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04.08.09

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Phaedra

The Good Roman

'The Robe' presents tolerance, circa 1953.

By Michael S. Gant


Back in the day, Catholic-school kids spent a few hours every Easter season watching The Robe projected on a sheet hung on the back wall of a classroom. Presumably, the miraculous nature of the story trumped the technical miracle that was CinemaScope. This 1953 tale, the first in the new widescreen format, kicked off a decade or so of widescreen sword-and-sandal epics, most of them offering more in the way of action, location shooting and sinful pagan rites than the original, which is pretty dull fare, even in this painstakingly restored version.

Based on the morally uplifting novel by Lloyd C. Douglas, The Robe tells the story of a proud Roman tribune, Marcellus Gallio (Richard Burton). Having bearded the unstable Caligula at a slave auction, Gallio is sent to a backwater posting in Galilee, where he is assigned the task of carrying out the crucifixion of a certain bearded trouble-making Jew. Surrounded by wind, rain and lightning on Golgotha, Gallio ends up with Jesus' cloak. He is driven first to madness and then to conversion by the experience of donning this fraught vestment.

It takes a lot of convincing to get Gallio onboard with the austere new religion--Victor Mature helps with the cause as Demetrius, a proud and hunky Greek slave-turned-believer; Michael Rennie and Dean Jagger as stiff-necked homily-intoning Peter and Justus; Broadway actress Betta St. John as Miriam, whose brother was cured by Jesus while all she got was a lyre and an interminable song about the resurrection, which she performs for a strangely unmoved crowd of new Christians. And, in what may be the earliest known Simpsons sighting, Harry Shearer turns up as a young boy on crutches. For the Romans, Richard Boone makes a cameo as Pontius Pilate, and Jean Simmons looks shell-shocked as Gallio's childhood sweetheart. This leaves plenty of room for another Broadway player, Jay Robinson, to dominate the Forum and Senate as your usual loony Emperor Caligula, stamping his feet, thrusting out his neck at an odd angle and sibilantly demanding his way. Burton's voice rumbles beautifully, but he and Simmons both look lobotomized by the time they ascend into the clouds of martyrdom at the end.

The film suffers from a lot of cramped sets (the Simi Valley stands in for the Levant) and weird, lurid lighting effects. Weirdly, there is almost no action in this epic--just one sword fight and a comic rescue party tiptoeing along a studio prison wall like the Marx Brothers, followed by some Errol Flynn dueling set to utterly out-of-context swashbuckling soundtrack music. The restoration is excellent, although the power of the CinemaScope format can't be appreciated on any home screen.

The disc comes with an interactive press book that reproduces the pages from the first-run souvenir book and a making-of documentary that is far more interesting than the film. The feature covers the complicated story of who actually wrote the script, the development of the new widescreen process, the rivalry between producer Frank Ross and Darryl F. Zanuck of Fox, and the fascinating tidbit, recalled by a still spry Robinson, that the original actor playing Caligula freaked out on the set, tore off his clothes and had to be replaced.

The Robe: Special Edition One disc; 20th Century Fox; $19.98


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