In the mid-1930’s French inventor, Henri Chretien valiantly attempted to convince American studios his anamorphic process was as revolutionary as it was an indispensable innovation they simply could not do without. Then, Chretien’s as yet un-patented invention employed standard 35mm film and two unique lenses; one to horizontally squeeze the image during photography in the camera, the other to reverse and elongate the image to a 2.35:1 aspect ratio in projection. And while Chretien’s concept had merit and was, at least from a production standpoint, economically sound (although it would prove somewhat more costly for theaters), his timing could not have been more sincerely off; Hollywood, in the throes of the Great Depression and still reeling from the thought-numbing epic reboot of their dream factories for ‘sound’ and, semi-investment in the as yet, experimental 3-strip Technicolor. Still struggling to keep their collective creative brain trusts above the high water mark, the studios were far more inclined to adopt the ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ mantra – though, particularly in light of William Fox’s resplendent failure to promote the superior 70mm Grandeur process with two ambitiously mounted colossal flops – each made in 1930. Henceforth, and with wartime rationing putting an even bigger crimp in their spending, the Academy ratio of 1.33:1 would remain the gold standard bearer for some time to come. Ironically, it would wear out its welcome in an as cash-strapped and backward thinking Hollywood circa the early 1950’s when the long-delayed/official debut of television (first premiered at the 1939 New York World’s Fair) suddenly had suburbanites enjoying entertainment for free and in the comfort of their own living rooms, giving these mogul-driven empires another fiscal angina.
Perhaps Hollywood desired to do bigger – if not ‘better’ work in the 1940’s – with several gargantuan projects placed on the back burner. For the duration of the war MGM delayed plans to remake Quo Vadis (1950) and ‘hot’ properties like Lloyd C. Douglas’ The Robe languished in turnaround purgatory at RKO – a studio that, arguably, had neither the budget nor creative wherewithal to properly invest. The Robe had been a passion project of producer, Frank Ross ever since its runaway best seller publication in 1942; RKO investing heavily in pre-production sketches and willing to hoard its limited resources; delaying other projects to syphon off and scrape together a budget of $5 million (a formidable sum for them). Alas, fate and time were not on RKO’s side; the studio, once home to a glittering assemblage of Astaire/Rogers’ musicals, Val Lewton psychological horror classics and the misfiring genius of Orson Welles, fallen on enough hard times to warrant a change in management. With the studio’s acquisition by Howard Hughes, the edict on high reflected a general disinterest to make Bible-fiction epics. Hardly crestfallen, though undeniably disappointed, Ross offered to gamble everything and buy the property back. Instead, his wildest dreams were realized by Darryl F. Zanuck’s acquisition of The Robe. Progressive by most standards, Zanuck had seen the coming storm of television. Moreover, he was immensely impressed by Cinerama; a cumbersome 3-strip widescreen precursor to Cinemascope that had shocked the entertainment industry by having its debut travelogue feature, This Is Cinerama (1953) play to sell-out crowds for more than a year.
This is Cinerama would continue its legendary run for another 2-3 years in limited engagements across the United States. And while its initial impressions were promising, Cinerama would ultimately prove far too complex and expensive to become main stream; though MGM tried to will the impossible with two full-fledged features produced in all its 3-strip glory. At roughly this same juncture, Zanuck had sincerely tired of his increasing battles with New York management to make the sorts of pictures he wanted to at 2oth Century-Fox. His sound judgement, singularly responsible for bringing the fledgling company into fiscal profitability throughout the late 30’s and early 40’s was brought into question when his titanic investment in Wilson (1944), a sumptuously mounted Technicolor biopic, failed to garner either profit or the critical prestige it so richly deserved. Hence, and with an influx of badly needed capital made during the war years, Zanuck reasoned the time was right for Chretien’s invention to see the light of day, henceforth rechristened as Cinemascope. The Robe would become the noted beneficiary of Zanuck’s foresight; also, regrettably, the various shortcomings in Chretien’s flawed process; the Bausch and Lomb lenses, vertically warping the image to the extreme left and right, the vast expanses of the newly inaugurated ‘rectangular’ image requiring constant movement to captivate the eye. While Cinemascope boasted up to 6-tracks of directionalized stereophonic sound, its image was grainier and more softly focused, with a decidedly more muted palette of DeLuxe colors in lieu of the gorgeous and deeply saturated hues of traditional – if far more costly – 3-strip Technicolor.
