Robe, The (1953): Oscar-Winning Biblical Epic, Starring Richard Burton and Jean Simmons, in CinemaScope

In the early 1950s, there was a cycle of lavishly produced biblical-historical epics about Jesus Christ and the Roman Empire. The cycle began with the Oscar-nominated “The Robe” and culminated with the Oscar-winning blockbuster “Ben-Hur” (1959).

Henry Koster’s “The Robe” boasts the technical distinction of being the first movie to be released in CinemaScope.

Richard Burton plays a Roman centurion who participates in the crucifixion of Christ but is converted to Christianity and is sent to martyrdom with the help of a beautiful believer (Jean Simmons) and a muscular slave (Victor Mature).

The robe of the title is the one worn by Christ when he went to Cavalry, which the dissolute Burton wins on a dice game. Based on Lloyd C. Douglas’s novel, with a screenplay by Philip Dunne, it was a typical sin-and sanctity epic. The following year, Dunne wrote the script for the sequel, “Demetrius and the Gladiators.”

Detailed Synopsis

The prologue introduces the viewer to the power of the Roman empire. Marcellus Gallio (Richard Burton) is son of Roman senator (Torin Thatcher) and himself a military tribune.He is notorious as a ladies’ man, but he is captivated by the reappearance of a childhood sweetheart Diana (Jean Simmons), ward of the Emperor Tiberius (Ernest Thesiger). Diana is unofficially engaged to Tiberius’ regent, Caligula (Jay Robinson).

In a slave market, Marcellus makes the mistake of bidding against Caligula for a defiant Greek slave named Demetrius (Victor Mature).  The angry Caligula issues orders for Marcellus’ military transfer to Jerusalem.

Marcellus has Demetrius released, and he orders him to go on his own to the Gallio home. Marcellus had freed Demetrius, but Demetrius feels honor bound to compensate Marcellus by being his servant.

Demetrius accompanies Marcellus to Palestine, but before the galley sails, Diana comes to see Marcellus, pledging her love for him and her intention to intercede on his behalf with Tiberius.

Marcellus rides into Jerusalem with the centurion Paulus (Jeff Morrow) on the same day as Jesus’ triumphal entry on Palm Sunday. Demetrius locks gazes with Jesus, and feels compelled to follow him. Jesus is arrested and condemned by Pontius Pilate (Richard Boone), the procurator, who sends for Marcellus to take charge of the detail of Roman soldiers assigned to crucify him. Marcellus wins the robe worn by Jesus in a dice game and is told it will be a reminder of his first crucifixion.

Marcellus feels remorse for the crucifixion of Jesus.  Meanwhile, Demetrius has had enough: he curses Marcellus and the Roman Empire and runs away. Marcellus now behaves like a madman haunted by nightmares of the crucifixion. He reports to the kindly Emperor Tiberias at Capri, who gives him an imperial commission to find and destroy the robe while gathering a list of names of Jesus’ followers. At Diana’s request, Tiberius leaves her free to marry Marcellus even though Tiberius believes him to be mad.

Marcellus travels to Palestine and seeks to ingratiate himself with Justus, a weaver in Cana (Dean Jagger) and the Christian community that he leads. He sees examples of Christian life in Justus’ miraculously healed son and in the paralytic Miriam.

Marcellus finds Demetrius alone in an inn, and demands that he destroy the robe. Demetrius gives the robe to Marcellus, who refuses to touch it. He is terrified, but as the robe touches him, he is relieved from the madness of his guilt, and becomes a Christian.

Justus calls the villagers together and begins to introduce Peter when he is killed by an arrow from a detachment of Roman soldiers. Marcellus intervenes, and Paulus informs him that his orders are no longer valid; Tiberias is dead and Caligula is emperor. Marcellus informs Paulus that an imperial commission is valid even after a Roman emperor dies. Paulus tells Marcellus to make him obey via a sword duel. After a prolonged struggle Marcellus prevails. Rather than killing Paulus, Marcellus hurls his sword into a tree. Paulus, humiliated by his defeat, orders the soldiers to leave.

Peter invites Marcellus to join him and Demetrius as missionaries. Marcellus hesitates, out of guilt, but when Peter tells him of his own denial of Jesus, Marcellus confesses his role in Jesus’ death. Peter points out to him that Jesus forgave him from the cross, and Marcellus pledges his life to Jesus and agrees to go with them. Their missionary journey takes eventually, to Rome, where they must proceed “undercover” as Caligula has proscribed them.

