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The Robe
Savant Blu-ray Review

The Robe
1953 / Color / 2:55 widescreen / 135 min. / Street Date March 17, 2009 / 34.98
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.
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

Back in 2001, Fox came out with a DVD of The Robe. The best they could put together was a grainy, faded copy that seemed to change colors every two shots or so. Now, thanks to a great deal of video restoration effort, the studio has succeeded in rejuvenating the first production filmed in the anamorphic CinemaScope process;, recovering most if not all of its original clarity and grandeur. Seen in the high-definition of Blu-ray, it's an impressive experience indeed, with Alfred Newman's "spiritual" choirs bringing back the glory of one of the biggest Biblical spectacles of them all.

The Robe was a shrewdly chosen vehicle to launch what became the most successful technical innovation in movie history. 3D and 70mm have come and gone (and are trying to come back again) but the anamorphic trick of squeezing a widescreen image onto a standard 35mm negative caught on big, due in no small part to the success of this gaudy, reverent blockbuster.

Lloyd C. Douglas's story weaves a drama around events surrounding the crucifixion of Jesus of Galilee. Tribune Marcellus Gallio (Richard Burton) offends Caligula (Jay Robinson) at an auction by purchasing the slave Demetrius (Victor Mature) out from under him. 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 officiates at the crucifixion. Marcellus wins Jesus' robe in a dice game, but thinks it bewitched when, after cloaking himself in it for just a moment, he's stricken with an anxiety attack. Returned to Rome as a mental case, Marcellus 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. Marcellus instead converts to Christianity under the combined tutelage of Justus (Dean Jagger) and Simon, known as Peter (Michael Rennie). Marcellus' second return to Rome puts him a truly bad position. The new Emperor Caligula hates Marcellus almost as much as he does the "traitorous" Christians.

The Robe continues in the blood, thunder and sex tradition of Quo Vadis from three years before. The story calls for strong displays of emotion, and Victor Mature does his best to express anguish on Golgotha hill. Richard Burton 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. Charming 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 sober and earnest, as is the colorful Ernest Thesiger. Later monster movie actor Jeff Morrow has a fat role as a thuggish Tribune who takes a disliking to Richard Burton. And one must look fast to spot beauty Dawn Addams, as an unhappy girlfriend of Marcellus. Jay Robinson's wonderfully fruity performance compensates for all the seriousness, making Caligula into a truly warped sadist.

We see the miracles in the Holy Land and hear a great deal of visionary talk, but Alfred Newman's stirring score does most of the work to "sanctify" the drama. Perhaps Fox's piousness in this production should be judged by the rather exploitative direct sequel they made immediately thereafter, Demetrius and the Gladiators. In that picture 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 over-the-top Caligula is even more extreme in the sequel, which is less impressive but more fun than the original.

After all the talk about CinemaScope's lack of lenses of varying focal lengths, its very un-flat field, and the "CinemaScope Mumps", we don't see many of the early CinemaScope flaws here. During camera pans the field of vision doesn't warp. There are only a few close-ups, but people's faces don't squash out as strongly as they do in other pictures. All of those vertical Roman columns resist optical warping as well. In its first year or so, 'Scope used a much wider 2:55 aspect ratio and was meant to be shown on a slightly curved screen.

The Robe slowly maneuvers Marcellus and Diana into an untenable choice between loyalty to an insane, scenery-chewing despot, or to their new religion of love and peace. Albert Maltz and Philip Dunne's script exalts the notion of beautiful lovers accepting martyrdom with beatific smiles. Some previous Biblical efforts weren't too successful with similar scenes, but the vision of Burton and Simmons walking into the clouds, backed by a heavenly chorus, works splendidly. Even viewers of other faiths could identify with the lovers' passive defiance: "Just Say NO to the Emperor".

Fox's new Blu-ray of The Robe is a Lazarus-like resurrection of a title that in 2001 seemed a filmic morgue case. The new digital restoration job overseen by the Lowry Company has managed a minor miracle. Besides being returned to its full 2.55:1 width, the film now looks almost unbelievably sharp. Although a perceptible quality drop occurs over opticals (dissolve transitions, special effects) colors remain vibrant. The Robe's many matte paintings looked especially terrible in the old disc and are now greatly improved. The only ones that still stick out are those that attempt to blend with "interior exterior" scenes filmed on sound stages, under artificial lights.

The uncompressed DTS and Dolby surround audio is also beefier; at high volume the high choral effects in the title theme make one think that the heavens are opening in your ceiling. Mono tracks are also available in French and Portuguese.

The disc overflows with good extras, including some picture-in-picture features that (for a change) are very desirable. Martin Scorsese practically gives the Blu-ray a benediction in his opening introduction, which plays at the beginning of the film even when not chosen. The music-centric audio commentary features frequent Fox host music producer Nick Redman, with composer David Newman and film historians Jon Burlingame and Julie Kirgo. Alfred Newman's score is also given an isolated track of its own, something sure to appeal to soundtrack buffs.

The Cloverfield Company contributes a number of very good HD featurettes. A Making Of piece talks about how producer Frank Ross worked for years at RKO to get the film going, only to be tossed out by Howard Hughes. The project came to Fox just as Darryl Zanuck was looking to launch an anti-Television "killer app", and simultaneously thwart a shareholder revolt. The featurette discusses the issue of the blacklisted Albert Maltz not being given screen credit, and tries to relate the film's martyrdom theme to both the McCarthy era and the anti-Nazi backgrounds of some of its makers.  1

The CinemaScope Story makes use of footage from early promos to give the best overview of the format to date. The 'Scope adapting lenses needed to be focused separately from the camera's prime lens, frustrating big-time cinematographers. Cameraman John Hora points to flaws in the feature, most of which are difficult to detect.

From Scripture to Script gathers film and Bible experts to discuss the religious aspect of the movie, and does a remarkably good job of keeping a level head, accentuating what's good about The Robe from a doctrinal point of view. The speakers explain why the film is still relevant to viewers of faith. They also discuss the nature of historical accuracy in movies about Biblical times, for which art directors have to do a lot of guesswork. In one great throwaway image, a wide shot of Caligula's arena focuses on a white statue -- identifying it as Michelangelo's statue of David, 1500 years before it was sculpted!

Other extras include an audio interview with Philip Dunne, recorded in 1969; several Movietone Newsreels, Still Galleries and an interactive pressbook.

The disc also carries two "BonusView" picture-in-picture features that run during playback of the film. One is called A Seamless Faith, The Real-Life Search for the Robe. The second gives us a look at the almost forgotten flat version of The Robe that was filmed in parallel to the main show as insurance in case CinemaScope proved a flop. It compares the two versions side-by-side.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Robe Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Good +
Video: Excellent +
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: see above
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 18, 2009


1. And again, it always riles me to see that Fox has altered the writing credit in the main titles to re-instate Albert Maltz's name, as re-established by the Writer's Guild. This correction of history should be done with a special new title ahead of or behind the film, like restoration credits. With the film itself changed, the evidence that Maltz was cheated out of his credit will be erased. Future revisionists will be able to point to the credits and deny that the blacklist ever existed.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2009 Glenn Erickson

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Reviews on the Savant main site have additional credits information and are often updated and annotated with reader input and graphics. Also, don't forget the 2009 Savant Wish List. T'was Ever Thus.

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