There was, in the olden days of fifties cinema, a brief fad for Biblical films and, what's more, for Bible spin-offs - adventures about characters who don't appear in the Bible at all, or who only get cameos in the gospels. Thus we have 'Quo Vadis' (1951), about Peter and the early church, 'Ben-Hur' (1959) about a young Jewish Prince, and 'Barabbas' (1961) about the murderer Barabbas who was freed by Pilate on the eve of Jesus' crucifixion. Since the stories only need to touch very briefly on Biblical events they're freer to be more visual, less religiose, and where possible allow the heroes to be violent, deceptive and all-in-all conventional heroes before last-minute conversion to Christianity, whereupon they renounce their (hitherto very useful) violent ways. Crucially, if your main character is Jesus it's hard to have him kill the villain at the end, and movie-goers like to see the villain trounced. In an adventure story, forgiveness looks less exciting than revenge. 'Ben-Hur' probably does it the best, but 'The Robe' is shorter, so gets plenty of TV repeats.
The film follows a Roman soldier, Gallio, who turns out (eventually) to be the centurion who crucified Jesus. Here, he happens to inherit Jesus's robe (it's red, as per the gospel of Matthew); anyone who's read the book of The Trial and Death of Pontius Pilate (Bible fanfic from the second century, and plenty of fun) may recall that Jesus' robe was considered to be a relic of unpredictable magical powers (with, as they say, hilarious consequences). It's similar here, though that makes the film sound considerably more entertaining than it actually is. What we get is a film about a soldier sent to destroy the early church, who, seeing God's work in the lives and hearts of the early Christians, comes to faith. At points its rather too earnest, but at times it's rather exciting, as the loving pacifists find in Gallio a mighty defender, skilled with sword and political rhetoric.
|Turns out this widescreen thing is really good for sword-fighting
His opponent, the Emperor Caligula, is, as they say, worth the price of admission. I've seen him described as 'unforgettably camp', and he has an amazing delivery, rendering 'Christians' as 'kress-chuns', and getting more vowels out of Gallio than one might think believable. This is Caligula as he might have been played in sixties 'Batman'.
|The film makes slightly too much use of characters being inspired by simply
looking at Jesus, rather than being inspired by (say) his words or actions.
P.S. This film has the rubbishest Pontius Pilate. My Pilate of preference is Frank Thring, but I'll also speak up for David Bowie.