With MGM’s 1950 release of Quo Vadis, in Technicolor – minus widescreen – the second coming of the Bible/fiction craze was off and running. This would see out the fifties and have its penultimate hoorah in 1959, again, at MGM with William Wyler’s perfectly realized remake of Gen. Lew Wallace’s literary classic, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. The cycle for these parables, originally launched by Cecil B. DeMille in the mid-1930’s over at Paramount would return to DeMille mid-decade with two leviathans for his alma mater: Samson and Delilah (1949), and, a remake of his own silent masterpiece, The Ten Commandments (1956) given Technicolor and VistaVision this time around. The Robe was, by far, Fox’s most prestigious production of 1953; tipping the scales with a budget of $4.6 million and earning back a whopping $36 million. Zanuck had taken no chances ensuring The Robe’s success; hand-picking an impressive roster of talent to helm the production. This included Richard Burton, an actor of considerable merit on the London stage, who had sincerely impressed Zanuck – if not his co-star, Olivia DeHavilland, during the making of 1952’s My Cousin Rachel; a Gothic melodrama for which Zanuck had negotiated a 3-picture deal with indie producer, Alexander Korda, who held the rights to Burton’s contract.
DeHavilland’s initial impressions of Richard Burton as “a coarse-grained man with a coarse-grained charm and a talent not completely developed…” may have been closer to the truth of the actor’s screen presence – at least, then. For in reviewing Burton’s work in The Robe one is apt to unearth an unrefined quality to his art, only occasionally complimentary to his characterization of the butch Roman Tribune, Marcellus Gallio – the man who crucified Christ, yet is forgiven, only to be sacrificed under the reign of the maniac, Caligula (a role lusciously filled by co-star Jay Robinson with all the brutal madness and bravura of an insane and power-hungry oligarch). Already by this juncture in his career, Burton’s impossibly rugged handsomeness had been somewhat eroded by his penchant for strong drink; his steely-eyed gazes and mop of artificial Roman curls lending an air of effete charm as counterbalance. The flawed romance between Marcellus and Diana (Jean Simmons) became amplified by the utter lack of romantic chemistry between the egotistical Burton and statuesque, though cold, Simmons; their tragic absence of even a spark to set the screen ablaze somewhat offset by the enigmatic performance by Victor Mature as the slave, Demetrius. Mature’s lumbering musculature often prevented the critics from taking his acting more seriously; an oversight exaggerated after the actor’s solid turn as Samson in the aforementioned DeMille epic. Indeed, comedian, Groucho Marx glibly suggested he would not attend any movie where the male star’s ‘breast tissue’ outranked that of his female co-stars. Even so, Mature proves the ballast of his craft is not entirely in his pecs.
Determined to produce a sizable hit his first time out, Zanuck employed a litany of writers to distill and condense Lloyd C. Douglas’ sprawling novel into a manageable screenplay. Only Philip Dunne would ‘officially’ receive screen credit for this rewrite; an oversight Dunne silently abhorred but was forced to accept when Albert Maltz, the man responsible for the first draft of the screenplay was indicted by HUAC for being a communist sympathizer and henceforth blacklisted in Hollywood. Douglas, a minister cum writer, had penned The Robe in response to one of his parishioners’’ queries as to what had become of the sacred cloth worn by Jesus just prior to his crucifixion. Employing his own convictions, with more than an ounce of artistic license liberally applied (the Holy Scriptures are, in fact, rather sketchy on these details), Douglas’ authorship would yield some fascinating speculations, lent credence by his former career. Intuitively believing he already had a hit on his hands Zanuck was already planning a sequel to The Robe, even as it had yet to finish filming. In fact in the editing process The Robe would eventually open with a master shot of a Roman coliseum excised from its sequel: Demetrius and the Gladiators (released one year later). From this magnificent vista of buff and well-oiled bodies about to be sacrificed in the arena for mere sport we are treated to a montage depicting Rome’s supremacy, decadence and its impervious disregard for humanity. There are more slaves than Romans in Rome; their blood, sweat and anguish met with indifference by the aristocracy, who feel nothing more than a sense of entitlement.
