We watched our second Mandatory Lent Film last Friday. It has come to my attention that I titled the first post in this series “Lent Film Movie Review #1: I CONFESS.” If you don’t see anything wrong amiss with that title, then you, too, need to get more sleep rest, too.
No one in our family had seen The Robe before, but we are all very fond of The Ten Commandments, so we were prepared for it to be similarly spectacular, clunky, cheesy, and heartfelt. But we all came away feeling icky and discontented. Here’s the trailer:
They set about to make a movie about the early Christians, beginning with just before the entry into Jerusalem and ending after the Ascension. You never really see Jesus; you only see Him pass by briefly in a few scenes. Instead, the story follows people who have seen Him, and whose lives are changed forever because of it.
Do they pull it off? No, they do not. (I have no idea if the novel on which it’s based is any better.)
The plot: An alleged ne’er-do-well Roman tribune, Marcellus Galio (Richard Burton), pisses off Caligula by arrogantly bidding against him for a Greek slave, Demetrius (Victor Mature), and is punished by being sent to Jerusalem. Demetrius, who sticks with Marcellus out of honor, sees Jesus pass by on a donkey, makes eye contact, and converts on the spot. But Marcellus is ordered to crucify Jesus, and then wins his robe in a game of dice. Sadly, the robe (The Robe) apparently makes him go cuckoo, and this causes no end of troubles for him, as cuckoo tribunes are not considered the best tribunes, even in Very Degenerate Rome.
He staggers around the middle east and Capri for a while, and meets a bunch of Christians, including a gauzily serene Peter (“The Big Fisherman;” Michael Rennie) who has the highest cheekbones on the whole continent and who glides around like he’s on castors. Eventually Marcellus comes to realize that his problem isn’t The Robe; it’s guilt. Marcellus then feels better and stops pawing at himself all the time.
But Demetrius gets captured. Marcellus stages a putatively daring rescue, and Peter heals Demetrius, who has been tortured almost to death. This impresses Marcellus’ girlfriend, Diana (Jean Simmons). To be fair, everything impresses her. I’m not sure she even has eyelids.
Diana, introduced early on as his childhood sweetheart, was originally supposed to marry Caligula, but is in love with Marcellus, so she pulls strings to get him out of trouble, but then risks her own hide to stick up for him when he’s eventually arrested for treason against Rome. I forgot to mention her sooner because the chemistry between Diana and Marcellus is like the chemistry between, I don’t know, a piece of toast and a yoyo. You can push them up against each other, but nothing much happens except a sort of dry crunching sound.
This lack of chemistry partially explains is why the ending was is so distasteful. Marcellus refuses to renounce Christ, so he’s sentenced to die, and Diana sticks with him, so she has to be executed, too. She doesn’t know much about Jesus, but she [checks notes] just loves Marcellus so much, especially the way he’s always gripping her by the upper arms. In the final scene, off they go, up a sort of celestial ramp of spiritual winning, looking drugged out of their gourds while a chorus screams hallelujah. And that’s the end.
What the movie was supposed to show was the widening circle of influence that Christ has. He’s so compelling and life-altering that people he meets meet other people and they become Christians too, and it spreads and spreads, because it’s so powerful and new.
But you only know this because people keep saying so. The Christianity the show you in The Robe is incredibly weak tea. It’s vague idea of justice and freedom and something better. You do see some example of people being good to each other, and you see a lot of blissed-out, thousand-mile gazes, but that’s it. The dry, crunching sound of zero chemistry is how the movie presents the entire faith. Nothing I saw on screen would explain why anyone was willing to give up power and prestige and family and die for it. If the movie were about a short-lived cult that, through the use of some dubious magic tricks, inexplicably made a ripple for a few years before dying off, it would be a lot more persuasive.
Richard Burton is painfully miscast, and never stops looking uncomfortable (even for Richard Burton). You know almost nothing about him, before, during, or after his conversion. His guilt is manifested mainly as Shatneresque convulsions and shouting, and his newfound faith is simply the absence of convulsions, with calm shouting. By the end of the first hour, I was ready to lean on my influence with the emperor to get him off that movie set.
There are some fighting and action scenes that are complete snoozers. Clang, clang, clang, you really just don’t care. And the corn was just SO CORNY, even for a 1953 Biblical epic. Early on, we meet someone any halfwitted cat would immediately understand is Judas, but it takes several minutes for him to announce that he’s named “Judas,” and then when he says his name, there is such a deafening clap of uh-oh thunder, Cecil B. DeMille would have gasped at the excess.
Oh, here it is. The kids laughed their heads off.
There were parts I enjoyed. Despite myself, I liked the scene where the gal is sitting in a house with new Christians, strumming a lyre and singing about Jesus. It was corny and faux-exotic, but it was also kind of nice, and I can believe that this was how the Gospel was spread at least sometimes. I liked Demetrius’ conversion, and his character was pretty solid in general. He was one character who seemed to have some specific personality after his encounter with Christ. I liked the kid who just kept shouting, “KICK HIM! KICK HIM!”
I liked the crucifixion scene best. It was eerie and upsetting, and Victor Mature did a good job with a not-much role. (Careful, don’t touch the screen. The paint is still drying on the mountains.)
The sets were fakey fun, very dramatic and nice to look at. And oh my heart, those costumes. If you are the kind of person who will watch anything as long as it’s draped well, then this is the movie for you. So many miles and flowing miles of silk and linen. So many shimmering colors. It really made me want to be a wealthy ancient Roman, which I don’t think was the goal.
Welp, that’s it. It was just a turkey. Now we know.
We streamed it through Amazon for $3.99. Have you seen this movie? What did you think? If you like it, how old were you when you first saw it?
Next up: Probably Babette’s Feast or Calvary. The older kids really hated The Robe, so I want to show them something good. We’ll probably watch Calvary first on our own, so we can decide which age group it’s appropriate for.