In Rome, Caligula summons Diana from her retreat at the Gallio home to tell her that Marcellus has become a traitor to Rome by being a Christian. He takes her to the guard room where a captured Demetrius is being tortured. Diana runs out of the palace to Marcipor (David Leonard), the Gallio family slave, who is a secret Christian. Diana guesses that Marcipor is a Christian and has seen Marcellus, and she gets him to take her to Marcellus.

Marcellus and Diana are reunited, and Marcellus tells her the story of the robe and his own conversion. Diana helps Marcellus rescue Demetrius. Peter comes to the Gallio home where Demetrius has been taken and heals him. Caligula issues orders to bring Marcellus to him alive to stand trial by the end of the day.

After witnessing Peter’s healing of Demetrius, the physician attending Demetrius goes to denounce them to the authorities. Marcellus’ father disowns him as an enemy of Rome. Marcellus flees with Demetrius but, when Marcellus gives himself up so that Demetrius can escape, he is captured and put on trial.

Caligula makes Diana sit next to him for Marcellus’ trial. Marcellus admits to being a Christian; however, he denies the charge that Christians are plotting against the state. Marcellus tries to show Caligula his opportunity to accept Christ as he tries to hand the robe to Caligula but Caligula refuses to touch it as he considers it to be “bewitched”.

Caligula condemns Marcellus to death by the wish of the members of the audience based on what they’ve heard. Diana then accepts Christ, and seeks to join Marcellus, the man she considers to be her husband, in His Kingdom. Caligula condemns Diana to die alongside Marcellus.

Cast

Richard Burton as Marcellus Gallio

Jean Simmons as Diana

Victor Mature as Demetrius

Michael Rennie as Peter

Jay Robinson as Caligula

Dean Jagger as Justus

Sally Corner as Cornelia Gallio

Pamela Robinson as Lucia Gallio

Jeff Morrow as Paulus

 

Though Burton disliked his role (in his memoirs, he describes it as “prissy”), “The Robe” is the film that made him a household name in Americafor which he won him his first lead Oscar nomination; he was first nominated for a supporting turn in 1952, for “My Cousin Rachel.”

“The Robe” was made at a time when Hollywood struggled to survive in the face of tough competition from the new medium, television. In 1952, as movie-attendance had slid from eighty to thirty-five million a week, Hollywood began its own revolutions, trying to offer what TV’s small screen could not–size, scope, and effects. A year later, Cinerama, CinemaScope, and 3-D were introduced to the appreciative public.

At the same time, Hollywood sought epic subject matter in the pages of The Bible. One might ask: What does the epic form have to do with the 1950s The answer is rather simple: Despite the religious facade, the sand-and-sandals epic (as it was called) was a politically conservative and ideologically safe form, diverting the audience’s attention from a potentially problematic and divisive narrative to the film’s wondrous technology and special effects.

Oscar Nominations: 5

Picture, produced by Frank Ross

Actor: Richard Burton

Cinematography (color): Leon Shamroy

Costume Design (color): Charles LeMaire and Emile Santiago

Art Direction-Set Decoration (color): Lyle Wheeler and George W. Davis; Walter M. Scott and Paul S. Fox

Oscar Awards: 2

Art Direction

Costume Design

Oscar Context

In 1953, “From Here to Eternity” competed for the Best Picture Oscar with two historical dramas, “Julius Caesar” and “The Robe,” a romantic comedy “Roman Holiday,” and a Western, “Shane.” Each of the five nominees received at least one Oscar, and “Roman Holiday,” 3, including one for Motion Picture Story, Ian McLellan Hunter, who served as a front for blacklisted Dalton Trumbo; Trumbo got his award in 1992.

William Holden won the Best Actor for Billy Wilder’s “Stalag 17,” and Loyal Griggs the Color Cinematography for “Shane.”

Henry Koster, the helmer of “The Robe,” failed to get recognition from the Academy’s Directors Branch. His spot was “taken” by Charles Waters who received a nod for “Lili,” and/or Billy Wilder nominated for “Stalag 17.” Neither film received Best Picture nomination, though both were smash hits at the box-office.