DIRECTOR: Henry Koster
May Contain Spoilers!
In 1954, The Robe was nominated for, but lost, the Oscar for Best Cinematography (Colour). But in 1953, Director Of Photography, Leon Shamroy and Director Henry Koster made history by competing the first CinemaScope feature film. The direct forbearer of today’s 2.39:1 widescreen format, Shamroy was robbed as the cinematography is nothing short of excellent.
Blending the styles of the traditional 1.37:1 Academy format and conventional 1950’s film making, this is an eery combination of historical action movie and biblical drama. Richard Burton stars as Marcellus Gallio, a Roman officer who is given the routine task of crucifying Jesus Christ.
Meanwhile, his childhood sweetheart, Diana (Jean Simmons) has returned into his life, but is also the object of the affections of the notorious Emperor, Caligula, played maniacally by Jay Robinson. But Marcellus has also procured a stubborn Greek slave, Demetrius (Victor Mature) who is a budding Christian and Marcellus is taken with what he perceived to be a curse, transmitted to him via Christ’s robe, which he wins in a game of chance with his subordinates. But in fact he is being driven made by guilt, as Jesus forgave him and everyone for their sins as he died on the cross.
He ends up spending time with some Christians, namely Peter (Michael Rennie) and converts to their ways. This leads to a showdown between him and Caligula and a surprising ending for a film of this type.
Besides being the first CinemaScope feature film ever made, this was also shot scene for scene in the traditional 1.37:1 format for those cinemas which had yet to be set up for the new format, a version which I’m not sure is still available, but The Robe is not perfect. But when it’s good, it’s brilliant. Driven as much by Alfred Newman’s chilling and moving score, the story is well written, with solid characterisations and it makes a good argument for Christianity. And don’t get me wrong, I’m not religious myself but Koster’s opus makes a good case.
The action is a mixed bag, with both swashbuckling 50’s fight scenes along with flamboyant music to a timeless chase sequence which shows off the widescreen format to it fullest. The Robe maybe a staged and hammy at times, but at others it is a beautiful testament to cinematic innovation, combined with solid storytelling and fantastic music by one of cinema’s greats, the man who is also responsible for 20th Century Fox’s iconic fanfare.
60 years old this year, The Robe is one of the great epics and is highly recommended. It’s sequel, Demetrius And The Gladiators (1956) on the other hand, not so much. But direct sequels were hardly commonplace back in the 1950’s so its legacy continues.