Enter Tribune Marcellus Gallio (Richard Burton); whose vanity precedes his charm. Perusing the local slave markets, Marcellus is intent on bidding for a pair of Macedonian twin sisters to add to his family’s household. Unfortunately for Marcellus, Caligula (Jay Robinson) also has his eye on the pair. Worse for Marcellus, he has made rather a bad enemy of this future emperor, outspoken in his condemnation of Caligula as a figure of fun. Before the bidding, Marcellus is reunited with childhood sweetheart, Diana (Jean Simmons) who is currently Caligula’s ward. Caligula is a demigod; drunk with power and emotionally unstable. Nevertheless, he will shortly ascend from his present duties as governor to rule by tyranny over all of Rome. After Caligula slyly deprives Marcellus of the twins, Marcellus blatantly outbids him on the Greek slave, Demetrius (Victor Mature) whom Caligula had intended on using as a gladiator, thereby incurring his considerable wrath. In reply, Caligula exiles Marcellus to Jerusalem – a treacherous den of thieves where he will surely meet with an untimely end. As fate would have it, Marcellus encounters Christ on Palm Sunday; seemingly the soothsayer and rebel rouser whom the local constabulary, fronted by Centurion Paulus (Jeff Morrow) is determined to make an example of for unwarranted crimes against the state. Marcellus is unmoved by his first encounter with Jesus. But Demetrius suffers an on-the-spot conversion that immediately transforms him into one of Christ’s followers. Learning from Judas (Michael Ansara) of Governor Pontius Pilate’s (Richard Boone) decree to sentence Jesus to death, Demetrius implores Marcellus to intercede on Christ’s behalf; a request met with abject dismissal. Instead, Jesus is crucified; a spectacle witnessed by Demetrius who recovers ‘the robe’ previously worn by Christ at the foot of the cross.
The robe is won in a game of chance by Marcellus. However, as Christ takes his last breath, his blood drips onto Marcellus’ hands; the true spirit of his suffrage bewitching the robe. Demetrius retrieves the garment. But when Marcellus attempts to sheath himself in its comfort during the violent thunderstorm that immediately follows Christ’s passing, he is instead possessed by an inexplicably crippling mental sickness that continues to haunt the very fiber of his being and renders him a shivering wreck. Demetrius condemns Marcellus for his actions, reclaims the robe and retreats into the city, leaving the badly weakened Marcellus to return to Rome. While Pilate is empathetic, even tender towards Diana’s unfailing love for Marcellus, he pledges to allow Marcellus to return to Jerusalem in search of the robe – presumably, the only way to cure his enfeebled mind. Determined to rid himself of the robe’s ‘curse’, Marcellus instead crosses paths with the benevolent merchant, Justus (Dean Jagger), Christ’s disciple, Peter (Michael Rennie) and Miriam (Betta St. John); the lame girl whose mind has since been freed by Christ’s blessings. Through their faith, compassion, love and understanding, Marcellus’ own health is gradually restored. But more important, Marcellus has become a true believer in the kingdom of heaven. Ironically, this makes him an enemy of the state. After defeating Paulus in a duel without shedding his blood, Marcellus is arrested for sedition and brought before Caligula in the palace to stand trial before a court of his peers. Forced to choose between Caligula and God, Marcellus picks the latter, providing Caligula with the opportunity to sentence him to death. Confessing her love for Marcellus, Diana too is condemned to die. The film ends, not with another crucifixion, but with this devoted pair escorted from the palace, suddenly dissolving into a heavenly spire of clouds and a groundswell of composer, Alfred Newman’s lush and evocative choral exaltation, in fact, pilfered almost verbatim from his own compositions for 1939’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Sanctuary, indeed!
The Robe is, of course, the foray into an entirely new and innovative mode of motion picture presentation, the 2.35:1 aspect requiring different consideration to accommodate the elongated ‘mailbox’ shape of the screen. Initially, Henri Chretien had marketed the process to Zanuck as a way to expedite shooting with less need for multiple camera setups; Cinemascope’s cavernous space allowing actors to re-position themselves within the frame while the camera remained relatively stationary; an idiotic concept at best, and one to take movie-land’s editorial artistry all the way back to the stone ages. Movies are not ‘live theater’ after all. Nor did Cinemascope allow for any level of comfort when plotting out a long take. Director Henry Koster, whose work includes a spate of Deanna Durbin musicals, as well as the ethereal The Bishop’s Wife (1947) and ebullient Harvey (1950) is somewhat stultified by the use of Cinemascope; infamously chided by no less an artist than Vincente Minnelli as fit only for the photography of snakes and funeral processions. Koster’s use of it in The Robe is relegated to drawn-out establishing shots and static setups where two actors are seen in medium shot exchanging dialogue from opposite ends of the frame. Another curiosity inherent in early Cinemascope is the limited focal range of the lenses, resulting in an unnatural horizontal elongation of actors’ heads – affectionately referred to as the Cinemascope mumps. For the most part, Koster is clever enough to avoid this oversight, although there is one moment when Richard Burton’s head noticeably stretches and then snap back into its normal shape as he walks from the center to the extreme left of frame.
