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Blu-ray Review: The Robe

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In an attempt to deal with the serious impact the medium of television was having on the film industry, studios began to seek new ways to impress and pull in audiences. One new strategy was Twentieth Century Fox’s widescreen format CinemaScope, based on the work of French professor Henri Chrétien. It almost doubled the aspect ratio and created a much larger image to engulf viewers “without glasses” as the posters pointed out in a dig at 3-D.

Although it was not the first Cinemascope film to be completed, a designation that belongs to How to Marry A Millionaire, the biblical epic The Robe was the first to be released because its grand scale was considered more likely to make a better debut. While it must have been impressive back in 1953, the film is a bloated melodrama with a terrible script. It’s easy to see why, if IMDb’s claim is accurate, that “Richard Burton once said this was the least favorite of all his films.”

The Robe tells the tale of Roman military tribune Marcellus Gallio’s (Richard Burton) conversion to Christianity, an interesting topic but it is handled so foolishly it’s difficult not to laugh at its feeble attempt. In a marketplace, Marcellus runs into a woman named Diana (Jean Simmons) who he used to be friends with as a child and hasn’t seen since. They discussed marriage as children, and she is still curious if he is going to keep his promise, which he surprisingly agrees to. The main stumbling block is Diana is already betrothed to Caligula (Jay Robinson), nephew of and heir to Emperor Tiberius. In a game of one-upmanship, Caligula buys a pair of twins ladies off the auction block Marcellus was trying to get and vice versa in regards to Greek slave Demetrius (Victor Mature in quite a stiff performance).

Angered by this public slight, Caligula has Marcellus sent to Jerusalem. On their way into town, Jesus Christ is seen riding on a donkey and Demetrius is somehow compelled to be a follower just from seeing him. Marcellus’ tour of duty is about up, but before his return he must oversee the crucifixion of Christ. Demetrius wanders Jerusalem to find anyone who can help him warn Christ. One man tells him it is too late because Christ was betrayed. As the man leaves, he identifies himself as Judas, which is immediately, and laughably, punctuated by a loud thunderclap.

At the crucifixion, Marcellus wins Christ’s robe shooting dice and gets Christ’s blood on him. When the weather turns foul, Marcellus orders Demetrius to cover him with the robe, which burns Marcellus with its touch. Demetrius takes back the robe and runs away.

During the voyage back, Marcellus suffers nightmares. At a meeting with Tiberius, it is determined Marcellus is bewitched and must destroy the robe. His search takes him to Galilee where he poses as a merchant. He hears the apostle Peter is coming and is in the company of a Greek, who Marcellus rightly assumes is Demetrius. When Marcellus encounters Demetrius, he is unable to destroy Christ’s robe. After speaking with Peter, who admits he denied Christ three times, Marcellus converts and joins in the mission to spread His word.

As they make their way to Rome, Demetrius is captured and tortured to find Marcellus’ whereabouts. Marcellus and his fellow Christians break Demetrius out. Marcellus’ new faith causes him to be renounced by his father, a Roman senator. With options limited and history not being on the Christians side in Rome, it’s not difficult to see the outcome when Caligula puts Marcellus on trial as a traitor and demands he renounce Christ.

The Robe’s debut on Blu-ray is one of the most uneven video transfers I have ever seen. In an introduction by Martin Scorsese he talks about the film being restored; however, the video switches often from radiant rich colors and sharply delineated details that well recreate the opulent pageantry of Rome to faded colors and blurry images that look like old deteriorated movies shown on UHF channels.

The worst example of this is during fades. Understandably the frames that shared both black and the film images might not be able to be corrected with current technology, but a few moments before and after each transition it literally looks like a filter is turned on and off. There’s no denying the images are dazzling in the parts that work, but the parts that don’t are terrible.

Director Henry Koster blocked the scenes to take full advantage of the widescreen format, presented here in 2.55:1. Yet, some elements lose focus when they move to the foreground.  This happens to Marcellus when first goes home and talks with his parents and when Demetrius is attending Marcellus in the bathing pool area. Another problem is that the high definition ruins the illusion of the matte paintings.

Much like the video presentation, the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is also plagued with the misfortune of the technology excelling in some areas while failing in others. This Blu-ray is one of the best examples of the surround system placing characters in space. When a character speaks on the left side of the frame, he is heard only from the front left with support from the left surround and slightly the front middle. Where the technology fails the film is during the scenes, like large outdoor sequences, where the dialogue was later replaced in a recording studio because it sounds very hollow and flat with no ambiance added.

Composer Alfred Newman delivered a dynamic and emotive score, but some of the softer dialogue gets lost in the music. Film composer David Newman and film historians Jon Burlingame, Julie Kirgo, and Nick Redman deliver the commentary track and devote time to Newman’s work, which can be fully appreciated with the isolated audio track option.

Regardless of the flaws with the film and its presentation are, Fox deserves high marks for the Special Features created for this historically significant film. “The Making of The Robe” offers a very in-depth featurette about the film and is filled with a lot of interviews. “The Cinemascope Story” is for serious film technology geeks. “From Scripture to Script: The Bible and Hollywood” finds religious scholars mainly focusing on The Robe. Courtesy of his family, screenwriter Phillip Dunne can be heard in what is labeled an “Audio Interview” but it’s really much more of a rather dry monologue.

There are two BONUSVIEW Picture-in-Picture features. In “The Robe Times Two: A Comparison of Widescreen and Standard Versions” it is amazing to see the differences in the presentations. There’s a great deal lost with the pan and scan of the image and the extra inserts required. It’s a perfect illustration against those who argue in favor of fullscreen over letterboxing. “A Seamless Faith: The Real-Life Search For The Robe” presents a historical look at the events and the film. This feature can be accessed on its own.

“Advertising The Robe” has celebrity introductions by actors like Robert Wagner, Susan Hayward, and Clifton Webb recommending the film even though they have nothing to do with it. There are also Movietone News, Trailers and TV spots, an interactive pressbook, a poster gallery, lobby cards, and publicity stills to feast upon.

While The Robe and its presentation make me want to discourage people from buying it, there’s no denying how well done the Special Features are and what they have to offer classic Hollywood fans. Renting it first might be a sound investment.

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About Gordon S. Miller

Gordon S. Miller is the artist formerly known as El Bicho, the nom de plume he used when he first began reviewing movies online for The Masked Movie Snobs in 2003. Before the year was out, he became that site's publisher. Over the years, he has also contributed to a number of other sites as a writer and editor, such as FilmRadar, Film School Rejects, High Def Digest, and Blogcritics. He is the Publisher of Cinema Sentries. Some of his random thoughts can be found at twitter.com/ElBicho_CS