'The Robe' will always be remembered as the first production to employ the widescreen CinemaScope process, but not much else about this cardboard biblical epic sticks in one's mind. Though it addresses with reverence the rise of Christianity and spiritual awakening of an immoral Roman soldier, Henry Koster's film remains an often lifeless, by-the-numbers spectacle that rarely hits the high notes we expect.
Based on the bestselling novel by Lloyd C. Douglas, a former minister who infused all his stories with religious and redemptive themes, 'The Robe' chronicles the transformation of Marcellus Gallio (Richard Burton), an arrogant Roman tribune who is banished to "the worst pest hole in the empire" – Palestine – for his bad-boy behavior. His childhood sweetheart, Diana (Jean Simmons), uses her influence with the Emperor Tiberius (Ernest Thesiger) to arrange a transfer to cushier digs in Capri, but not before Pontius Pilate (Richard Boone) orders Marcellus to oversee the crucifixion of a treasonous fanatic known as Jesus of Nazareth. Marcellus dutifully complies, and wins Christ's robe during a crap game at the foot of the cross. Yet the garment, coupled with his profound guilt over his role in the mystical man's execution, torments Marcellus to the brink of suicide. Believing the robe is cursed, he convinces a skeptical Tiberius to let him find the root of the destructive spell within Christ's following, and – for the good of Rome – destroy it.
Despite the presence of Burton and Simmons, CinemaScope was the real star of 'The Robe' when it premiered in 1953, and its undeniable wow factor blinded audiences to the movie's myriad deficiencies. But now that we take the widescreen format for granted, our eyes can concentrate on 'The Robe' itself instead of its presentation, and its problems stick out like sore thumbs. Fox spent millions on this "sword and sandal" epic, but the sets and backdrops still look chintzy, and studio interiors and backlot exteriors rarely evoke the atmosphere of Rome or Jerusalem. The cheesy Hollywood aura lends the film an artificial feel, and as a result, it's difficult to believe the pompous orations of the toga-clad actors, who often strut and prance about like they're playing a game of dress up.
Amazingly, Burton is the most difficult to believe of all. In a performance of monumental hamminess, the legendary thespian unleashes a barrage of overwrought outbursts and wild-eyed ravings that turn Marcellus into a cartoon character. It's no wonder Burton reportedly deemed 'The Robe' his least favorite of all his films, calling it "rubbish," "tastelessly sentimental," and "badly acted by me." (His Hollywood peers obviously disagreed, nominating him for a Best Actor Oscar.) The lovely Simmons tries her best to inject some feeling into her decorative role, but the preachy, uninspired script is more concerned with promoting its Christian agenda than developing characters, and leaves both her and Burton in the lurch. The best work comes from Victor Mature – yes, Victor Mature – as the enslaved gladiator, Demetrius, who is touched by the condemned Jesus and helps spread His word. Though few regard the chiseled, brawny Mature as anything more than a hunky Italian heartthrob – with good reason – he gives a surprisingly heartfelt performance here. His expressive eyes convey a wealth of sensitivity, and his brief, silent close-ups and gentle giant attitude provide the film with a much-needed emotional core.
One of Fox's journeyman directors, Koster was reliable yet lacking in flair, and brings little visual style to 'The Robe.' As the film plods along, ceaselessly sermonizing, Koster strategically positions his actors to maximize the screen's enhanced real estate, almost anchoring them to their marks. The only scene of real action is an acrobatic sword fight with 'Robin Hood' overtones, probably left over from an early script draft when swashbuckler Tyrone Power was attached to the project. To be fair, the technological challenges of the complicated new CinemaScope process most likely consumed Koster's attention (as well as the simultaneous shooting of a "flat" version in the Academy ratio, just in case the widescreen experiment was a bust), and as a result, he left Burton and company to their own histrionic devices. The uncertainty shows up on screen, both in the unfocused performances and stiff direction.
I watched 'The Robe' on the heels of MGM's similarly themed 'Quo Vadis,' and it's difficult not to compare the two movies. Both detail a hardened Roman soldier's Christian awakening, his love for a beautiful but bland woman, and his tangles with a ruthless, unstable emperor (Caligula in 'The Robe'; Nero in 'Quo Vadis'). Both also were nominated for a slew of Oscars, including Best Picture. Yet on every level, 'Quo Vadis' outshines its generic counterpart, possessing more depth, passion, authenticity, spectacle, and drama. 'The Robe' may be better known, because it unveiled a gimmick that would one day became a cinema standard, but it's not a better film. And that's something to keep in mind if you're thinking of watching an old-fashioned religious epic on Blu-ray this Easter season.
