Henry Koster’s The Robe, the first film released in CinemaScope on September 16, 1953 — the first film made in CinemaScope was How to Marry a Millionaire, which was released November 4, 1953 — has always gotten a bad rap, supposedly for Koster’s flat and uninspired direction, and the primitive use of the ’scope frame in the film. And I admit, I myself was one of the crowd of detractors. But the new Blu-Ray restoration of The Robe brings out qualities that even the 35mm original didn’t fully reveal during the film’s initial theatrical presentation in 1953.
If such a thing is possible, The Robe ultimately emerges as a quiet, thoughtful epic, with a great deal of intelligence behind it, much more successful to my mind than Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, William Wyler’s Ben Hur, or even Nicholas Ray’s maverick project King of Kings, all of which have a much higher conventional critical profile.
It isn’t in the same league as Pier Paolo Pasolini’s masterful The Gospel According to St. Matthew, but then again, that’s arguably the best version of the Christ tale ever brought to the screen. But The Robe has a certain quiet holding power to it, mostly anchored in the understated performances of the entire cast throughout the film, though it doesn’t neglect the visual aspect of the piece, and only occasionally wanders off track into maudlin sentiment.
As the anonymous reviewer for Blu-Ray.com noted, “The Robe dazzles on Blu-ray with its masterful 1080p transfer framed at 2.55:1. This is another high-quality classic catalogue release from Fox, and rarely does the transfer fail to impress. Colors are astounding and are the highlight of the image. The shade of dark red that marks the color of the Roman soldier’s uniforms in particular stands out, but the many colors of the flowing and wonderfully adorned garments worn by both Roman royalty and the populace of Jerusalem sparkle. The color stands out particularly well against the earthen tones of the sandy floors and the numerous gray façades of various buildings.
Fine detail, too, is generally exceptional. The disc reveals textures and fine lines in clothing, armor, weaponry, and the adornments of the luxurious Roman palaces. Some scenes are noticeably soft, lacking in clarity, sharpness, and detail, but such scenes are the exception to the rule. There are also a few instances of dramatic shifts in color one frame to another, but again, such is the exception to the rule. Generally, The Robe looks marvelous on Blu-ray.”
And in a lengthy review in the website DVD Beaver, Leonard Norwitz concurs, stating flatly that “next to the DVD or any video or theatrical presentation in memory, this Blu-ray is a revelation, which is not to say that it is always perfect, but where there are difficulties, I feel comfortable in attributing them to the source. The image most often has the feel of a painting in motion, which I imagine was the intended effect. There is an almost pastel quality to the color.
The lighting is deliberately evenhanded most of the time, not natural at all, but in stark contrast to the dramatic material in Palestine that concerns the robe itself: the crucifixion and Marcellus’ crisis most especially. In those scenes, blacks are intense and the color deep and sinister. Some of the darkly lit interior scenes get oversaturated the point of blurring detail – the result is not subtle, and certainly not intentional. Artifacts, enhancements or noise reduction do not appear to be visited upon this Blu-ray.”
I also think that The Robe has been unjustly maligned over the years as an overblown religious spectacle, and while it certainly indulges in visual excess, the performances are all very finely tuned, particularly a very young Richard Burton in the role that made him a star, as well as Jean Simmons as Diana, Richard Boone as Pontius Pilate, Ernest Thesiger as Emperor Tiberius, Victor Mature as Demetrius, and Michael Rennie as Peter. In contrast, Jay Robinson’s suitably over-the-top Caligula is a fully realized monster, and arguably the performance of his career.
CinemaScope, of course, was 20th Century Fox’s answer to the threat of television, and although the ’scope version is the most widely seen, the film was simultaneously shot in regular academy (flat) ratio to accommodate theaters that couldn’t afford to convert to the CinemaScope screen format. Alfred Newman’s suitably lush score is also a plus. While the film is certainly sentimentalized, it’s really an actor’s film, and a deeply felt one at that, in which the cast never seems overpowered by the pageantry the surrounds them. All in all, The Robe is worth another look, and now it looks better than ever.