Directed by Henry Koster
Screenplay By Gina Kaus, Albert Maltz and Phillips Dunne, from the book of the same name by Lloyd C. Douglas
Starring Richard Burton, Jean Simmons, Victor Mature, Michael Rennie, Dean Jagger and Jay Robinson
This entry of The Also-Rans was originally reserved for Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Shakespeare adaptation, Julius Caesar. For weeks and months, and probably more, doing an entry on that film was the plan, and seemed a good choice. After all, the man won Best Director and Screenplay twice each, in back-to-back years, the only time that has been accomplished. Crazier than that, is neither of those films won Best Picture. So squeezing in a look at his take on Julius Casear was a good way to work him into this project.
Except Julius Caesar stars Marlon Brando, who I’ve ever-so-recently come to realize sucks. And faced with he prospect of watching Brando bring the same level of ‘acting’ to Shakespeare as he brought to Sayonara, I chose to pass.
And that’s how we got here.
What’s It About?
In the year 33 a.d., Marcellus (Richard Burton) is the son of a Roman senator, and himself a military tribune, which is a rather high-ranking military officer. He’s also favored by the emperor, which protects Marcellus from the emperor’s son, Caligula (Jay Robinson), who has nothing but ill-will for Marcellus after Marcellus outbid him for the slave Demetrius (Victor Mature) at auction, intent on using him as a man-servant, as opposed to Caligula’s preference for gladiators. After being stationed in Judea, Marcellus is put in charge of the crucifixion of Jesus, but inexplicably has a religious experience when draped with Jesus’ robe. Thereafter, Demetrius escapes with the robe. Believing the robe is cursed, Marcellus goes in search of it, intent on destroying it so it will release it’s hold over him. Only, instead of destroying it he winds up converted by the Christians he meets. In the end, when he continues to declare Jesus a king, the now-emperor Caligula condemns Marcellus to death.
Being a hero on film is hard. Yes, you typically get more screen time, and if there’s a sequel, you’re coming back for another paycheck. But if you’re the hero, that means you never get to have any fun by being bad. Because, to be the hero, you must always be good, and make the noble choice. Which sort of boils down this way:
- You don’t get to have sex
- You don’t get to do drugs, drink, or imbibe in any other vices
- You can’t intentionally hurt somebody, because you won’t recover in the audience’s eyes if you do
- And if you do hurt somebody, you must agonize over it to the point you’re tiresome
And why does it have to be this way? Because the hero has to be the audience surrogate in some way, the person we all root for, and if your character is anything less than somebody to root for, that is the same as death. In the end, because of these restrictions, you wind up getting regular world, but also wind up a bland, goody-two-shoes – see e.g. Luke Skywalker and Superman.
On the other hand, villains get to have all the fun. They are allowed – no, required – to indulge their hedonistic side and be as evil as can be, so that when they die on film – and they almost inevitably die – we can take pleasure in it. So we can feel like they deserved it. And to get there they get chew the scenery, kick babies down stairs, kill random strangers, and act like outsized egos. And while they won’t usually be back for the sequel, they will definitely be remembered and cast a long shadow in their absence, see e.g. The Joker and Darth Vader.
If you’re lucky, you get to play the anti-hero, like Han Solo. Except, being the anti-hero requires walking an even finer line because you have to start out anti-heroic, only to come around to being the hero. The requirement here? You must repent and genuflect deeper than you otherwise would in order to make up for your previous indifference. And if you don’t watch out, instead of being Han Solo you become Tony Stark – a spoiled, rich asshole who is as bad as the bad guys, the only difference is he’s on our side.
What does that have to do here?
In The Robe Richard Burton is the hero, Marcellus, and while he’s fine and garnered a Best Actor nod for his work, that’s all he is is fine. Certainly, he’s capable of being uncaring and unfeeling in crucifying Jesus, making him the anti-hero. Which means when it comes time for him to go all in on Christianity, he’s got to be being properly transfixed and repentant at the figurative feet of Christ for us to consider him heroic. And while Burton does pull it off, he’s not at all special in it, and hardly memorable. Which is the lot of the actor playing the hero.
