The Robe (1953)

I searched the TV schedules in vain. I put it down to being out a lot rather than our secular culture saturating the broadcasters’ listings. Where was a film about Jesus’ life? Although I am known to criticise such productions for being corny or historically inaccurate, I secretly rather enjoy them. Sadly, none were to be found, so I dug out a cheap DVD I bought some time ago: The Robe.

This 1953 Biblical epic, with its large scale, sweeping scope and spectacle, was dated but charming. Somewhat like Ben-Hur (1959), Jesus Himself is barely seen or heard, yet He is the movie’s central theme. Marcellus Gallio is an impudent Roman tribune exiled to Jerusalem by an imperious Caligula, heir to the emperor, effectively employing a smarmy English accent. Not long after he arrives, he is recalled, but must first execute some criminals, one of whom is Christ. The crucifixion scene is rather dramatic and moving, with thunder and lightning, and Marcellus is the Roman who wins Christ’s robe. On returning to his barracks in the rain, he demands of his slave the robe, which, when worn, appears to burn him and cause pain. His slave, a Greek named Demetrius, admired Christ, and ran off with it.

The robe causes a kind of madness to befall the young tribune, who is tasked by Tiberius himself to retrieve the robe and burn it, to restore his sanity. He also demands the names of all Christians, as he foresees a time when this new religious idea will destroy the empire. I’m a little sceptical that the emperor himself would take so keen an interest in the names of individual Jewish believers, but it adds an urgency to the mission.

Marcellus returns to Judaea (the film incorrectly describes it as Palestine, a name not used for another century) only to be himself converted to Christ and a realisation that the robe itself had no power- it was his own conscience that had pained him. The tribune eventually returns to Rome where he is tried before Caligula, the robe being presented as evidence. He and Diana, his childhood sweetheart, are convicted of treason and awarded death. There’s a rather moving exchange between tribune and emperor, the latter demanding the former offer loyalty to him and renunciation of Christ. Marcellus replies, after offering his loyalty: “I cannot renounce Him sire, and nor can you. He is my king and yours too”. The final shot has the Christian pair walking up through clouds, to meet the Christ for whom they died. A rather naïve shot by our standards, but rather impressive for the early fifties.

I must say I rather enjoyed it. Ancient Rome was portrayed as being far cleaner and more colourful than I think it really was; I also think Jerusalem, a great city back then which in the script Marcellus has never even heard of, is portrayed as being ruinous when it certainly wasn’t. Still, it is a good film, even if Peter was portrayed walking around in a slightly papal-looking white robe.