Friday 14 February 2014

Movie Review: The Robe (1953)

A Biblical epic, The Robe packs the power of belief into a movie experience, but also suffers from taking itself too seriously.

In Roman times, military tribune Marcellus Gallio (Richard Burton), the son of an idealistic Senator (Torin Thatcher), antagonizes future emperor Caligula (Jay Robinson) by outbidding him for the slave Demetrius (Victor Mature). Marcellus also wins the heart of Diana (Jean Simmons), who reverses her decision to marry Caligula. In retaliation, Caligula arranges for Marcellus to be deployed to Palestine, considered a destitute and crime-infested corner of the Roman Empire.

Marcellus follows orders and as a seemingly routine assignment commands the soldiers who carry out the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ, despite Demetrius having fallen under the influence of Jesus, like many other locals. Marcellus then wins Jesus' robe in a game of dice with other soldiers. But as soon as he puts on the robe, he is struck by an inexplicable illness that renders him unable to function. Demetrius disappears with the robe.

After recuperating in Capri with Diana, Marcellus is allowed to return to Palestine on a mission to look for Demetrius, find the robe, and understand its powers. Instead he meets the growing number of Jesus followers, preaching a life of love and forgiveness. Local leader Justus (Dean Jagger) takes Marcellus under his wing, eventually introducing him to Peter (Michael Rennie). Marcellus is tempted to join the Christianity movement, putting him at odds with Caligula, who is now Emperor.

Rich in incident and built on the sturdy foundations of faith, The Robe is undoubtedly engrossing and does achieve moments of pure drama and eerie transformations. The first CinemaScope production, The Robe matches screen size with narrative ambition. The Crucifixion is stunningly recreated, director Henry Coster finding his best character dynamics in the shadow of the crosses. The set designs are lavish, Coster giving his actors seemingly massive locales to explore in Rome, Capri and throughout Palestine. The numerous costumes and hundreds of extras add to the film's outstanding depth.

Based on the 1942 Lloyd C. Douglas best-selling book of the same name, the film features Marcellus as a microcosm of his Empire, his journey from dismissively crucifying Jesus to wholeheartedly accepting his message foreshadowing Europe's fate. The appeal of the story is easy to grasp, and while the film captures the enormity of the change about to sweep across the land, it does so with unrelenting studiousness.

Everything about The Robe is thoroughly earnest. The story of Marcellus resembles a solemn religious service, with no room for any levity or humour. All dialogue exchanges and incidents are shrouded in austere sombreness, and even the love story between Marcellus and Diana takes on the holy airs of a divine union. For a film that goes on for 135 minutes, the unyielding solemnity is ultimately aggravating, and culminates in an unfortunately ridiculous climax as Marcellus and Diana meet their fate with a childish flourish.

Despite the film's single tone, Richard Burton is memorable as Marcellus, as he crosses the line into theatrical over-acting early on and stays there, delivering most of his lines in a harsh, commanding staccato. Given the subject matter and the film's righteous attitude, his performance is surprisingly fitting. Jean Simmons is given little to work with, and her Diana fades out of the story for long stretches. When she is on screen, Simmons tends to be swallowed by all the drama and adds little to the movie. More prominent is Jay Robinson as Caligula, going the full hammy route into grandiose theatrics, a display of scenery chewing that almost succeeds in adding unintentional comic relief. Dean Jagger and Michael Rennie stay within themselves as dignified early Jesus believers.

The Robe delivers its message on impressively robust tablets. A few human-scaled distractions from all the lofty exhortations would have been welcome.

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