Simple Homespun: A Movie Review of “The Robe”
Length: 135 minutes
Genre: Biblical/Drama/ Inspirational/Religious
Maturity: PG (for intense thematic elements)
Cast: Richard Burton (Marcellus Gallio), Jean Simmons (Diana), Victor Mature (Demetrius), Michael Rennie (Peter), Jay Robinson (Caligula), Torin Thatcher (Sen. Gallio), Dean Jaggar (Justus), Jeff Morrow (Paulus)
Director: Henry Koster
Personal Rating: 5 Stars
Out of all the classic Biblical films I’ve watched and enjoyed, The Robe continues to rank at the top of my list. While it may have dated connotations and historical foibles intermixed within, it manages to powerfully convey the story of Christ’s Passion and the struggles of the early Christian Church. It also brings to life the individual personal histories and spiritual quests of the fictional characters that prove to be entertaining, romantic, and gripping in the tradition of other movie standards in and “sword-and-sandal” genre such as Ben-Hur and Quo Vadis.
Richard Burton stars as Marcellus Gallio, a young Roman tribune with a taste for strong wine and shapely woman. While his father battles the encroachment of the imperial prerogative on the floor of the Senate, Marcellus strikes up a private rivalry with Caligula, the narcissistic heir to the imperial throne. This reaches its climax when Marcellus dares to outbid him at a slave market, securing possession of a fiery Greek captive named Demetrius. As a punishment for this impertinence, the young soldier is transferred to the back-water province of Judea.
Although Diana, his long-suffering childhood sweetheart, promises to use her influence at the court to have Marcellus brought home, he is discouraged and embittered by this sudden downward turn in his fortunes. His father encourages him to “be a man”, but everyone knows the transfer from Caligula is meant to be a death sentence. Marcellus decides to take Demetrius as his personal slave for his tour of duty in the Middle East, and although he extends the hand of friendship to him, the Greek declares that a man can never be a friend when he is also a slave, and he will only do his duty as far as he must.
In Jerusalem, Marcellus is put under the command of the brave yet sadistic Centurion Paulus, who is jealous of the young man’s noble birth and connections with the emperor. It is the Jewish feast of the Passover, and rumors are circulating that a young carpenter from Nazareth may be hailed as the Messiah come to overthrow the Roman regime. When he makes a triumphant arrival in the city, Demetrius makes eye contact with him as he rides by on a donkey, and is touched to the core.
Several days later, Marcellus’s unit is assigned to carry out the crucifixion of three “criminals” – one of them being Jesus Christ. Beneath the cross, he takes part in a dice game and wins the Nazarene’s robe. As he descends Mount Cavalry, an eerie storm blows up and he finds himself strangely possessed by the robe when it is flung on him to protect him from the rain. Demetrius, furious with his master for having put Christ to death, steals the homespun garment and runs away with it.
Marcellus returns to Rome a broken man teetering on the brink of insanity. Diana and the Emperor Tiberius convince him that he has been bewitched by Christ’s robe and that he must find and destroy it in order to free himself from the enchantment. Desperate to restore his senses, Marcellus returns to Judea and tracks Demetrius down to the town of Canaan, where he touched by the kindness of Justus, a simple weaver, and Miriam, a crippled girl with a beautiful voice, who both insist that Jesus has risen from the dead.
He is terrified at this assertion, yet still continues his obsessive quest to locate his runaway slave and burn the robe. But when they finally come face to face in an inn, Marcellus realizes that he cannot destroy the robe, and Demetrius helps him to realize that it is not the simple homespun that has “bewitched” him, but rather his own conscious. After meeting Peter the Apostle and having a sword-clanging show-down with Paulus, Marcellus finally confesses his sins to “The Big Fisherman” and enlists himself in the Christian cause.
Several years later, he finds himself back in Rome with Demetrius and Peter where he is finally reunited with Diana. Long accused by the new emperor Caligula of desertion and treason for his embrace of Christianity and disappearance, she is initially disturbed by his newfound faith that threatens to tear them apart. His father also considers him a traitor and disowns him. But when Marcellus is captured by the authorities trying to help Demetrius escape them, he is put to the ultimate test of his convictions on trial before Caligula where he must defend his new-found faith in the Christ…or die trying.
