THE ROBE was laid down on a 1953 Movie Bibleground already made fertile by three recent big hits. The tone is solemn, so there is not as much corny fun like 1949s Samson and Delihah. It’s eye-catching and reasonably written, but not exciting, jaw-dropping or witty like 1951s Quo Vadis. Better than the similarly talky and serious David and Bathsheba (’51), it’s graced by one of Alfred Newman’s loveliest music scores and pitched into camp-relief Heaven thanks to the delicious, delirious shrieking of Jay Robinson as Caligula, a slice of ripe Nelly ham that makes you wish our current madmen were at least more fun to watch (or ‘behold!’ in this case).
Years in gestation, the expensive production ($5,000,000 for the first CinemaScope feature—as such, an ‘event’) was co-written by Philip Dunne and the blacklisted, uncredited Albert Maltz, so there is perhaps a bit of sly subtext nestled in the piety: rebel against authority if it’s the right thing to do! Story: jaded Roman centurion oversees Christ’s crucifixion, wins Jesus’ robe in a card game, and is tormented and changed by the power it holds. His slave shows him the light, his betrothed gives him support, his batshit-crazy Emperor and Imperial State Power aren’t too happy about some alternate God upsetting their corner on the hypocrisy market.
This was a giant hit (Number #1 by a mile that year, $36,000,000) as audiences were familiar with the story (book was a best-seller—no, not The Bible), were awed by the wide-screen and everyone heard buzz about the exciting new Welsh actor who starred. This could also be known as The Movie Where Victor Mature Out-Acted Richard Burton. Burton, 28 here, took a while to get his movie bearings, both in terms of vehicles and delivery: his playing has him at his best (quietly eloquent) and worst (possessed shouting). The perennially dismissed Mature (the noble slave) was better than he was given credit for and he has the best moments, aside from Jay Robinson’s over-the-top scene-stealing. Jean Simmons, delicately beautiful at 24, manages effortlessly although she doesn’t have a lot to work with besides being concerned and faithful.
There’s just a little action in the 135 minutes, but interest is held, and the art direction, costumes, matte shots all do their part. It was nominated for Best Picture (no way, creamed by the rather less-holy From Here To Eternity), Burton for Actor, and for Cinematography, winning for Art Direction and Costume Design. Alfred Newman’s score was passed by. Those who didn’t see it in its originally presented format were raised with dutiful Easter Sunday showings on TV (black & white sets, cropped picture): it’s a different experience to catch it restored in Blu-Ray. Most modern critics pan it, if that holds any that sway.
Able supporting work from Dean Jagger, Michael Rennie, Jeff Morrow, Torin Thatcher, Ernest Thesiger, Richard Boone, Michael Ansara. Future wit Harry Shearer plays a boy on crutches. Directed by Henry Koster. After the ‘uplifting’, now laughable finale, Mature and Robinson returned immediately in the “let’s get to the cool stuff” sequel, Demetrius and the Gladiators.