When Ridley Scott's GLADIATOR came out in 2000, audiences and critics alike raved about the action drama set in the glory days of the Roman Age as if we had never seen a film before about ancient Rome or gladiators. We had forgotten that films about the Roman Empire were abundant beginning in the 1950's, especially with 20th Century Fox's introduction of Cinemascope, a wide screen format to bring audiences back to the theaters from their living rooms (and new television sets) with big colorful epic stories. Titles like DEMETRIUS AND THE GLADIATORS (1954), BEN HUR (1959), and SPARTACUS (1960) were some of the best of the Roman themed epic films also known as Sandal and Sand or epics.
I have had the good fortune to visit the Roman Colosseum twice in my life. Once in 1987 after I graduated college and most recently, in 2012 with my wife. I fell in love all over again with everything that was ancient Roman -- the temples and roads and aqueducts and buried cities and of course, the Colosseum. But this time, as a more mature adult standing in the Colosseum again, it was not lost on me that people died in this arena at the hands of the Romans. Christians and slaves and other Romans shed blood, died in battle, or were fed to the lions and other wild animals for the enjoyment of the Roman masses. As innovative and cultured as the Romans were, they were also bloodthirsty and decadent and ruined their grand empire in a collapse of excess.
Which brings me back to those Roman themed films of the 50' and 60's. The Romans were usually the bad guys in these movies, persecuting Jews and Christians and other races. THE ROBE (1953), the first movie by 20th Century Fox to be released in Cinemascope, has a nice twist as young Richard Burton plays a Roman soldier who starts out selfish and arrogant but after participating in the crucifixion of Jesus, becomes a different, more caring man. THE ROBE is directed by Henry Koster, based on the novel by Lloyd C. Douglas with a screenplay by Albert Maltz and Philip Dunne, adapted by Gina Kaus. Writer Dunne as well as actors Victor Mature, Michael Rennie, and Jay Robinson would return to participate in the sequel DEMETRIUS AND THE GLADIATORS.
THE ROBE begins in Rome during the reign of Emperor Tiberius (Ernest Thesiger). We meet Roman Tribune Marcellus Gallio (Richard Burton) as he prepares to bid on some slaves at an open market. Marcellus runs into his childhood love Diana (Jean Simmons).Tiberius's nephew Caligula (Jay Robinson) arrives to bid on some gladiators. Cocky and arrogant, Marcellus outbids Caligula for a Greek slave named Demetrius (Victor Mature), infuriating Caligula. As Marcellus brings Demetrius back to his home to meet his father Senator Gallio (Torin Thatcher), word arrives that Caligula has ordered Marcellus to go to Jerusalem to deal with the Christians and a young messiah named Jesus Christ. Diana bids farewell to Marcellus on the docks as he boards a galley for the Middle East, the slave Demetrius by his side.
Marcellus arrives in Jerusalem. He's not a religious man as he witnesses the masses flock to hear the teachings of Jesus. Demetrius tries to warn Jesus that the Romans have come to arrest him but a disciple Judas (Michael Ansara) has already betrayed the carpenter. Pontius Pilate (Richard Boone) asks Marcellus and his men to execute Jesus by crucifixion. Marcellus and his men take Jesus, bearing the cross he will be nailed to, up to a hill. Demetrius tries to help Jesus but he's beaten up. After Jesus dies on the cross, a storm rages. A drunken Marcellus and his Roman soldiers gamble beneath the cross. Marcellus wins a wager for Jesus's robe. He tries on the robe and something comes over Marcellus. Demetrius grabs the robe and runs away. Word arrives that Caligula requests Marcellus return to Rome and to visit Tiberius on the island of Capri, just off the coast of Italy.
During his journey back, Marcellus suffers seizures and nightmares. On Capri, Marcellus is reunited with Diana. Marcellus is a changed man. He tells Tiberius all that has transpired. Tiberius sends Marcellus back to Jerusalem to destroy the robe. The Emperor fears that this new religion Christianity will be the demise of Rome. Back in the Galilean town of Cana, Marcellus searches for Demetrius who kept the robe. He befriends the local weaver Justus (Dean Jagger) and begins to learn more about Jesus and his followers who preach to love all and one another. Marcellus is introduced to Peter (Michael Rennie) who has taken up Jesus's cause. Marcellus confronts Demetrius to burn the robe but realizes it has no magic to it. When the local centurion Paulus (Jeff Morrow) and his soldiers appear, ready to attack the locals, Marcellus challenges Paulus to a fight, wagering that the soldiers leave if he prevails. When Marcellus wins, Paulus honors their bet and the army leaves. Marcellus pledges to support Peter and his sect.
Marcellus secretly returns to Rome, now an enemy of the Empire. Demetrius has been captured by Caligula and soldiers torture him in the armory. Caligula, the new emperor now that Tiberius has died, seeks to capture Marcellus and put him on trial. Diana secretly visits Marcellus and his Christian friends in some catacombs just outside of town. Marcellus and his new Christian friends sneak into the armory and (with Robin Hood action and music) rescue Demetrius from his captors. Demetrius is dying and Peter comes to visit him, healing the big Greek. Marcellus and Demetrius try to escape Rome by horse drawn carriage. The Roman Guard give chase and Marcellus sacrifices himself, jumping off the carriage as Demetrius and the others escape. Caligula does put Marcellus and Diana on trial. They are sentenced to death and become martyrs, walking hand in hand toward the afterlife.
