"The Robe" remains one of Hollywood's most important films, the blockbuster that launched the age of widescreen. Yet even on its own terms, viewed through the anamorphic lens of 1950s costume drama, it's a dreary, stuffy, pompous, and insufferably wooden picture, lacking in the pizzazz other Biblical epics would later provide.
By 1953 Twentieth Century Fox was eager to roll out CinemaScope, the new widescreen process that allowed for double the width of the then-standard Academy format without requiring the three projector set-up of Cinerama. (Other advantages included enhanced visual depth and stereophonic sound. The process was advertised as "the modern miracle you see without glasses!") CinemaScope was designed to be easier to handle in both production and distribution; CinemaScope lenses could be retrofitted onto most camera models, allowing all the studios, not just Fox, to quickly advance into the widescreen era, while the cost of converting to a CinemaScope-ready theater wasn't nearly as prohibitive as Cinerama, allowing cinemas across the nation to upgrade fairly easily. (We're currently in the middle of another such conversion, as studios try to convince multiplexes to go digital and 3-D compatible, but that's nothing compared to the revolution CinemaScope began.)
But widescreen had been introduced before, to little success. Fox knew it needed a prestige picture to ensure CinemaScope would catch on for good. And so the studio delayed by several months the release of the Marilyn Monroe comedy "How to Marry a Millionaire," the first film produced in the format, and pushed the Biblical melodrama "The Robe" into the inaugural spot. After all, "Millionaire" was frothy, lightweight entertainment, while "The Robe" was serious, thoughtful, important.
Except "Millionaire" is by far the better film, a doozy of a comedy with plenty of charm and wit. "The Robe," meanwhile, is a self-righteous bore. Adapted from the hit novel by Lloyd C. Douglas, the film tells of the Roman tribune who wins Christ's robe during the crucifixion, only to be haunted by it in the months following. By all accounts, this should easily feature all the spectacle and bombastic entertainment of other Biblical epics of its day. But in the hands of director Henry Koster, a veteran of small-scale comedies ("Harvey," "The Bishop's Wife") and musicals ("The Inspector General," "My Blue Heaven"), the whole thing gets drowsy in its stiffness, while the arrival of those hams Richard Burton and Victor Mature leaves everything insufferably over-the-top, and not in the good way.
The most noticeable problem may well be in the crew's unfamiliarity with CinemaScope. "The Robe" began production as a non-widescreen effort, only to be reworked a week into filming. (Curiously, after everything was redesigned for widescreen, the choice was then made to simultaneously film a standard version, to be offered to theaters not yet equipped for CinemaScope. Koster would repeat each take, once for widescreen cameras, then again for standard. This "flat" version is what is usually broadcast on television.) The crew was left to figure everything out as they went along, and the result is a film with too many visible hiccups. The camera's greater visual depth leaves too many backgrounds looking flat and artificial - even when, in a few cases, the backgrounds aren't artificial. Too many sets come off as theatrical backdrops.
We might forgive such things, however, if the drama were improved. But clumsy dialogue (courtesy screenwriters Philip Dunne and an originally uncredited Albert Maltz) and repetitive storytelling leave the whole thing moving at a snail's pace, so much so that the half-baked attempts to liven things up (a sword fight here, a chase there) feel ridiculously out of place. Attempts at piousness are a drag, and, worse, repetitive; how many more kindly followers of Jesus can Burton meet before he finally gets the point?
Burton and Mature (playing the tribune's servant) rely mainly on the "bug-eyed shouting" school of acting, while Jay Robinson tops them both with his corny, overly fey take on Caligula. A hammy Jean Simmons, as the tribune's love interest, seems almost subdued in comparison. (Richard Boone offers the film's only effective performance, as a Pontius Pilate spooked into a daze by his own deeds. Too bad it's essentially a cameo.)
And yet for all its sloppiness and stiffness, "The Robe" was a monster hit, one of the decade's biggest moneymakers. It earned five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actor (Burton, unhappy with the film, was reportedly shocked by the nod), and won two: Best Art Direction-Set Decoration and Best Costume Design. Mature, Robinson, and co-star Michael Rennie would return the following year in "Demetrius and the Gladiators," a sequel that strangely emphasized action sequences.
The film would also inspire a wide array of epics that would define the decade. And, more essential still, it ensured that widescreen would become the norm for Hollywood. Other widescreen processes were introduced throughout the decade, and the 2.35:1 format (CinemaScope's final aspect ratio after a year or so of tinkering) became one of the two standards still in use today. The next time you visit your multiplex and look up at that wide, wide screen, you can thank "The Robe."
Although, really, I'd have preferred that Marilyn Monroe got the credit.
Fox originally issued "The Robe" on DVD in 2001. Now comes a Special Edition meant to take advantage of a recent four-year frame-by-frame restoration of the film. Regrettably, the "flat" version of the film is still not included. (The Blu-ray version does include this edition, but only as a picture-in-picture comparison within the widescreen feature; the "flat" version remains unavailable on home video as a standalone feature.)
Video & Audio
As mentioned, "The Robe" as presented here is the result of a lengthy restoration. It's still not perfect, although such flaws appear to be a result of the original filming. (Some imperfections, a result of distortions from the anamorphic CinemaScope lenses, were left in around the corners of the frame.) It's been quite a while since I last saw the 2001 disc, but memory suggests this is indeed a vast improvement: grain, dust, and scratches are absent, while colors are as rich as possible. Some scenes dazzle with vibrant detail; others reveal a rather drab color scheme - a flaw I'll attribute to the original source and not this restoration. The 2.55:1 anamorphic widescreen reveals the complete theatrical image, a definite improvement over the 2001 disc, which slightly cropped the edges.
The soundtrack is offered in both the original 4.0 stereophonic and a newly remixed Dolby 5.1. Both tracks sound splendid, with rich tones and a hefty depth, free of hiss or other interference; the new surround track never gets gimmicky with the mixing. Dialogue is crisp, effects are sharp. A French mono dub and optional English and Spanish subtitles are provided.
An introduction by Martin Scorsese (1:20; 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen) automatically plays before the film. It's a nice intro, brief and full of praise, yet there's no option to skip it (nor is it listed separately in any menu). Every time you wish to watch the film, you'll have to sit through Marty first.
The film's greatest asset is its musical score by Alfred Newman. Here, the score gets an isolated audio track, while a separate commentary track from film historians on Jon Burlingame, Julie Kirgo, and Nick Redman and composer (and Newman's son) David Newman focuses heavily on the music (although plenty of other aspects are detailed, too).
"The Making of The Robe" (31:12; 1.78:1 anamorphic) is a richly intricate look at the film's creation, covering every conceivable aspect of its ten-plus-year journey to the screen in a brief half hour. Discussed here is everything from early plans to make the film at RKO to troubles over crediting blacklisted writer Albert Maltz to its smash release with the obligatory lines around the block.
Rounding out the disc are click-through galleries of publicity stills and production photos, plus an interactive walkthrough of the original press book.
(Note: The packaging also lists "The CinemaScope Story" as an extra, but it is not featured on the actual disc.)
"The Robe" plays such a vital role in Hollywood history that anyone interested in 1950s cinema should most certainly Rent It, especially with this newly restored transfer. But it's hardly the sort of captivating entertainment that demands repeat viewings.