“The Modern Miracle You See Without Glasses!”
Producer Frank Ross (The Devil and Miss Jones) had been trying to get a film adaptation of Lloyd C. Douglas’ best-selling novel into a film for almost 10 years, getting as far as pre-production at RKO before WWII and a regime change put the project into turnaround. When 20th Century-Fox was committed to the project, it soon became more than just another sweeping Biblical epic, as the studio needed a film to help launch its new widescreen process, CinemaScope.
The inseparability of CinemaScope and The Robe are impossible to ignore, because the film’s impact, its hype over the years as an ultimate epic (if not definitive portrait of a conflicted Roman at the very start of a post-Christ world), and the studio’s gamble in establishing a new widescreen exhibition standard on a global scale are all intertwined.
Nearly 60 years since its debut, some of the film’s key virtues have aged significantly, but it’s still a film that’s guaranteed to move the right core audience.
Fox’s Blu-ray begins with an intro by Martin Scorsese, and he’s perhaps a perfect representation of the original audience wowed by the film’s creative and technical scope. The Robe was first class from the ground up, boasting the studio’s top new talent of the day in major and smaller roles, splendid sets which capture the opulence of Rome, and superb set décor which played a pivotal role in filling the massive 2.55:1 ratio, and ensuring there was no dead space or clunky compositions.
Cinematographer Leon Shamroy (Leave Her to Heaven [M]) may have been a newbie to the widescreen ratio, but his instincts and the production’s art direction created a look and design that not only ensured CinemaScope looked grandiose, but a vivid evocation of western paintings depicting the Christ story. Shamroy’s lighting, though, is strangely given less attention in the BR’s plethora of extras.
As a colour cinematographer, he was among the top, exceeding the limits established by the Technicolor consultants by creating an amazing array of graduated colour lighting with Fox’s tony new Deluxe process. A key scene has Miriam (Betta St. John) singing prose to a captivated audience in a courtyard, and the colour scheme of the wardrobe and background light sources resemble a classical painting. Director Henry Koster and Shamroy also get very daring in one moment by having their star Burton give his dialogue in silhouette to showcase the social and moral distances between Roman soldier Marcellus Gallio and the gathering of Christians.
The inseparability between film and the technical process is also manifested in the technical flaws of CinemaScope, given Fox was using 23 year-old lenses that had been unused since inventor Henri Chrétien crafted them for some short demo films to sell his widescreen process.
Fox had dabbled in the wide film format before – The Big Trail (1930) was filmed in 65mm Grandeur with spectacular results – but the benefit of Chrétien’s process included lenses that could fit onto existing cameras and projectors rather than mandate a massive expenditure for the studio and exhibitors.
The problem with CinemaScope was there were only 3 lenses in existence when Fox decided to launch the system, and as detailed in the BR’s commentary track, The Robe didn’t get the best lens, which explains some bending at the edges (a common problem with all early ‘scope opticals), the ‘fattening’ of heads due to the lenses squeezing the images to and from 35mm film, and the sudden focus issues when attempting a simple rack focus between two differently placed actors, which could radically alter the details of surrounding objects.
The process could’ve been easier to implement into theatres had it not been for the studio’s insistence of equipping theatres for the 4.0 Perspecta surround sound system that was mandatory with each production at the time. It’s pretty brazen to demand such a huge upgrade, but with free TV cutting into cinema attendance and revenues, it was a gamble that cinemas had to take.
Composer Alfred Newman had been experimenting in ways to improve cinema sound at the recording stage, and he seemed a natural to compose music for surround sound. Every aspect of his scoring style – the high register strings, booming percussion, exhilarating marches, and crashing dramatic stabs with chorus – were ideal for the new sound process, and studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck’s fascination with directional sound resulted in the use of screen-specific dialogue placement, as well as vivid sound effects that enveloped the audience. Rival process Cinerama may have wowed the world with its own big screen / big sound system, but Fox extrapolated its best concepts and applied them to commercial, dramatic films, leaving Cinerama in the dust as it struggled over the next few years to maintain its brand and attract audiences with its limited stable of travelogue films.
The Robe’s epic components and star factor can’t hide the inherent bathos that sometimes bleeds from the screen to laughable excess, and while it does make the film fun on a different level, it also dates The Robe as a clichéd Biblical epic designed for a specific western audience.
