This past weekend, my husband and I watched a 1953 film called The Robe, directed by Henry Koster and starring Richard Burton, based on the novel by Lloyd C. Douglas. It was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, but its real claim to fame is that it was the first film to be shot in widescreen (using CinemaScope technology).
The film is about a (fictional) Roman tribune named Marcellus, who lived during the time of Christ. At the beginning of the story, he is transferred to an undesirable military post in Jerusalem, where he stays for only a week before being summoned to Capri. But before he leaves, Pilate gives him the order to carry out three routine crucifixions. . . . I think you know where this is going. After crucifying Jesus, Marcellus wins Jesus’s robe in a game of dice, but his slave, Demetrius, runs off with it. On his way to Capri, Marcellus has recurring nightmares about the crucifixion, and begins to think that the robe is bewitching him—so he decides to return to Palestine to find and destroy it. While there, he meets some of Jesus’s followers (the time is presumably post-ascension) and is amazed by how great is their love and joy, especially in the face of oppression. He wonders if maybe there was something to this Jewish man’s teachings.
Here’s the trailer:
Looks a little silly, doesn’t it? Actually, it wasn’t as bad as I expected. (I definitely don’t believe it’s as bad as all the Rotten Tomatoes reviews make it out to be; I thought that the acting was quite good, given the script.) Sure, it’s overblown, but it’s a biblical epic. Aren’t they all played that way? Besides melodrama, it has all the other requisites: love, betrayal, sword fights, a prison break, a “car chase,” and perfectly on-cue lightning bolts to cap off high-tension moments.
Eric and I enjoyed inserting our own dialogue over each frame—gesturing histrionically, of course, and devising our own dramatic plot twists. (Enter Jesus. “Can I please have my robe back?”) I can never take movies like this completely seriously, just because so many of the elements seem contrived, but there were some genuinely poignant moments, like when Marcellus meets a crippled woman in Cana, who tells him that it’s OK to feel confused and lost, and it’s OK to question God, because that’s a normal part of how faith takes root and grows. I also thought that the conversation between Marcellus and his lover, Diana, that takes place through prison bars toward the end of the movie was compelling—how she tries to urge him to renounce his strange newfound philosophies so that they can be together. (I know, I know: It’s been done before—divided loyalties, heroic convictions—but that’s because these struggles are so universally experienced.) Marcellus responds admirably:
I’m afraid, Diana. In Cana I lived with people who were not afraid—people who had met Jesus face to face, who had spoken with him, eaten and laughed with him. A crippled girl who thought herself fortunate to be lame. A weaver whose words were like his work: simple and lasting and strong. A little boy who gave his donkey to his friend. Never again in his life would he own anything as fine as that donkey, and yet he gave it, happily, without a second thought. If these people had denied him, one after the other, to save their skins, would he have any followers left?
Marcellus is given the chance to explain himself before the emperor. After a series of questions and answers, Marcellus delivers an impassioned speech, clarifying where his allegiance lies:
If the empire desires peace and brotherhood among all men, then my king will be on the side of Rome and the emperor. But if the emperor and the empire wish to pursue the course of aggression and slavery that have brought agony and terror and despair to the world, if there’s nothing left for men to hope for but chains and hunger, then my king will march forward to right those wrongs. Not tomorrow, sire. Your Majesty may not be so fortunate as to witness the establishment of his kingdom, but it will come!
How prophetic! Marcellus really sticks it to the man!
The ending is probably the cheesiest part of the whole film, but that is to be expected. All in all, I give the movie one thumb up. It’s not a film about Jesus, so don’t be misled. In fact, Jesus’s face is never shown at all in the movie, and his physical presence is only suggested in three brief scenes—on Palm Sunday, when the camera follows the reactions of the crowd as Jesus passes; on the way to Calvary, when his face is covered by the cross; and on the cross, when they show his feet only, and have a voice utter “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” No, this is not a story about Jesus per se, but about the transformative effect he has on a community, and on a few individuals (namely, Marcellus and Demetrius). It’s a story about a faith journey, and what faith does: it disrupts, it grants hope, it unites and divides, it makes whole. It has all these various effects and more.
If any of you are interested enough to go and watch it (and it is posted in full on YouTube, but shhh), I’d be interested to hear your reactions to it.