On the other hand, while Jay Robinson as Caligula is offscreen for large swathes of the film, his dominance over it is as complete as Jesus’. He is petulant, repugnant, and vengeful, in all the best ways, and Robinson brings real verve to the part. In his hands Caligula becomes a mixture of two things: 1) The spoiled rich kid lashing out when he doesn’t get his way, and, 2) the impotent man suddenly finding his potency. As Caligula, Robinson sneers and demands, and acts as the capricious man drunk with power. He makes Caligula such an evil character we long for his return whenever he slithers off-screen. In that way, he is to The Robe what Harry Lime was to The Third Man.
What’s interesting is that, as memorable as Robinson is here, I have no real memory of him in anything else, even as I’ve seen some of his other films, particularly Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Shampoo. It’s a shame he didn’t get similar parts as this in other films of equal, or greater exposure, but such is the life of an actor. You make choices about the films you want to be in, then play the roles in front of you. Sometimes you become a star, other times you become a working actor and nothing more.
Michael Rennie plays Peter, who is referred to at various times as Simon – his birth name – and The Big Fisherman. Rennie is probably most well-known for his role in Robert Wise’s The Day The Earth Stood Still as Klaatu. After that he’s probably best remembered for being the first line of the first song in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, ‘Science Fiction/Double Feature’, which begins:
“Michael Rennie was ill the day the earth stood still,
And he told us, where we stand…”
As soon as his name appeared in the opening credits I started singing the song to myself and, even as I write this, I’m starting to sing it again.
One of the somewhat unmentioned recurring characters in The Also-Rans project is Dean Jagger. Way back towards the beginning of it all we took a look at Twelve O’Clock High, the film which one him his only Oscar, for Best Supporting Actor. Later, he played a small part in The Nun’s Story, as Audrey Hepburn’s father. Here he plays the small part of Justus, a man who helps show Marcellus (Richard Burton) that Christianity is a loving, peaceful, accepting religion.
As Justus, Jagger brings his usual gravitas and gentility, which might just be the single greatest hallmark of all his acting – his ability to be the gruff, yet loving father figure. And while he’s perfectly fine here, he’s not fine enough to make me forget my favorite Dean Jagger performance will always be his turn as the retired General Waverly in Michael Curtiz’s indelible holiday musical, White Christmas.
Better Than Best
Best Picture 1953 was Fred Zinnemann’s adaptation of James Jones’ novel, From Here to Eternity. Featuring an iconic, surf-logged embrace between stars Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster, From Here to Eternity has itself become iconic, not the least of which because it features so many film careers on the rise, and others reaching their pinnacle: Lancaster and Kerr, of course, but also Montgomery Clift, Donna Reed, Frank Sinatra, and in a small role, Ernest Borgnine.
But despite being something of an icon, From Here to Eternity is also a bit staid, and surely lesser than the other Best Picture nominees, Shane and Roman Holiday, and also other Oscar nominees like Stalag 17 – which featured William Holden’s Oscar win. If we’re honest, any of those three films would stand above From Here to Eternity, with each of them having their own iconography:
- Audrey Hepburn riding on the back of Gregory Peck’s scooter in Roman Holiday
- Alan Ladd riding into the sunset at the end of Shane
- William Holden glaring imperiously at his fellow prisoners while chewing his cigar in Stalag 17
But while any of those three films would be superior choices for Best Picture than From Here To Eternity, that does not mean The Robe is capable of joining the group. While it is true The Robe is superior to the other biblically-themed films Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments, that’s only because it’s shorter and less overtly-reverential and earnest in execution. Which means while there is a healthy dose of cynicism at play in The Robe, it only sticks around long enough to set up the conversion to Christianity in the second half. And while the film seems to make a better effort at Christianity earning that fawning, and also Peter being repentant for denying Jesus, it still leans too far for it’s own good into that slender territory separating cinematic, grounded films, from hagiography.
The Robe was the first movie ever films in CinemaScope, the anamorphic widescreen process used by 20th Century Fox.
See the rest of the Also Rans Project here.