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THE ROBE (1953)
Starring: Richard Burton, Jean Simmons, Victor Mature, Jay Robinson, and Michael Rennie
Directed by Henry Koster
Nominated for five Academy Awards:
Best Actor, Richard Burton
Best Color Cinematography
Best Costume Design (win)
Best Art Direction (win)
Those who know about this movie, or have seen it, should know that the only reason it is remembered by anyone is because it introduced the world to CinemaScope, the very first widescreen movie (or so it claimed at the time, but what we refer to as widescreen today was accomplished well before this movie). The movie took Richard Burton out of playing supporting role and allowed him to lead his very first film to victory at the box-office. It grossed well over $36 million dollars, and adjusting that figure to today's dollar, that $36 million turns into over $350 million dollars. People flocked to see it, some who religious fanatics believing it was their obligation to see it. But whether or not it was a critical success or not, I have absolutely no clue, but watching it today I only see a flamboyant and foolish looking movie with some of the most atrocious acting even put on film. Luckily for Burton, who wasn't a fan of his screen role in the film, would go on to star in far more memorable films such as BECKET and WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?
Burton is Marcellus Gallio, a Roman officer whose only reason for being highly regarded in Rome is due to his father being a Senator. He and his childhood sweetheart Diana (Simmons), flirt and he and Emperor in the wings Caligula (Robinson), clash and so on and so fourth. Life is pretty average for him until he is sent to help in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, who is believe to be a sorcerer of kinds and spreading propaganda about a false King (who is of course God). So Gallio trots off to participate in the crucifixion with his Greek slave Demetrius (Mature), who defies his master when the man condemned to die looks into his eyes and changes his life forever. While Jesus sits on the cross, Gallio and other Roman officers gamble away and what not. Before the cross lies a red robe, which is snatched up by Demetrius who knows that while he holds it, is close to his new found faith in God. He leaves his master, but before he does attempts to wear the robe over his head to shelter him from the rain and all of a sudden tremendous fear takes over and he can't shake the feeling after returning to Rome. Believing he has gone mad, attempts to find his former slave and destroy the robe, believing that it is the source of his sickness in the head. But before you can say amen to that, Gallio, who once found the notion of being kind and good to his fellow man a waste of time, is turned around into a follower of God and spreads the word in his name. But all is not well in Rome, as selfish Caligula takes over due to the previous Emperor kicking the bucket, and he isn't to happy to happy with Gallio betraying Rome and for being the only person that Diana, who he has the hots for, loves. If only the bible had such a quirky little romance going for it.
The movie is silly when it is at its best, the only redeemable thing going for it is the story itself. But the acting is just plain bad, and if you really want a good chuckle then Robinson's performance is a must. Those familiar with Michael Palin's performance as Pontius Pilate in MONTY PYTHON'S LIFE OF BRIAN will instantly recognize where Palin got the inspiration for his hilarious performance, though in all honesty both performance are a riot (with only being intended to get laughs). Burton's inspiration for taking on the project must have been for the paycheck, and Simmons, a wonderfully gifted actress (who has starred in such masterpieces as BLACK NARCISSUS and HAMLET), is reduced to playing the love struck gal who just wants to be close to her man. Mature gives the films most solid performance, not succumbing to going over the top when it comes to emoting faith and love. In fact, he would star in the sequel, DEMETRIUS AND THE GLADIATORS, which wound up being far more superior to this jungle of mixed emotions and set pieces.
Director Henry Koster (who had directed Burton the year before in MY COUSIN RACHEL), was obviously clueless when it came to filming the movie in widescreen format. The actors are always at a distance, so much so that there are moments when you don't realize who you are watching (unless you rent the pan and scan version). He can't even capture the glory of the elaborate set pieces, which in all honesty are nothing to marvel at anyway. Burton is at his weakest here, forcing emotions that he doesn't seem convince exist within the story to begin with. It is an interesting notion with what the film works with, and the story never does lag on one thing (it barely hits the two hour mark), but it is nothing but a string of miss opportunities and bad acting, and the talent involved play second fiddle to the new technology it is working with. A shame.
My Grade: C-