The Robe is a fictionalized account of a Roman soldier whose life is forever changed when he wins Jesus’ robe at the latter’s crucifixion (an event mentioned in passing in Matthew 27:35). The movie’s Oscar-winning costumes and art direction look amazing sixty years after the film was made, but its most important success by far is its wonderfully humane storytelling.
The visuals certainly make a great starting point.
The movie, released in a widescreen process known as CinemaScope, is introduced by Martin Scorsese and then opened, to literal rising curtains, to an incredible and beautifully colored depiction of Rome, filled with all manner of people, cultures, and architectural marvels. The slave market is as crowded as the city itself is, while Roman nobles live freely for pleasure. Emperor Tiberius’ heir and regent, Caligula, is coming to buy gladiators. Some people advertise jewels. Other people advertise slaves, each with their own cultures and costumes. The sheer amount and variety of activity in the setting looks thoroughly convincing and is a joy to watch without ever becoming overwhelming, and the gorgeous environments are heavily decorated.
This social peace is quickly disrupted by a runaway slave, but a tribune–essentially, an advocate of the people–by the name of Marcellus Gallio restrains the slave and pushes him to the ground. The slave, understandably angry, is taken away, and life goes on. After the movie introduces a few more characters including a young woman named Diana, Marcellus gets involved in a slave-purchasing argument with (of all possible people) the future emperor Caligula. This incident humiliates Marcellus’ father, a member of the Roman Senate; this is especially unfortunate given the noble intentions behind the purchase. It is here that the younger Gallio is ordered to a city in Palestine called Jerusalem, which is described as and indeed made to sound like “the worst pest hole in the [Roman] Empire.” Senator Gallio is seen to care for his son, for all of Marcellus’ foolishness and disappointment, and Marcellus sails that night on a galley.
The slave Demetrius, whom Marcellus has already freed, intends to go with him to Jerusalem anyway. Before they leave, however, Diana and Marcellus have a long goodbye and sincerely but clumsily establish a romantic subplot. Diana and her subplot are anything but useless, as is soon established, and the latter eventually becomes a very interesting source of conflict to take the story in new directions. There’s also a goofy scene of the couple making out while Marcellus is being yelled at to get back to the boat.
It’s a Christian movie that’s enjoyable on its own terms.
The Robe eventually becomes much more spiritual in its storytelling, but it never neglects its tale’s pacing or its people. The city of Jerusalem is almost as crowded as Rome is shown to be and is likewise full of life, both human and animal. Marcellus and Demetrius arrive during the festival of Passover: the Jews are expecting their savior known as the “Messiah,” and a centurion gives his fellow soldier a very basic, nameless explanation of Jesus.
The sight of the people crowding around and singing to this Messiah is impressive to behold, and Demetrius is utterly overwhelmed by him. It’s not long before Governor Pontius Pilate gives arrest orders for Jesus, however, and Demetrius becomes determined to find, warn, and follow this man. Unfortunately for them both, Jesus has already been betrayed, and there’s a neat minor plot twist here. (On an unrelated note, when Demetrius is going from house to house looking for people who know Jesus, the nighttime lighting in the residential areas is impressive.)
The story then moves to Jesus’s crucifixion itself, which is not shown in graphic detail, but there is a direct mention of driving nails into a man’s flesh. He struggles under the weight of the cross and is lashed; Demetrius runs to Jesus’ aid and is also hit for the trouble. The former is shortly pulled aside and healed. When Demetrius eventually does reach Jesus, the crucifixion is well underway, and it makes for a somewhat emotional scene. (There’s only a small amount of blood shown. More on that later.)
The Roman soldiers themselves, including Gallio, are busy gambling; Demetrius, looking at once like he’s appalled and confused, picks up Jesus’ robe, which the soldiers notice. The cloak is awarded as a prize to Tribune Marcellus, which is where the story really starts to become interesting and sometimes unsettling. The crucifixion itself is not graphic, but with the tribune still unsure about Jesus’s true nature, some blood ends up on his hands (subtle). Jesus forgives the people for their actions, as in Luke 23:34, and after His death, the following storm scares one of the horses.
Marcellus wants to use the robe as a scarf, but in so doing he piles all manner of agony onto himself and is desperate for Demetrius to take it back off. Here the movie veers rather noticeably into supernatural territory, as the clearly traumatized Marcellus dreams about his role in the crucifixion. This is represented in a sort of ghostly form that, while still not bloody, could nonetheless be scary for young children. The bigger issues are Gallio’s repeated panic attacks, which are questioned as being either a magical spell, or a simple madness on his own part. Either way they do a good job of evoking empathy without being excessively rendered for horror’s sake. More importantly, Gallio’s underlying guilt serves as the basis for his character development to come, even if it takes a little while.
This film values its fun and its dignity in equal measure.
An interesting result of this situation, however, is that the movie becomes its own sort of action movie that devotes its excitement to a higher cause. The Robe is a sort of Christian drama, but the people who drive this story are consistently interesting and, while as universally imperfect as one might expect humans to be, are easy to root for or against. The story becomes rather melodramatic at times, with the best of intentions, but this leads to some extremely well done character interaction and some heartbreakingly wonderful messages about forgiveness, compassion, generosity, and redemption.
The love story from earlier in the film does become more mature, and it actually becomes a really interesting source of conflict later on: Both characters involved have to work through their personal growth over time by determining their loyalty and priorities as individuals and as a couple, and their ideas aren’t always “synchronized” at a given point in time. This occurs in the middle of a larger plot that deals with issues such as how and how much a cultural movement spreads, what virtues an empire should exhibit, and even whether magic exists or is a superstition (is Christianity social, or does it work through sorcery) without ever becoming ridiculous.
There is an excellent rescue scene late in the movie that is just so well done that it could fit in an ordinary genre flick without trouble, and it leads into the powerful display of a man on trial for his life, which ends (and ends the movie) with a completely unexpected but welcome tonal focus.
The story is amazing to watch.
If The Passion is a one-trick pony with a really good trick, then The Robe is the narrative complement that that film arguably deserved. The plot just works on every single level, from the narrative events to the characters they define and are defined by, and it could easily resemble that of a modern-day summer blockbuster. The environments are unbelievably gorgeous, the performances are awesome (including Demetrius’ so-powerful-it’s-creepy level of conviction, another man’s hilarious dialogue and delivery, and Caligula’s ability to be so gleefully, joyously, awesomely evil), and the people are generally very different at the end of the movie from who and what they were at the beginning.
This sixty-year-old movie has aged extremely well, usually with only the slightest musical cues and the very rare dip in scenery quality as giveaways beyond the obvious technical limits of the time, and while it’s a bit too violent for young children (one person is visibly shot in the back with an arrow; there is also an unspoken, suggestive implication early in the film, which is itself shown to be something completely different), older children can and should enjoy a film that looks and runs like a blockbuster and just happens to be concerned about the physical and spiritual well-being of the people that make up its story and setting. The Robe is a classic that’s every bit as approachable for audiences today as it would have been generations ago, and I’d hardly be surprised if it remained that way for many more to come.