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USA 1953
Directed by
Henry Koster
135 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
1 stars

Robe, The

There are some instances of the 1950s and ’60s taste for Biblical-era epics that still stand up today (notably Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus, 1960, but Cecilo B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956) and George Stevens’ The Greatest Story Ever Told, 1965, still have something worth watching but Henry Koster’s The Robe is an over-cooked turkey stuff with ’50s piety.

The first feature film to be made in CinemaScope it no doubt looked a lot more convincing to audiences in its day than now when the plywood sets and matte painted backgrounds look decidedly shoddy. Even more damning however is the lame script by Philip Dunne and Gina Kaus adapting a 1941 best-seller by American clergyman Lloyd C. Douglas (who also wrote the novel on which Douglas Sirk’s, comparable, if more modestly dressed Magnificent Obsession, released the following year, was based) which has the players sounding like characters in a English Home County melodrama (Richard Burton, Jean Simmons and Michael Rennie were all British and speak with well-rounded diction) of an indeterminate past.

The film tells the story of dissolute Roman tribune, Marcellus (Burton), who is given the task of crucifying Jesus. He carries out this efficiently but when he wins Jesus's robe in a dice game he begins to feel cursed by it. His slave, Demetrius (Victor Mature), flees with it and joins the small band of JC’s followers headed up by Simon/Peter (Rennie). Marcellus goes in pursuit of the robe but instead of destroying it become a devout convert to Christianity, as does his fetching young squeeze, Diana (Simmons).

The Robe, which is no more than flagrant Christian propaganda makes sense for the 1950s when it would have spoken to the established faith of millions of ordinary Americans. Take that affirmation away and you are left with a film that is a mixture of gimcrackery and kitsch, carried by wooden performances (Burton is outstandingly awful) and uninspired in every respect. 

FYI: Although I wouldn’t be bothering to seek it out, there was a sequel released the following year, Demetrius and the Gladiators.




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