“ Marcellus Gallio (Richard Burton) is a Roman Tribune. He spends a lot of his time drinking and gambling. In Rome he runs across Diana (Jean Simmons) a childhood friend who he hasn’t seen for fifteen years. She is the ward of Emperor Tiberius (Ernest Thesiger). Tiberius is looking to marry Diana to his nephew and heir Caligula (Jay Robinson).
Caligula is at the market looking for slaves to turn into gladiators. Marcellus and Caligula can’t stand each other. Marcellus outbids Caligula for an insolent Greek slave named Demetrius (Victor Mature). Caligula, in a fit of pique, transfers Marcellus to Jerusalem. There have been issues with the locals and an upstart religion sweeping the area. Marcellus takes Demetrius with him. Before he sails Diana comes to him and vows her love to him and he to her. He asks her to see the Emperor and ask him not to pledge her to Caligula.
When they reach Judea a procession goes by. On a donkey is a man dressed in while. People are carrying palms and placing them in front of the donkey for the animal to walk on. As the procession passes the man on the donkey looks Demetrius in the eye. Something happens within him and he asks who the man on the donkey was. He is told it is Jesus.
When Demetrius hears that Jesus is to be arrested he tries to find him to warn him but he is too late. Jesus is tried and Marcellus is one of the soldiers that must crucify him. While Jesus is dying the soldiers are playing a game of dice. In the game Marcellus wins the robe that the condemned man had been wearing. Just then a storm comes up. During the storm Marcellus places his hand on the cross that Jesus is nailed to. Blood drips down onto his hand. On the way back to his room Marcellus attempts to use the robe to cover his head. As soon as he touches it something happens and the guilt of what he did hits him. He can't touch the robe without feeling pain. Demetrius grabs the robe and runs away.
Marcellus has been called back to Rome. On the trip he is wracked with nightmares and fits of fear. He is haunted by the crucifixion. Back in front of Tiberius he is still feeling guilty and explains to Tiberius that as soon as touched the robe a sort of madness came over him. Tiberius, his doctor and his seer believe the robe was possessed of an evil spell and that Marcellus can only cure himself when the robe is destroyed. Marcellus is sent on a mission to find the robe and burn it. While he is searching Tiberius orders him to find and record the names of all rebels that follow this new religion called Christianity.
“The Robe” was released in 1953 and was directed by Henry Koster. It is a Biblical Sword and Sandal sub-genre film. It is based on the 1942 historical novel by Lloyd C. Douglas, a Lutheran pastor. A sequel to the film called “Demetrius and the Gladiators” was done in 1954. It picks up where this film ends.
The film is based on an outsider’s view of the death of Christ on the cross and the impact it has on the Tribune’s faith and his journey to find that faith. The fact that he was responsible for the death of this man that others hailed as their savior weighs heavily on his conscience.
The outsider’s search for faith is a similar premise to “Ben-Hur” 1959 however, it doesn’t have the action packed nail-biting scenes of the galley or the chariot race like “Ben-Hur” did. “The Robe” is good, but it doesn’t have the heart wrenching emotion that “Ben-Hur” had or the impressive special effects of “The Ten Commandments” 1956. What it lacked in action and effects it made up for in its cast.
The movie may not be as well know as some of the other epic films of the biblical sword and sandal sub-genre but it does boast an impressive array of stars. Included in the cast are Richard Burton, Jean Simmons, Victor Mature, Michael Rennie, Dean Jagger, Torin Thatcher, Richard Boone, Jeff Morrow, Ernest Thesiger and various other character actors. Even though Jesus’ face was never seen his voice was done by Cameron Mitchell.
What is ironic about the film is that its religiously converted leading man was an atheist, chain-smoking, alcoholic, married man who was having an affair with his also married costar, Jean Simmons.