The Robe is a film that is thoroughly religious. Perhaps it was even more religious than the religious adaptations that the era was wrought with at the time. I suppose, it was a bit of an irony to have Richard Burton star in such a thoroughly religious film since he does have a reputation as something of a heel. But, all things being relative, who isn’t? If played in chronological order, it would suffice as a sequel to the life of Christ. Burton plays Marcellus, a Roman soldier, one of those who nailed Jesus to the Cross. While dividing up his belongings Marcellus happens to get the eponymous robe, which spirals his life out of control.
If you haven’t seen this movie, what’s your excuse? Along with King of Kings, Ben Hur, Home Alone, The Ten Commandments, Miracle On 34th Street and Jesus Christ Superstar [don't ask why] this movie is inescapable come Christmas and Easter Time. I suppose it wouldn’t be up your alley if you’re an agnostic or something akin, but all in the name of film making, eh? Richard Burton and Jean Simmons are the core of the film. Simmons’ plays Diana, a Roman young woman in love with Marcellus who eventually follows him in his quest for a new religious awakening. It probably is not too demanding a role of Simmons, all she has to do is look pretty and be the object of Burton’s affection. And well, she pulls it off. Doh.
Technically the film is a triumph. As with so many of these religious epics it calls for luminous sets, beautiful costumes, pretty cinematography and it’s all pulled of so well. But it’s those dark moments at the crucifixion that seem so well made; the dark tone is palpable and almost chilling. And the entire film itself is particularly well made.
I wonder what the response of the film audiences was at that time to Richard’s histrionic. Yeah, I love the guy, and I call it histrionics. But it won’t have been the same if he played underplayed it. It’s not that kind of movie. For some reason despite the obviously serious intention of the film, I can’t help thinking that Richard’s just having fun playing this role, and really it shows.
The film is easily unsubtle; in fact there isn’t a subtle bone in its body. The ending has Burton and Simmons ascending the stairs of heaven, literally. But still it’s not un-enjoyable; it’s almost campy sometimes – especially when portraying Caligula. I have a strange affection for this; it’s obviously rooted in Burton who’s just outstanding anyway you put it. But it’s more than that. Sure it’s a little cut and dry when it all comes down to it, but it’s a nice little film or epic. Depending on which way you look at it.