The religious scholars in the bonus featurette “From Scripture to Script” find genuine positives in the strong portrayal of how Christianity was spread through recollections and retellings, using facts and embellishing elements to create myths that enhanced moral teachings. It’s an integral component of the narrative, since the basic story is of how several non-believers came to accept Christ into their lives, but as an open-minded dialectic on faith, The Robe‘s stance (or at least that of author Douglas, a former minister) is of there being only one true God, and Christ’s position among his followers at the time therefore negated the validity of every other religion and / or cult of multiple Gods, and whichever Caesar was in power.
And then there are the performances which are pitched very differently. As hero & combative convert Gallio, Burton’s is fine when he’s subdued and sharing genuinely affecting scenes with Jean Simmons, but when playing scenes where his character is so emotionally conflicted, the celebrated stage actor reverts to a special kind of scene devouring, clenching his fists, rolling his eyes, arching back his head, and twisting himself to portray True Torment – indulgences director Koster managed to keep mostly in check in Burton’s American debut, My Cousin Rachel [M] (1952), but could easily manifest themselves in rubbish like Exorcist II: The Heretic [M] (1977).
Whether it’s from the novel or the screenwriters, there’s a fetishistic element with the robe after it's taken from the dead Christ by slave Demetrius (Victor Mature). People hold it, sniff it, bury their faces in its humble stitching, or in the case of Gallio, fear it like a cancer until, in one ludicrously contrived bit of cinema theatrics, the robe ‘slides’ from Gallio’s sword onto his arms, causing a spastic eye-rolling and uncontrolled, perhaps spiritually-poked reflex where Gallio allows the robe to encircle his neck, after which he reacts, sniffs its woolen membrane, buries his face within… and suddenly reels back in peace; it’s as though his sins were expunged from his being and indigested by the robe.
It’s one of several theatrical bons moments where Burton clearly was not able to fully downplay his power for the big screen, and yet he has that magnificent voice and articulation which come into play when the script mandates a long series of speeches and repartees, such as the finale between Gallio and Caligula (Jay Robinson). It’s probably one of the main scenes that earned Burton a Best Actor Oscar nomination instead of those shrill histrionics.
As slave Demetrius, Mature is quite effective in playing the uneducated lunk as an earnest, principled man with a knee-jerk reaction towards injustice. Michael Rennie as Peter is also very strong, perhaps because he knew the best way to balance himself and his character between Burton and Mature was to keep everything low, calm, and discrete.
As Gallio’s love interest Diana, Simmons is ravishing, and she gives her fairly banal character needed depth by adding a modulated level of sensitivity; she’s never melodramatic, nor wallows like a woman desperately in need of a hero. In the end, she makes the choice to change allegiances, and sacrifices herself with Gallio for moral reasons rather than religion. The finale where the two ‘newlyweds’ walk to their doom while bathed in Newman’s chorales is again full-on bathos, but it’s also a slice of what in 1953 was perhaps deemed high cinematic drama: it’s earnest and well-intentioned, but also bombastic and clichéd.
The Robe was the first film for stage actor Robinson, and he steals every scene the way a good character actor should. Long before Bob Gucione’s Caligula (1979), Robinson delivered the definitive animated performance of a spoiled & corrupt shit, and perhaps he gave every other actor the freedom to play ‘Little Boots’ Caligula big and outrageous, including Malcom McDowell in Guccione’s grotesquerie.
Among the cast are several familiar faces in small supporting roles, including Torin Thatcher as Gallio’s dad, Dean Jagger (wearing old man silver wig #12) as community orator Justus, and Jeff Morrow (This Island Earth) excellent as a battle-worn lieutenant stationed in the armpit of the Roman empire – Jerusalem.
Michael Ansara (TV’s Star Trek) is great in a small scene playing Judas (with thunderclap + big score stab), as is Leon Askin (aka Col. Burkhalter in Hogan’s Heroes). Bored Richard Boone looks ridiculous in Roman Curly Wig #8 as Pontius Pilate, and it’s a surprise to see child actor Harry Shearer (The Simpsons) playing a lame boy who’s given a donkey by his best buddy.
Released several times on home video, this is the first HD release of The Robe after an extensive restoration and digital cleanup to ensure the film looked as close as possible to its original exhibition quality in spite of the pre-existing flaws with the ‘scope lenses, but it’s also the studio’s first major effort to find a balance between DNR, compression, and film grain, and it’s already in need of an overhaul.
