Thursday, August 25, 2011

Review – The Robe

August 25, 2011

The Robe – US, 1953

For much of the first half of Henry Koster’s film The Robe, Marcellus Gallio (Richard Burton) is one of the most complicated romantic characters you’re likely to see in a film. This is a character who walks through slave markets and listens to the sales pitch of slaveholders as they try to drum up interest in their product. Their strategy of encouraging men to "stop and look" at their female slaves does nothing more than turn ordinary passersby into opportune gawkers preying on the vulnerability of those enslaved. Most movies would have the lead character be disgusted by what he saw; however, Marcellus Gallio seems rather indifferent. This is not a man who sees anything wrong with slavery. When a woman accosts him and chastises him for embarrassing her with his boorish behavior the night before, he is equally unaffected, as if he couldn’t care less that the woman is ending their association. This is a man who will later be seen rolling dice with his fellow Roman soldiers and declaring himself lucky behind the most famous of Pontius Pilate’s numerous crucifixions, completely indifferent to the tears and suffering surrounding him. In other words, he’s a hard man to invest emotionally in, and yet he’s the same man who earlier in the film stared into the eyes of his childhood friend Diana (Jean Simmons) and knew that he had finally found true love at last. Usually a character who does this is the hero of a film, yet somehow that moniker doesn’t seem appropriate for Marcellus, at least not yet.

Instead, our sympathies go to Marcellus’s Greek slave, Demetrius (Victor Mature). This is a character whose impulse is to prevent being sold into slavery, yet who once sold has a moral code that prevents him from trying to escape. He too accepts slavery and all of the evils that go with it. Marcellus takes Demetrius with him when he is dispatched to Jerusalem by Caligula, who Marcellus suspects of sending him away in the hopes that he will be killed by what his father refers to as the “scum of the army.” See, Caligula wants to marry Diana as well. On the boat, Marcellus attempts to befriend Demetrius, who spurns his efforts. “Friends can’t be bought,” he explains, “even for $3,000.” It’s a quietly powerful moment.

In Jerusalem, Demetrius has a chance encounter with the man some call the Messiah. It changes him forever. No words are spoken between the two, and unlike Ben Hur, there is no act of charity that accompanies their meeting. Demetrius and Jesus simply lock eyes for a split second. Sometimes, that’s all it takes. “I think he wants me to follow him,” Demetrius says, perhaps well aware of the dual meaning of his words. Later, Demetrius will stand in front of Jesus as he is dying on the cross and suddenly weep into the red robe that Jesus wore as he was led to his crucifixion. Soon, he’ll declare his independence and curse the Roman Empire. Marcellus takes his words literally, and when he is suddenly struck by a form of early post-traumatic stress disorder, he readily accepts a doctor’s theory that he must find Demetrius and destroy the robe in order to be restored to his former rationale state.

The film does a decent, albeit sanitized job of showing what the first Christians probably went through as they struggled to accept the basic tenants of Christianity and live up to the examples that Jesus set forth. A small group of them are presented with a moral dilemma when Marcellus tries to buy all of the robes in a particular village. He doesn’t know anything about robes and probably couldn’t care less how much he spends for them as long as he finds the one that he believes bewitched him. However, there is such a thing as fairness, and the crowd has to be reminded not to take advantage of others. To Marcellus’s surprise, one by one, they line up to return some of the money Marcellus gave them. He is somewhat surprised by their actions, and the implication is that he would not have been so charitable.

Like many of the religious-themed films of this period, The Robe becomes a bit too preachy at times, as characters take up long stretches of screen time to say what could easily be summed up in a few words. Early on, these moments seem justified, as they are part of Marcellus’s transformation from an uncaring soldier into a pacifist who spares his enemies instead of killing them. In the second half of the film, they become a bit tedious and come across as having less to do with the characters than with hammering home a message to the audience. In particular, a scene involving the miraculous healing power of prayer feels a bit forced. In addition, the film takes the easy way out by showing viewers not only that what these characters believe is true but that earthly suffering and sacrifice in the name of Christianity earn you a place in a wonderful cloud-filled heavenly realm. It would have been stronger to show people willing to die for something that is not presented as fact, for it is the willingness to die for something noble that is truly brave. Knowing you will be rewarded for your sacrifice somehow weakens it.

However, the film’s biggest obstacle is the rather heavy-handed performance of Jay Robinson as Caligula. He plays Caligula as a creepy, spoiled brat prone to unrealistic temper flare-ups and tantrums and never quite gets that he is also playing a head of state. Only in one scene does Caligula demonstrate the cruelty that would make people fear him enough to blindly follow him, and in the scene, only Diana witnesses his sadistic nature. It’s not enough. He should have taken a cue from Richard Boone, who plays Pontius Pilate. Sometimes subtly and introspection are more effective than constant emotional outbursts.

That said, The Robe remains a good film. It is well directed, and it contains good performances from Burton, Mature, and Simmons. At times, Burton delivers his lines as if he were reciting Shakespeare, which seems perfectly acceptable for a film set during the height of the Roman Empire. The Robe has suffered a bit as a result of the passage of time. Most current films with religious themes leave more to the imagination, allowing the viewer to decide for himself whether something is a miracle or not or whether something does or doesn’t prove the existence of God. I too prefer this kind of film; however, this preference did not diminish my appreciation for The Robe. It is a film about a man forever changed by an experience, and it’s a pretty good one at that. (on DVD and Blu-ray)

3 and a half stars

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