What is more disconcerting for the first-time viewer is the ‘moving tableau’ quality to Philip Dunne’s writing; a sort of perfunctory sense of conjoining dialogue to move the plot from points ‘A’ to ‘B’; seemingly without any real finesse for the finer articulations fleshed out in Douglas’ novel. We get it: the real star of The Robe is Cinemascope – Zanuck’s baby of ‘scope and quality’ (as Fox publicity suggested) and soon to become a format-changing mode in picture presentation for the entire industry. But Cinemascope alone, like Technicolor before it, and CGI much later to follow, is not enough of an inducement to carry the load. Thanks to George W. Davis and Lyle Wheeler’s sumptuous art direction and Leon Shamroy’s magnificent color photography, The Robe has spectacle to buoy an audience during the oft heavy-handed exposition. Undeniably, The Robe is more philosophical than action packed, not necessarily the kiss of death for any movie, but herein rather predictably stifled by Henry Koster’s inability to give us anything more intimate or even engaging than a two-shot in medium close-up; characters strategically positioned, not necessarily to maximize their impact in a particular scene, but simply, and rather simplistically, to fill a dead space in the proscenium. While the effect is quite often decorous, it does not always make for very engaging cinema. The Robe also relies somewhat heavily on matte paintings to achieve its sense of scale and, in Cinemascope, these ‘trick shots’ look quite deliberately ‘fake’ rather than seamlessly blended into the live action. That said, The Robe was a colossal smash for Fox, as was How To Marry A Millionaire (1953); shot before, but released theatrical after The Robe. I suspect that like the allure of This is Cinerama, audiences were enamored with the size of the image and not the stories being presented within them for their enjoyment. While early Cinemascope movies can be a lot of fun, and, under the right direction, occasionally attain bona fide ‘classic’ status, The Robe has steadily proven itself to be one for the history books - not the ages.
Primarily because the original film elements were in such piss poor shape, the Blu-ray of The Robe is a real mixed bag. We really cannot fault the regime at Fox Home Video responsible for this almost ten year old restoration effort. Were that someone at Fox had lavished as much effort on its sequel, Demetrius and the Gladiators – an infinitely more engaging and technically superior effort in Cinemascope that looks atrocious on Blu-ray from Twilight Time. But The Robe looks about as good as is to be expected. Sourced from various surviving elements, when the image snaps together, color, contrast and overall clarity is quite astonishing; some gorgeous hues, accurate flesh tones, and a startling array of blacks, deep navy and blood red. Alas, there are several sequences that appear bathed in jaundice yellow. It goes beyond ‘mood’ or stylized cinematography and lighting; something to do with the tinkering applied during the restoration efforts. And these, it ought to be pointed out, ought to have been formidable. Anyone who has seen The Robe on home video before Blu-ray will instantly recall how gaud-awful it looked; severely faded and suffering from vinegar syndrome with a barrage of age-related artifacts. The latter has been virtually eradicated for a very clean image harvest herein. Dependent on the source material, film grain is inconsistently rendered throughout; practically non-existent at times and quite heavy at others; sometimes fluctuating within the same scene.
Less impressive is the 5.1 DTS remastered audio; Alfred Newman’s score given amplified bombast but lacking in overall refinement. Dialogue frequently sounds tinnier than expected; the directionalized recordings occasionally tracking across the screen in an awkward disconnect to the action taking place on the screen. The storm sequence during the crucifixion is a sonic tidal wave; haunting wind effects spread evenly across all channels. Extras include an introduction by Martin Scorsese, commentary from David Newman, Jon Burlingame, Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman, an isolated score, two featurettes – one on the making of the movie, the other on the Cinemascope process. We also get ‘BonusView’ featuring a host of weirdly ‘hidden’ extras, including reflections on the real crucifixion, filling in the gaps in the Biblical record, more tidbits about the movie and its promotion. There is also a stills gallery and interactive press book to consider. Overall, Fox Home Video deserves a solid pat on the back for this Blu-ray, now more than a decade old. How much better could The Robe look with a new 4K restoration?!? Hmmmm.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)