The Robe was the first film to be shot in Technicolor, and the brilliance of the visuals made it a perfect choice to break in the new method. The quality of the sets and costumes is excellent, as is the music score, especially the love theme. As far as acting, Richard Burton electrifies the film with verve and passion, bringing to life a man at war with himself. Jean Simmons as Diana, the beautiful and gracious daughter of nobility, contrasts vividly with her lover in her steadiness and calm. But both will prove their long-suffering perseverance to each other and ultimately the faith they come to embrace. Jay Robinson as Caligula also makes a deliciously deranged baddie of the same variety as Peter Ustinov’s portrayal of Nero in Quo Vadis.
This film, like Ben-Hur, never shows Christ’s face. Instead, we are made to focus more intently on the expressions of those who see Him, such as Demetrius as watches the Palm Sunday procession to Jerusalem pass by. The Passion is portrayed in a haunting yet non-graphic way, again focusing more on the reactions of the people participating in the event without wallowing in visual blood and gore. I found it interesting how Pontius Pilate is shown repeatedly asking for water to wash his hands, as if he realizes he will never be able to cleanse himself of his crime. Also, Marcellus is shown compulsively rubbing his hand after Christ’s blood splattered on it.
Another aspect of the film I find appealing is the way Marcellus doesn’t “lose himself” when he converts. He remains a loyal Roman and a fighting man. Where some films make it seem as if the Early Christians ascribed to a Quaker-like non-violence, we get to see some terrific sword-play before and after Marcellus’s transformation. Actually, the duel between Marcellus and Paulus would probably make it to a list of my favorite top 10 duels in movie-land, complete with a flying pot that gets smashed to smithereens by swinging metal! I must admit, though, that I find it hard to imagine Paulus just letting things lie after being beat in a sword fight in front of all of his men, even if Marcellus did magnanimously spare his life! I guess he was more honorable than any of us thought…?
As with all films of this type, there are some foibles. For example it is indicated that the Romans were the ones who were determined to capture Jesus, whereas the Gospel describes the Jewish Pharisees as being the ones who orchestrated the arrest and then brought Him to the Roman authorities in order to pass a death sentence. Also, they make it seem as if Judas reported to the Romans instead of the Sanhedrin.
One must wonder if this was an early effort to take away the blame from the Jewish people, especially in the wake of the Holocaust in the 1940’s. I’m sure they were full of good intentions in doing so; after all, the truth of the matter is that we all had a fair share in the death of Christ for our sins. But that doesn’t mean we have to rewrite history when it was in fact the Jewish Sanhedrin who had the most to fear from Christ and did desire his death “for the sake of the people”.
Also, Emperor Tiberius is shown as being something of peach in comparison with the perverted Caligula, but in reality he was quite brutal and tyrannical in his own right. However, I suppose it could be said that he is just showing favoritism to the son of an “old army buddy”, even that that same “buddy” seems pretty intent on opposing the extension of imperial powers in the Senate.
It might be validly brought up that Marcellus’s conversation seems rather instantaneous, but there is quite a lot of emotional turmoil beforehand and sometimes conversations do transpire through a sudden epiphany. Through the example of others, the Christian philosophy of life and his own potential to be forgiven clicked in his mind and changed his heart. This whole transformation reaches its climax in his trial before the imperial court, which strongly reminds me of Thomas More’s trial in A Man for All Seasons. His kneeling to reconfirm his allegiance to Rome but standing up when asked to deny Christ is very nicely done, and the twist at the end involving Diana’s own sacrifice to join her chosen husband is especially powerful.
I have read reviews from a host of “educated” personages declaiming this film as “prissy” or “cheesy” or in desperate need of a remake. Even Richard Burton was said to have been less than thrilled with the role. But the cynicism behind such remarks is distasteful, in my opinion. What exactly is “prissy” about a story of conversion and encounter with Christ? What’s “cheesy” about someone dying for their faith or being willing to face torture for a loved one? While it may have its fair share of incongruent historical connotation and the occasional hokey line to common to post-war American Biblical flicks, it remains a cinematic classic with serious clout.
To me, The Robe and its message transcend time, and each year at Eastertide it gives fresh inspiration to better myself and carry my cross more faithfully. Marcellus’s long spiritual journey is one that should be related to by everyone, since we are all in part responsible for the crucifixion of Christ and in need of His saving power. Although the Roman tribune starts out as a cocky young man used to a gourmet lifestyle, his travels shatter his protective bubble and expose him to a world of cruelty and injustice.
This causes him to seek out the ultimate treasure, even though half the time he doesn’t know what he is searching for. It takes the humility and faithfulness of those he encounters to help him find his way. Like them, it is our mission as Christ-followers to bear true witness for Our Savior in word and deed, realizing that each act we perform with love can make all the difference to someone searching for the truth.
By Rosaria Marie