The Robe is the story of the other Roman soldier at the foot of the cross — not Longinus, but the one who wins a toss of dice and takes home the robe of Christ.
It’s a Roman-themed counterpart to the Jewish-themed story of Ben-Hur, an epic melodrama that approaches the passion and resurrection of Christ tangentially, from the perspective of an outside observer — and, like Ben-Hur, it was based on a pious historical novel, this one by Lutheran pastor Lloyd C. Douglas.
Epic treatments of weighty themes were a staple of 1950s Hollywood, as the studios tried to stave off the competition from television. In that connection, The Robe’s claim to fame is its pioneering use of CinemaScope widescreen, maximizing the contrast with the small, grainy box in American living rooms.
But The Robe, directed by Henry Koster (Harvey), is no Ben-Hur. A duel, a prison break and the first-century equivalent of a car chase don’t match the spectacle of Ben-Hur’s mighty set pieces, especially the galley sequence and the chariot race. the arrogant centurion Marcellus Gallio Richard Burton, is charismatic but stiff and reserved in a role he admitted disliking, lacking Charlton Heston’s total commitment to the character.
It does starts well, with an effective prologue set in Rome, establishing the Eternal City at the center of the known world, and belatedly introducing Palestine as an obscure backwater to which Marcellus is exiled after provoking ambitious Caligula (over-the-top Jay Robinson, sneering and petulant) at a slave auction.
Once in Palestine, the story takes a turn for the pious, as Marcellus’s self-possessed Greek slave Demetrius (Victor Mature) becomes overwhelmed by a glance from Christ on Palm Sunday, and spends Holy Thursday evening running desperately through the darkened streets trying to find and warn Jesus. The climax of this sequence, in which Demetrius learns of Jesus’ fate from a surprising source, is one of the film’s best conceits, despite a cheesily on-cue bolt of lightning.
Then comes an intriguingly sacramental effect that doesn’t quite work: Like Gollum screaming at the touch of Elf-rope, Marcellus finds he can’t wear the robe of Christ. Later, back in Rome, he comes to believe that it has bewitched him, and his inner conflict threatens to shatter his happiness with Diana (Jean Simmons). Seeking to free himself, Marcellus comes into contact with the early Christian community.
A few bits here offer some interest. Marcellus witnesses a throng of believers listening as a woman sings a recitation of the passion and resurrection, a fanciful dramatization of formal oral tradition and the early church’s careful preservation of its memories of Jesus, as well as the role of women as witnesses in the early church. Unfortunately, the singer turns out not to be an eyewitness of the passion and resurrection (like, say, Mary the mother of James and Joseph); she’s just someone who met Jesus at Cana during the wedding. (Why wasn’t she singing about that?)
The one eyewitness who does crop up in these scenes is Simon Peter (Michael Rennie, The Day the Earth Stood Still), the “big fisherman,” serenely benevolent and not at all the forceful personality of the Gospels and Acts. An implausible scene in which a local Christian leader introduces Peter to the community, praising his fidelity on the night of the passion and actually shushing Peter’s effort to set the story straight, sets up one of the film’s better moments, as Peter tells Marcellus of his triple denials as surety of Christ’s forgiveness as well as Peter’s.
The Robe’s early evocation of the insignificance of Judea in the first-century Roman world isn’t paralleled in its depiction of the early church, which is given a prominence in Roman affairs as a target of imperial ire unknown to history during Caligula’s lifetime or for decades afterward. It’s possible that Christianity had come to Rome by Caligula’s reign, but there’s no evidence that it was even a blip on his radar.
In the end, The Robe falls short as story of conversion or deliverance, largely because Marcellus doesn’t really have anything much interesting to be delivered from, other than the “bewitchment” of the robe itself. Rather than a story of moral or spiritual transformation, Marcellus’s conversion amounts to special effects. Moral ideas are occasionally expressed (“Because men are weak; because they’re cursed with envy and avarice; because they can dream of truth, but cannot live with it”; “Justice and charity — men will never accept such a philosophy”), but not really dramatized in Marcellus’ life.
In a sense, The Robe’s biggest problem is that the robe is the protagonist’s biggest problem.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.