Thursday 3 October 2013

The Robe (1953)

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
The film is one of the earliest examples of anamorphic widescreen, and was shot in the super-widescreen of Cinescope which leaves ample black bars even on a widescreen TV.  It gives impressive scope, especially to landscapes and crowd scenes.  It's still not quite right, with long shots looking rather distorted around the edges.  Unlike the later 'Ben-Hur' (1959), there seems a reluctance here to use facial close-ups, meaning we're never really given actors expressions to scrutinise.  (The first time we get to see the pores in anyone's skin cones after two hours and two minutes).  Coupled with Richard Burton's habit of wearing a helmet in as many shots as possible, we get to see far too little of his performance, and his dialogue is too functional to allow him much freedom of expression.

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.
The real surprise, which I mean now to spoil, is the ending of the film.  The genre would seem to expect a daring escape, and Caligula defeated.  Instead, the villainous Caligula prospers and sentences our heroes to death, and they are taken outside to be executed, and this martyrdom is treated as a happy ending, with the hope of resurrection the real reward.  I was taken aback to see an adventure film, and a schlocky, campy one at that, giving us life in Christ as the true prize, rather than something's more tangible, crude or conventional.  I can't imagine a modern film presenting such a martyrdom as a happy triumph.  I suppose 'The Passion of Joan of Arc' (1928) and 'The Last Temptation of Christ' (1988) come close, but we know those stories so their endings seem inevitable.  As it is, Caligula has to wait for the sequel, 'Demetrius and the Gladiators' (1954) to get his comeuppance.

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.

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