THE ROBE puts Marcellus right in the middle of many famous and infamous biblical moments but director Koster keeps the major biblical players on the periphery. We never see Jesus close up. Koster films him at a distance, surrounded and blocked by his followers or from the shoulders down like on the cross. This is a Hollywood epic after all not Sunday mass. There are no big special effects in THE ROBE but Koster stages some key moments very dramatically. A big thunderstorm rages as Jesus dies on the cross. The power or magic of Jesus's robe is conveyed only by Marcellus's face and some nice music cues by composer Alfred Newman. The scene when Demetrius searches to warn Jesus the Romans are coming to arrest him and he encounters a stranger who admits to betraying Jesus already is eerily effective when the stranger reveals his name just before staggering away: Judas (yes even with my limited Sunday school and church visits I knew who Judas is). Even Pontius Pilate makes a cameo, almost in a trance-like state, knowing Jesus needs to executed but aware his disciples will only increase tenfold. Only the disciple Peter is given a more visible role in THE ROBE, befriending Marcellus and traveling with Demetrius through the Middle East to Rome.
I referenced the more modern GLADIATOR at the beginning. That film's lead character Maximus (Russell Crowe) has much in common with THE ROBE'S Marcellus. Both are Roman soldiers (Marcellus a Tribune; Maximus a general) who fight loyally for their Emperor and Rome. Both run afoul of an Emperor's younger relative (Marcellus clashes with Tiberius's nephew Caligula; Maximus with Marcus Aurelius's son Commodus). Both become enemies of the state or in this case, Rome. Marcellus joins up with Peter and the Christians. Maximus becomes a slave and then is forced into joining a gladiator school. Both men will become martyrs as they lead revolts against the tyrants that rule over them. GLADIATOR might seem like an original story but it has its roots in earlier films like THE ROBE.
THE ROBE boasts two actors with wonderfully unique voices perfect for a Roman epic. With his Shakespearean training, there's no mistaking young Richard Burton's commanding voice as Marcellus. It's an early starring role for Burton but he handles it well. Burton was still fairly new when cast in THE ROBE, having acted in only a handful of prior films including THE DESERT RATS (also 1953). Like Brando, there's something about Burton's acting that sets him apart from his contemporaries. Burton would be one of the faces of the British New Wave and would reach his peak in the 1960's. Burton would don toga and sandals again to play Marc Antony alongside Elizabeth Taylor's Cleopatra in CLEOPATRA (1963), a film more famous for igniting Burton and Taylor's love affair as well as it's overblown budget rather than the romance between Roman general and Egyptian princess.
The other amazing voice is Jay Robinson as the deliciously evil and cunning Emperor Caligula. Robinson had a laser like voice that smoothly oozes venom. Combine that with a hawk like nose, arched eyebrows, and beady eyes and Robinson was born to play the ruthless Caligula. Robinson appears in the beginning of THE ROBE and then toward the end but he's so good you wish he had a bigger part. Robinson would appear in the sequel DEMETRIUS AND THE GLADIATORS (which I haven't seen yet) so I hope they utilize his talent more. He was only 22 years old when he made THE ROBE but I remembered Robinson and his unmistakable voice from a Saturday morning kid's TV show called DR. SHRINKER (1976) where he played a mad scientist who uses a shrinking ray to make people miniature. When you look at Robinson's filmography there is a huge gap between 1957 and 1965. Robinson got involved in drugs in the late 50's and spent almost two years in jail, almost destroying his profession. He would not work in film or television for eight years before resurrecting his career.
Also appearing in THE ROBE is the beautiful Jean Simmons as Diana, Marcellus's childhood sweetheart. Like Burton, Simmons was a rising star, appearing in a host of big films in the 50's including GUYS AND DOLLS (1955) and THE BIG COUNTRY (1958). Simmons would also appear in another Roman epic SPARTACUS (1960) as Varinia. I have to admit I've never been a big fan of Victor Mature who plays the Greek slave Demetrius. Although his big size is perfect, I first thought Mature was miscast in the role but he grew on me as Marcellus gives Demetrius his freedom and he joins Jesus's cause. Check out Mature in John Ford's MY DARLING CLEMENTINE (1946) and see if you think he's right or miscast as Doc Holliday.
Rounding out the cast of THE ROBE is Michael Rennie (THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL) as Peter, an unrecognizable Dean Jagger (TWELVE O'CLOCK HIGH) as Justus, my old favorite Ernest Thesiger (THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, A CHRISTMAS CAROL) as Tiberius, and Jeff Morrow (THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US) as the centurion Paulus. Paulus is an underrated character, envious of the visiting Marcellus's status while he's stuck in the remote outpost of Jerusalem. Paulus helps Marcellus arrest and murder Jesus, getting drunk with him afterward on the mount. Later, he will be asked to arrest or even kill Marcellus but loses to him in hand to hand combat.
One of the downsides of THE ROBE or any film shot in Cinemascope is that watching it on television never captures the grandeur of viewing it in a theater with an enormous wide screen. Even today's large television screens can't duplicate what it must have been like to really view it in Cinemascope. The moviegoer also misses out on some of 20th Century Fox's impressive matte paintings, the predecessors to CGI (Computer Generated Images). Matte painting were backgrounds that were painted on glass. Whether it be Camelot in PRINCE VALIANT (1954), English castles and Kubla Khan's court in THE BLACK ROSE (1950) or Roman temples, cliff-side villas, and ancient Jerusalem in THE ROBE, Cinemascope brought these fantasy landscapes to life.
Don't expect THE ROBE to get all the facts correct historically. Caligula wasn't the Emperor when Jesus died nor had Christianity reached Rome yet (it would the Emperor Nero who would really persecute them). But THE ROBE does its best to give us a big costumed drama with impressive acting, some great writing and dialogue, and some of history and the Bible's key players interacting in the first Cinemascope production.