm rises, however, and when Burton covers himself with the robe his guilt overwhelms him, Mature leaves him, and he goes back to Rome a broken man.

When Burton meets with Thesiger, the emperor gives him an assignment, to find the robe and destroy it in order to end his guilt, and to get the names of the disciples and have them killed. But once he returns to the holy land, he becomes a changed man under the influence of the new religion. Burton feels like an unlikely Biblical hero in the film, which makes sense considering that he hated playing the role, and his dislike resulted in his turning down a contract offer from Fox. Nevertheless, he did a good enough job to be nominated for an Oscar for his performance. Other nominations went to Leon Shamroy for his cinematography and the film as a whole for best picture. The categories that won the Academy Award make sense, art direction and set design as well as for costume design. The film is also the only Biblical epic to spawn a sequel, when the story continues with Victor Mature in Demetrius and the Gladiators the following year.

One of the highlights of the film is definitely the script. In so many places the expectation is that either Burton or Jean Simmons will finally give up on the other and yet they never do. For me, this is one of the reasons that the film works. Though not spectacular as a whole it retains interest because there are no scenes that destroy that interest. In itself it’s not a tremendous compliment, but considering how many films fail to do that it is a plus. Jean Simmons, as Burton’s love interest is suitably infatuated, so much so that the two had an affair during filming. Like so many epics, the extensive cast of supporting actors is fun to watch. Percy Helton makes an appearance as a wine seller, Michael Rennie plays the disciple Peter, and Dean Jagger one of the early converts. Ernest Thesiger, best known for his iconic role as Dr. Pretorius in Bride of Frankenstein, is the real treat however. As a Biblical epic The Robe is nothing special, but it is entertaining in a certain way and certainly worth the investment in time to watch.

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