(If you’re curious, my review process. It’s also pasted at the end of this post. I don’t believe in Rotten Tomatoes. I just believe in me.)
(***all-purpose SPOILER ALERT*** there may be some in this review)
SW SCORE: 37
3.5 out of 5 🐙
Holywood in the 1950s seemed to be very interested in the Roman age and judeo-christian religious foundational stories. Some are direct re-tellings, like The Ten Commandments, of the source stories. But others, like The Robe, are examples of historical fiction. For the record, I am not a Christian and I do not believe in the foundational myths of the Christian church, so I am using the adjective “historical” in a way that does not really match the dictionary definition of the word. I am using it because I believe Lloyd C. Douglas, the writer of the source novel for this film, used the story of Christ and his resurrection from the dead as his jumping off for this story.
The story is about Marcellus Gallio (Richard Burton), a roman Tribune (soldier) who returns to Rome after many triumphs but angers the neurotic Caligula (Jay Robinson), the son of the current emperor. Caligula is made out to be this effete, flamboyant, insecure rich lad. He pretends to be a friend to Marcellus, but he clearly dislikes him and eventually Marcellus refuses to flatter him and the emperor is enraged. He banishes him to Palestine, considered one of the worst outposts of the empire as a punishment with the hopes that he will crumble.
“Palestine: the worst pest hole in the empire.”
He almost does crumble and submits to drunken debauchery, philandering, and abject depression.
“Every man makes enemies,” he says, defending his spiral.
“All yours appear to be women.”
It was humorous and sad to see Burton play a man who has given up.
As fate would have it, Marcellus is assigned to supervise the roman soldiers who “escorted” Jesus Christ (whose face is never shown in the film as the story is obviously not about him) to his execution site. At the moment of Christ’s death, Marcellus and the other Romans are drinking and complaining about their terrible assignment to this “pest hole.” They hate being occupiers almost as much as the occupied hate them. As this movie was released in 1953, it can’t be an allusion to Vietnam, but the upcoming “police action” certainly was not the first time this dynamic came about. When Jesus finally dies, the sky turns black in the middle of the day and all the soldiers, and followers as well and anyone else nearby, feel a great disturbance. They are more than unnerved.
Demetrius (Victor Mature), Marcellus’ slave, a follower of Christ (at this point in history, the term ‘Christian’ wasn’t even coined yet), who has escaped his bondage, is spotted by Marcellus carrying Jesus’ robe. Marcellus demands it and when he places it on his shoulders, he is stricken with immense pain. He begs Demetrius to remove it and the pain subsides as soon as this is done. Demetrius bids his former slave master a fond farewell:
“I’ll never see you again, you Roman pig.”
However, a vicious psychological / metaphysical / supernatural torment descends on him. Burton is phenomenal in portraying a man who is being torn apart. He has massive headaches and torturous spells and he almost kills himself because of it, but he is dissuaded by Junia, his love. He seeks the counsel of Emperor Tiberius Caesar (Ernest Thesiger) and when the emperor is told about the new martyr; he foretells that this will be the beginning of the end for the empire:
“When it comes. This his how it will start. Some obscure martyr in some forgotten province. The madness infecting the legions, rotting the empire. It will be the finish of Rome … This is more dangerous than any spell … It is man’s desire to be free. It is the greatest madness of them all.”
Caesar tells him it must be some magic curse and that if he destroys the robe, he will be free of it.
The rest of the movie is about him searching for the robe, finding it, and the subsequent effect of his immersion with the early Christians has on him. His contact with these people has absolutely no effect on him, and he just decides to order one of his legions to slaughter all the Christians they can find.
As he searches for the robe he runs into more and more of Jesus’ followers and his cynicism begins to diminish as he discovers their integrity. His cynicism begins to melt. He becomes a true believer and is converted and eventually converts Junia. When faced with certain death unless they recant their beliefs and swear allegiance to Rome, they refuse to do so and are seen walking serenely to their execution as the credits rise.
(1) Shark Wrighter (SW) Score: Based on a sum of 5 sub-scores (acting, directing, writing/story, effects: cinematography &/or animation &/or effects, editing) with 1 being terrible and 10 being terrific.
(2) Octopuses (0-5 🐙, with 5 being fantastic and 0 being feces)
(3) Octopuses are my unquantifiable feeling…not that SW score is scientific…but this one is even less so
(4) ++ This optional section includes any incredibly *brilliant observations that don’t fit into simple quantitative slices like the scores and octopuses *(they are likely NOT brilliant)