The focus of this installment of “Screening History” is one of the lesser-known but still quite enjoyable historico-biblical films, Henry Koster’s The Robe. While not as famous as such midcentury epics as Ben-Hur or Spartacus, the film was one of the top box office successes of the decade, and has gone down in history as the first film released in the widescreen process known as CinemaScope.
Indeed, when it was released in 1953, The Robe was touted as “The Modern Miracle You See Without Glasses!” CinemaScope, among other things, featured a curved screen designed to make the spectator feel both engulfed in the image but also encouraged to participate, to let their eye wander over the screen and direct their focus on whatever they wanted. As scholars such as John Belton and David Bordwell have also demonstrated, the switch to CinemaScope also enabled (and necessitated) a variety of different ways of composing the image, so that cause and effect (functions of narrative) could now be contained within the frame of the image, as the larger horizontal space allowed for more people to be included in the frame than had previously been the case with the standard academy ratio (which necessitated more cuts in order to show cause and effect).
In terms of plot, the film follows the Roman tribune Marcellus Gallio (Richard Burton) and his slave Demetrius (Victor Mature), both of whom find themselves caught up in the series of events that transpire after the Crucifixion of Christ. Indeed, Marcellus is the Roman soldier that the New Testament describes as gambling for Christ’s robe. So tormented is he by his complicity that he enters into a period of madness, only finding solace when he at last recovers the robe and accepts Christ. After wandering with the apostle Peter and Demetrius, he eventually returns to Rome where he, along with his lady love Diana (Jean Simmons) are viciously and ruthlessly martyred by the mad emperor Caligula (Jay Robinson).
In many ways, this film is not as flashy nor as colourful as its predecessors in the genre (such as 1951’s Quo Vadis) or the 1949 Samson and Delilah (after all, no one had a penchant for salacious biblical flair like Cecil B. DeMille). While the marching legions of Rome still make their appearance, The Robe prefers to sublimate the pomp and circumstance (or, as Vivian Sobchack would put it, the surge and splendor) of the traditional epic form into heightened, one might even go so far as to say hysterical, emotions, as the protagonist Marcellus Gallio and his Greek slave Demetrius struggle with and encounter the tremendous spiritual and emotional power of the divine. One need only see the scene immediately following the Crucifixion, in which Demetrius screams at his master and condemns him for his complicity in Christ’s death, to understand the ways in which this film attempts to evoke the passion and the power that must have accompanied the death of Jesus.
Furthermore, what emerges from this film, is an emotionally fraught portrayal of the emotional and physical toll that religious conversion takes on the body of the male convert. Tapping into widespread anxieties about the perceived incompatibility of conversion with the tenets of hegemonic masculinity, the film (perhaps unwittingly) shows the ways in which the male body becomes the means through which the alleged transcendence of the encounter with the divine is always limited by the corporeal presence of the human through which it is inevitably and irredeemably mediated. In the case of The Robe, the slightly pock-marked countenance of Burton and the fleshly awkwardness of Mature bear with them the permanent reminders of the flesh that the film so strenuously seeks to disavow through its evocation of the heightened emotion associated with conversion and the encounter with the divine presence of Christ. The fact that Gallio is sentenced to death on the archery field at the end of the film also serves as such a reminder of the weighty encumbrance of the mortal body, even as the soaring music attempts, again, to overcome the materiality of the body of the star.
There is a great deal else to love about this film, including Robinson’s crazed and histrionic performance of Robinson as Caligula. Further, if one abandons for a moment one’s distance from the film and the tendency to read it as camp, one can see it as a film attempting to render the world of antiquity–and the world of the sacred Time of Miracles–legible for a secular, modern, midcentury American audience. The fact that it never satisfactorily effaces the central tensions of its vision–between antiquity and modernity, between the transcendent timelessness of the divine and the weightiness of mortal flesh, between the sacredness of the past and the muddy modernity of the present–does not mean that it fails as a film. Indeed, I would suggest that it is precisely the irresolvable nature of these tensions that stand at the heart of the epic vision of antiquity that was such a prominent part of film production of the middle of the last century.
All in all, The Robe is an enjoyable and extraordinary film. While it may not reach the heights of artistic achievement of a film such as Ben-Hur or Spartacus, it does come across as a film trying to do something new within the boundaries of the medium of film. While its heightened emotion and evocation of religious painting may read as campy to us today (and probably would have to at least some in the audience as well), it also seems to me that there is another layer of meaning(s) within the film, one(s) that is/are worth thinking about in an attempt to unearth the ways in which film, that most modern of technologies, sought to bring to vibrant life the shattered, fragmented remains of antiquity. What’s more, the transcendent vision that The Robe struggles to achieve would, I think, have had a particular appeal for a nation, and a world, shaking at the thought of nuclear oblivion.