Miracles and revelations not only pervade the plot of 'The Robe,' but also its video transfer. The folks at Lowry Digital have done an extraordinary job restoring this film, and though the 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC presentation will impress anyone who lays eyes on it, it will absolutely dazzle those who have suffered through the movie's previous subpar home video incarnations. Gone is the fuzzy, smeary look that made 'The Robe' seem as ancient as its subject matter, and in its stead we have a bright, vibrant, completely engaging image. There's not a speck or nick to be found on this new print master, which benefits from digital scanning, image processing, and color correction. Clarity is often breathtaking, especially during a driving rain sequence after Christ's crucifixion, in which individual drops can be seen pelting the face and clothes of Burton and Mature. Of course, such enhanced definition has its drawbacks, too; the film's painted backdrops are now painfully obvious, and some of the sets look flimsy and cheap. Several scenes still exhibit a nagging softness (which is most likely the fault of CinemaScope, not the restoration), and bits of digital noise creep in from time to time, but edge enhancement and DNR are nowhere to be seen.
Unfortunately, early adopters of CinemaScope shunned the close-up, because no one knew how to fill the dead space on the edges of the screen. As a result, we miss seeing the pores and pock marks on Burton's ruddy face and reveling in Simmons' peaches-and-cream complexion, and have to make do with head-to-waist framing instead. The early philosophy regarding CinemaScope was to let viewers' eyes freely roam the screen and focus on whatever engaged them, so Koster relies heavily on establishing shots that provide welcome expanse, but rob us of the fine details that would show up so well on a Blu-ray. Still, textures are well rendered, but contrast is a mixed bag, with some scenes exhibiting a flat, bland quality that distances us from the action. Blacks are dense, but not quite as inky as one might like, and fleshtones are well pitched across the board.
The nicely saturated colors accurately reflect the original palette, but there's no denying 'The Robe' employs the inexpensive, single-strip Technicolor process instead of the more lush three-strip method. Consequently, hues take on a paler tone, and though they still please the eye, they lack presence and pizzazz. Some might prefer this more natural feel, but having just watched 'Quo Vadis' (filmed with the three-strip process), I must say I prefer that film's bolder color temperature. By comparison, 'The Robe' looks anemic.
All in all, though, this is a terrific effort that breathes much-needed life into 'The Robe' and accurately reflects how the film must have looked when it premiered in 1953. It's too bad Fox didn't include a restoration comparison on this disc, because it really would have emphasized the massive amount of work that went into making 'The Robe' look as good, if not better, than it ever has.
The Dolby Digital 4.0 track from the previous DVD release has been ported over, but Fox also includes a clean, full-bodied 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track that really showcases Alfred Newman's highly regarded score. The music enjoys superior fidelity and a wide dynamic range; its high end resists distortion, even when the heavenly choir kicks in, while the dramatic lows add a sense of urgency and foreboding to key scenes. There's some nice separation across the front channels, but the surrounds are almost entirely inactive, even during crowd and storm sequences. Bass frequencies don't get much of a workout either, but a horse chase late in the film provides some good rumbles.
Dialogue, however, is always easy to understand, and often emanates from both the right and left speakers to amplify the impact of the widescreen format. Technicians have also scrubbed this track clean, eliminating any age-related defects, such as pops, crackles, static, and hiss.
Though not as dazzling as the video transfer, this is still a very solid audio restoration.
This is one of those unusual cases where the supplements outclass the film. Fox goes the extra mile and packs the disc with a wealth of fascinating extras that honor the colorful history of 'The Robe' and its compelling subject matter, and will please Golden Age aficionados hungry for archival footage, in-depth analysis, and rare images. If only every classic release could contain this much material and present it with such style.
Though considered a miracle at the time of its release, 'The Robe' has lost its magic touch over the years. The uninspired direction and performances, as well as the highly touted widescreen presentation, do little to distinguish it from other middling biblical epics of the 1950s. Fox, however, has put together a stunning Blu-ray presentation, with a first-class video transfer, robust audio, and a comprehensive set of extras that celebrate 'The Robe' without canonizing it. If you're a fan of the film, this special edition is a slam-dunk; if you're a fan of film history, it's definitely worth checking out. But if you're looking for a good inspirational story or eye-popping spectacle, leave 'The Robe' on the rack and rent 'Quo Vadis' instead.