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DVD SAVANT

The Robe


The Robe
Fox Home Video
1953 / Color / 2:35 anamorphic enhanced / 135m.
Starring Richard Burton, Jean Simmons, Victor Mature, Michael Rennie, Jay Robinson, Dean Jagger, Torin Thatcher, Richard Boone, Betta St. John, Jeff Morrow, Ernest Thesiger, Dawn Addams, Leon Askin, Michael Ansara
Cinematography Leon Shamroy
Art Direction George W. Davis, Lyle R. Wheeler
Film Editor Barbara McLean
Original Music Alfred Newman
Writing credits Albert Maltz, Philip Dunne from the novel by Lloyd C. Douglas
Produced by Frank Ross
Directed by Henry Koster

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

This, the first CinemaScope production from 20th Fox, was a shrewdly chosen vehicle to promote what became the most successful technical innovation in movie history. 3D and 70mm have come and gone, but the anamorphic trick of squeezing a widescreen image onto a standard 35mm negative caught on big, due in no small part to this film's success at the beginning.

Synopsis:

Tribune Marcellus Gallio (Richard Burton) offends Caligula (Jay Robinson) by purchasing the slave Demetrius (Victor Mature) out from under him during an auction. To the dismay of his Senator father (Torin Thatcher) and sweetheart Diana (Jean Simmons), Marcellus is posted in the least desirable land under Roman rule, Palestine. There he ends up officiating at the crucifixion of Christ. He wins Jesus' robe in a dice game, but thinks it bewitched when he's stricken with anxiety attacks after cloaking himself in it for just a moment. Marcellus returns to Rome a mental case and has called off his engagement to Diana, when an advisor to Emperor Tiberius (Ernest Thesiger of The Bride of Frankenstein) suggests that to break the spell he must return to Palestine and destroy the Robe. Instead of fulfilling this mission in the Holy Land, Marcellus converts to Christianity under the tutelage of Justus (Dean Jagger) and Simon known as Peter (Michael Rennie). His return to Rome a second time puts him in a truly bad position as Caligula, who hates Marcellus almost as much as those traitorous Christians, is now the Emperor.

The Robe is fascinating as the first CinemaScope film but not all that great from most other standpoints; as a drama it's almost as stiff as Quo Vadis from a few years before, and as a biblical epic it's neither very compelling nor accomplished.

William Wyler's Ben Hur has twice the sound and fury, as pertains the Christ story, which is treated rather perfunctorily here, with dramatic clashes of thunder and lightning, and Victor Mature doing his best to express anguish on Golgotha hill. Burton himself doesn't know exactly what to do with some of his scenes, and plays his 'agitated, bewitched' state as if he had a high fever and a splitting headache. Jean Simmons is called upon to be colorlessly virtuous, and a distinguished cast pretty much goes through the motions. Michael Ansara plays Judas in one far too ironic scene. Michael Rennie and Dean Jagger are kind of a snooze, Ernest Thesiger is also rather dull. Later monster actor Jeff Morrow has a nice fat role as a thuggish Tribune who takes a disliking to Richard Burton, but frankly doesn't distinguish himself. And you have to look fast to spot beauty Dawn Addams, her part is so brief.

What we get is not the spirit but the letter of the Bible, safe and sane, and only Jay Robinson's wonderfully fruity Caligula has much life in him. We see the miracles in the Holy Land and hear a lot of talk, but it's Alfred Newman's stirring score that's doing most of the work. Perhaps Fox's piousness in this production should be judged by their rather exploitative direct sequel the following year, Demetrius and the Gladiators, where the Victor Mature character survives to hack up gladiators in the arena, the kind of stuff audiences really went to these sword 'n Bible shows to see. Jay Robinson's Caligula is a total scream in that film - it's actually a lot more fun than this one.

As for the process, there's nothing much to say. After all the talk about the lack of lenses of varying focal lengths, a very un-flat field, and the CinemaScope mumps, we don't see much of the early CinemaScope flaws here. The camera pans and the field of vision doesn't warp. There are only a few closeups and lots of medium shots, but people's faces don't squash out perceptably. This is possibly because the engineers at Fox made sure every shot looked good for this crucial R&D feature. In its first year or so, 'Scope used a much wider 2:55 aspect ratio. If you see a theatrical revival of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea at 2:35, you'll instantly notice that the film has been re-formatted to 'new Scope' - with the image cropped on the left and all the compositions thrown off.


Fox's DVD of The Robe is a good effort with what must have been less-than optimal elements. The color is a bit drab and there's far too much grain, especially in opticals. The quality is degraded just badly enough to make some of the lesser-quality matte paintings look perfectly awful. But it's still a far more powerful experience wide than it is Pan'n scan, and if you already like The Robe, this DVD will probably not disappoint. The show certainly has flair - it starts with a fanfare befitting the introduction of a new Experience in Movies, and the credits play out over a scarlet curtain that finally pulls back to reveal a wide, wide arena full of Gladiators.  1 The audio is 4.0 surround only ( I heard some of the directional-dialogue stereo effects common to films of this vintage) and only a trailer is included for an extra.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Robe rates:
Movie: Okay
Video: Good-
Sound: Good
Supplements: Trailer
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: October 14, 2001


Footnote:

1. Since the DVD doesn't retain the original super-wide CinemaScope image, and crops it down to 2:35 (or perhaps even narrower), it's probable that the very popular The Robe was reengineered optically and cropped for subsequent reissues. If the original elements were all worn out, maybe this can account for the not-so-hot image here.
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