Before Ben Hur came The Robe, based on Lloyd C. Douglas' novel about the early days of Christianity, from the point of view of the Roman centurion charged with carrying out Christ's crucifixion. Popular genre films in the fifties Biblical and Roman epics once assured Hollywood films comfortable box office receipts and respect, no matter how cheesy the acting. The first movie produced with CinemaScope, The Robe doesn't take full advantage of its technology the way later epics filmed on location do, but its strength parallels Ben Hur for weaving the tale of Christ into the narrative of another character.
Incidental charm of this fifties period piece rests in director Henry Kostner's unsubtle criticism of commercialism and rampant consumerism. As hedonistic womanizing centurion Marcellus Gallio (Richard Burton) wanders the marketplace, all matter of slaves are being sold for every taste, whether strong or meek, handsome or ugly, young or old. It's easy to see how post-war Americans would relate to the blatant marketing spoof. And the device ties into the narrative by setting up a conflict between our flawed human hero and the fruitcake Emperor Caligula (Jay Robinson in his feature debut).
Slated for "lion's meat" due to his rebellious nature, strongman slave Demetrius (Victor Mature) is saved by Marcellus' generous auction overbidding to spite the Emperor. Why Marcellus obsessively wants Demetrius is left ambiguous—it certainly isn't for Mature's acting ability. Not even Charlton Heston has strung as many wooden appearances together as Mature does with epics like Samson and Delilah, Androcles and the Lion, and Demetrius and the Gladiators (a lame sequel to The Robe). Besides acting as a plot device, Demetrius represents a kindred defiant spirit, but he rebuffs Marcellus' suggestion that they could become friends: "Friends can't be bought, sir—even for three thousand pieces of gold."
Burton does solid work with Jean Simmons as his love interest, Diana. Both are believable as lovers, and their quieter scenes give the Welsh actor a chance to show off his distinctive Oxford trained vocal talents. But when the script calls for Burton to suffer guilt-ridden panic attacks, his staged performance turns ludicrously unbelievable. No subtleties allowed when he touches Jesus' robe—the "magic" cloth turns Burton to a raving lunatic. His eyes grow wide as he blankly stares and utters, "Were you there? Were you . . . out . . . there?"
As silly as Burton's moments of madness seem, they pale when compared to the cheeseball showmanship of Jay Robinson's Caligula, whose whiny voice and over the top hissy fits send audiences into hysterics. What a scene-chewer Robinson turns out to be—but the real Caligula was one wild and crazy guy as well! Contrasting completely with the insane Emperor, Michael Rennie reprises his stoic Klaatu role (The Day the Earth Stood Still) to take on the role of Peter. He doesn't say much, but his quiet presence and spiritual steadfastness are noted by the characters that accept Christianity.
No one will seek out The Robe for its acting performances or for its spectacle since most of the filming takes place on enclosed studio sets. What interests the most is the concept behind the story and the way its point of view works in tales about early Christianity without focussing directly on the central figure of Christ, very much like Ben Hur does. As punishment, Marcellus is assigned to the "worst rat hole" of the Roman Empire—Palestine, and when he arrives rumors of "mad men" promising a Jewish Messiah are afoot. Knowing the subsequent history, familiar scenes of Palm Sunday, the trial before Pontius Pilate, and the crucifixion can be seen at a distance with symbolic meaning.
Without close contact with Jesus, Demetrius' conversion is hard to fathom, but the film's Christian agenda can be overlooked since it's done without obvious evangelical fervor. A scene with Judas seems contrived. It gives him a chance to explain his betrayal: "Because men are weak. Because they're cursed with envy and avarice." It also parallels the guilt that the Centurion feels that will be developed into further religious themes. Although The Robe doesn't fully satisfy, it's an interesting film that compels viewers to consider how they would act in such times. Using Burton as a relatable Everyman, assigned to carry out the execution of Christ and showing his anguish afterwards does elevate this film enough to make it a worthwhile watch—pointing the way for better things to come.