Robe, The (1953): What You Need to Know about the Biblical Epic, Starring Richard Burton and Jean Simmons

The Biblical epic film, The Robe, tells the story of a Roman military tribune who commands the unit that crucifies Jesus.

Made by 20th Century Fox, the film is notable for being the first film released in the widescreen process CinemaScope.

The picture was directed by Henry Koster and produced by Frank Ross.

The screenplay was adapted by Gina Kaus, Albert Maltz, and Philip Dunne from the Lloyd C. Douglas novel of the same name.

The music score was composed by Alfred Newman and the cinematography by Leon Shamroy.

The commercial success of The Robe led to one sequel, Demetrius and the Gladiators, starring victor Mature.

Lloyd Douglas wrote the novel The Robe to answer a fictional question: what happened to the Roman soldier who won Jesus’ robe through a dice game?

The action takes place in Ancient Rome, Judaea, Capri, and Galilee in a time period stretching from 32 A.D. to 38 A.D.

The prologue introduces the viewer to the might and scope 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 prosecutor 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.

Jeff Chandler was originally announced for the role of Demetrius.

The film was advertised as “the modern miracle you see without glasses”, a dig at the 3D movies of the day. Since many theaters of the day were not equipped to show a CinemaScope film, two versions of The Robe were made: one in the standard screen ratio of the day, the other in the widescreen process. Setups and some dialogue differ between the versions.

The film earned $17.5 million in North America during its initial theatrical release.  The film had one sequel, Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954), which featured Victor Mature in the title-role, making The Robe the only Biblical epic with a sequel.


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
Torin Thatcher as Sen. Gallio
Sally Corner as Cornelia Gallio
Pamela Robinson as Lucia Gallio
Richard Boone as Pontius Pilate
Betta St. John as Miriam
Jeff Morrow as Paulus
Ernest Thesiger as Tiberius
Rosalind Ivan as Empress Julia the Elder
Dawn Addams as Junia
Leon Askin as Abidor
Helen Beverley as Rebecca
Frank Pulaski as Quintus
David Leonard as Marcipor
Michael Ansara as Judas
Jay Novello as Tiro
Donald C. Klune as Jesus of Nazareth
Cameron Mitchell as the voice of Jesus

Oscar Awards and Nominations

The film won Academy Awards for Best Art Direction – Set Decoration, Color (Lyle Wheeler, George Davis, Walter M. Scott, Paul S. Fox), and Best Costume Design, Color (Charles Le Maire).[9]

It was nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role (Richard Burton), Best Cinematography, Color, and Best Picture.

The film also won the Golden Globe Award for Best Picture.

TV Premiere

The film was first telecast by ABC-TV on Easter weekend in 1967, at 7:00 P.M., E.S.T, to allow for family viewing. In a highly unusual move, the film was shown with only one commercial break.