Saturday, January 07, 2006

The Robe

I have been watching The Robe (1953), a sword and sandal epic. I love the book written by Lloyd C. Douglas. The plot revolves around the redemption of Marcellus, the Roman Centurian who crucified Jesus, won Jesus' clothes at dice, and his Greek slave, Demetrius. Marcellus is the son of an influential Senator. Marcellus' squeeze, Diana, is a brave and virtuous woman, whom Caligula lusts after, lots of grist for the mill. All good right?

The movie had two taglines. The first:
The first motion picture in CinemaScope--the modern miracle you see without glasses! The second: The Greatest Story of Love, Faith, and Overwhelming Spectacle! I'm sensing a theme here: come for the special effects - stay for the special effects. Still the movie has Caligula, Caligula! How bad can it be? You don't get much more villianous than that. The headliners: Richard Burton, Jean Simmons, and Victor Mature. Here is where it goes wrong, oh so wrong.

Of the three, Jean Simmons turns in the best performance. We first see her rougishly taunting a sheepish Marcellus for not recognizing her. This scene establishes that despite his lecherous ways (he's shopping the slave market for a pair of voluptous, twin sisters - one gives excellent massages!), he just needs reaquaintence with his childhood friend to be completely reformed. Then Caligula minces in. Simmon's portrayal is light on the hand wringing and heavy on the "head burrowed on the hero's chest" and "cheek to cheek" action. That shot when the heroine grasps the hero's shoulders and rubs her cheek on his with a look of worry or anguish on her face. Diana is no shrinking violet, she fights for the man she loves.

Richard Burton as Marcellus starts out pretty strong. Lustful and swaggering is Burton's forte. Petruchio, Marc Antony, Henry VIII, even his Thomas a Becket (from the Jean Anouilh play and screenplay) has a veneer of lustful exuberence. Then he is driven mad, MAD!, by his actions in crucifying Jesus and the performance becomes painful. Marcellus is driven by guilt to inquire of everyone: "Where you out there?" The strained and guilty whisper of the book causes Burton to go wall eyed and sound like he's choking on a fishbone. Resisting the temptation to give him a hearty swat on the back and a drink of water must have been difficult for those surrounding him on the set.

Marcellus confronts the apostle Peter (whose gleaming white robes brought to mind Socratic conversations more than hard working fisherman and fugitive from Roman justice) with the revelation that he is the soldier who killed Jesus. Burton's body language and voice do not evoke shame, sorrow and defiance so much as the wooden akwardness of a social gaffe. When Marcellus tries to burn the Robe and it touches him, instead of a cry of soul wrenching terror we are treated to a strangling gasp more on par with a dousing in cold water.

Victor Mature falls just short. If Jean Simmons exemplifies heroine acting conventions, and Richard Burton's emotional projection seems out of sync with the scene or dialogue, then Mature had a golden opportunity to shine and responded with a vague glimmer. His character, Demetrius, seesaws between bitter rage and newfound gentleness. Mature's rage seems almost purely physical with no emotional depth. His dimple flashes in a grin as he pursues Burton around the room with Robe in hand, less gentle than more gleeful.

I am not really panning the movie, it is highly worth a view, especially if you really like the genre. It is just not on par with Ben Hur (1959) (few movies are) or Spartacus (1960), which is too bad because the book is great. Compared with the General Lew Wallace's longwindedness, Lloyd Douglas wrote a tidy story that fairly cracked along.

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