Fox’s BR is loaded with featurettes, a commentary track, and an isolated score track of Newman’s music – all uncompressed – and that had to have stolen some space needed for the film itself. There are fine jagged line where hard diagonal objects appear in the background, creating a variable shimmering effect, and the DNR isn’t too extreme, but it is evident in some low lit shots.
There’s also heavy compression in some of the bad shots the production was stuck with – Demetrius running through the streets before encountering Judas – where the lack of detail leads to a smearing of colour blocks. (It’s very infrequent, but obvious in the long shot where Demetrius hides behind a column as Roman soldiers march past. The colour detail is very poor below Mature’s legs.)
A problem with the original ‘scope prints is the need to dupe shots to create fades and dissolves, and one can always tell when an optical transition is about to occur by the sudden boost in contrast, but within whole scenes there are separate shots that are affected by a similar contrast, affecting the continuity in several scenes.
The HD transfer does yield a fine level of detail, to the point where you can see an astray silvery thread on the back of Simmons’ cloak, catching studio light glare as she bids farewell to Burton as Gallio is about to set sail for Jerusalem.
More than the DVD edition, the BR is loaded with extras that include featurettes on the film, the CinemaScope process, religious scholars on the novel and the film, a rare audio interview with co-screenwriter Philip Dunne, and publicity ephemera of which the best has studio stars whoring themselves to sell the film in spite of actors Clifton Webb, Richard Wagner, and Richard Widmark having no involvement to The Robe. Each of the aforementioned would appear in the studio’s earliest ‘scope films – Three Coins in the Fountain (1954), Beneath the 12-Mile Reef (1953), and Hell in High Water [M] (1954), respectively.
The audio commentary is non-stop and very informative, and gives a lot of attention to Newman’s score and his place as an important composer and executive within Fox, and one senses everyone wanted to make sure his contributions to the industry and his craft were given proper due because Newman is often forgotten in spite of his music gracing most of the studio’s top films over an almost 20-year period.
There’s also 2 Bonusview picture-in-picture features, of which the first allows you to watch the film with the full screen version that was shot simultaneously as insurance, in case CinemaScope flopped. Occasionally, interview extracts are intercut with the full screen version, but what should’ve been done is offer the 'flat' version on a standalone BR or DVD, since the print used for the special feature is in really good shape, and sometimes has more vibrant and steadier colours.
The second Bonusview extra - "A Seamless Faith" - is better organized, allowing for the option to have the material pop up during the film, or play separately in selected or Play All options. Interview segments with religious scholars are intermixed with behind-the-scenes stills in a short but excellent documentary that uses the existence of Jesus' robe to discuss aspects of faith, myth, and subsequent efforts by Christian rulers to augment the crucifixion with slightly contemporary upgrades (namely clothing).
The Robe was one of Fox’s earliest classic film special editions on BR, and one of its last to date, because soon after the studio ceased releasing classic noir and Oscar-winning films on DVD. As of this writing, besides a few rare exceptions + titles licensed to indie label Twilight Time (like the sequel, Demetrius and the Gladiators) , there’s still a paucity of full-blown special edition BRs of the studio’s CinemaScope catalogue. (TT’s The Egyptian BR actually features a second HD transfer commissioned by Fox, perhaps because the first was restored in the same manner as The Robe, and it was felt a newer, less scrubbed version was the better move.)
The Robe begs a new transfer in a 2-disc edition, featuring the film, Scorsese’s intro, and audio extras on Disc 1; and the full screen version on Disc 2, plus remaining extras.
For The Big Trail (which also deserves a 2-disc BR release), the studio offered both ‘flat’ and widescreen versions in a 2-disc set , so there’s no reason a multi-disc set of The Robe isn’t feasible.
It’s also peculiar that Fox’s effort to celebrate the history of CinemaScope ended with The Robe, leaving the two other productions - How to Marry a Millionaire (1953) and Beneath the 12-Mile Reef (1953) – unavailable.
Fox never wasted a good combo of actors, so it made sense to surround Jean Simmons with strong colleagues in her next films, including Rennie in the Koster-directed Desirée [M] (1954), and Mature and Simmons in The Egyptian [M] (1954) – a biblical-styled epic with surprisingly critical jabs at organized religion.
Rennie, Mature, and Robinson reteamed in Demetrius and the Gladiators [M] (1954), shot after The Robe had wrapped, making good use of the sets & costumes, and Koster also directed Robinson in two films – The Virgin Queen (1955) and My Man Godfrey (1957), after which the actor’s film career imploded due to substance abuse issues.
© 2012 Mark R. Hasan