Thursday, 6 September 2012

The Robe (dir. Henry Koster, 1953)

Before Richard Burton was Mark Antony or Alexander the Great, he was Marcellus Gallio, who crucifies an troublesome Jewish public speaker only to be guilted into dying for the aforementioned person by his holier-than-thou slave. Gallio's slave, that is, not Jesus'. Except metaphorically.

Slavery is, obviously, a pretty big theme in this film. It resists the urge openly to declare that Christianity brought about the downfall of slavery (which it didn't, at least not until the 19th century) but it does insist in the prologue that there were more slaves than free men in Rome, which is daft (the usual estimate is around 35% of the population I think).

The prologue also introduces some of the ancient gods with, unsurprisingly, a rather disapproving tone. The gods selected are Love (represented by a statue of two people kissing), War (Ares/Mars, the statue looks Greek to me), Drunkenness (Dionysus/Bacchus) and 'huntresses' (Diana). The inclusion of 'huntresses' doesn't say much for the filmmaker's opinion of strong women, but on the other hand, the lead female character is called 'Diana' and the lead couple spend half their time on screen together kissing each other, so all in all it's sending out a bit of a mixed message there.

The opening of the film in a slave market has a rather nice, fairly realistic feel to it. A slave market is always a good place to open a story set in ancient Rome, because it highlights the similarities (salespeople sound the same everywhere) and the differences between our own world/1950s America and ancient Rome. Unfortunately, this tone is not maintained all the way through, and when the story gets to the crucifixion, the down to earth tone is completely lost. The crucifixion scene is filmed in a way that is reverent to the point of ridiculous, and it's rather jarring compared to the approachable feel of the rest of the film.

This determination to make the scenes relating directly to Jesus look somehow - churchy? spiritual? portentous? - carries through into the dialogue. This is, sad to say, completely terrible throughout, with special awfulness points going to Marcellus' anguished cry of 'I'm mad!', but whenever anyone needs to speak about Jesus or pray, they suddenly slip into the language of the King James Bible, which sounds utterly ridiculous.

Fortunately there are still some nice, more human, touches, which pulls it back from the daftness. I rather like the suggestion that Roman soldiers might be a little bit squeamish about crucifying someone for the first time, and fortify themselves with alcohol - after all, no matter how hardened you are, that's a nasty thing to have to do. Pilate's sigh that 'even my wife had an opinion' on Jesus is quite funny, and sexist in a plausibly Roman way.

I also quite like the way Tiberius' two advisers, a doctor and a soothsayer/priest, are set up as complete opposites, and in the end neither is quite right (the film obviously embraces Christian beliefs including Jesus' resurrection, the various phenomena accompanying his crucifixion and his mysterious hold over people's emotions, but at the same time it is made absolutely clear that the robe itself is not exactly magical, more symbolic - Marcellus' problems stemmed from his own guilt).

Tiberius himself is depicted as a rather benevolent old man who's exasperated by his (still living) wife and amused by extispicy. It's quite nice to see a positive portrayal  of Tiberius and his concern over the political stability of the empire in the face of fanaticism is nicely drawn. But he is also at the centre of the film's determination to completely re-write Roman history, sometimes for no good reason.

Some of the historical inaccuracies are understandable - Caligula did not persecute Christians in particular, he was far too busy antagonizing the Jews, and Tiberius dies rather too soon after Jesus, but these changes keep the story moving along and ensure that Marcellus is still a young man when he goes off to matyr himself.

However, the inclusion of Tiberius' wife Julia is downright bizarre. Julia died in exile soon after Tiberius became emperor because he didn't feed her properly, and they never saw each other after Tiberius went off to sulk in Rhodes for a while and Augustus kicked Julia out. The film obviously didn't want to acknowledge that, as it would get in the way of the positive portrayal of Tiberius, but there seems no reason to include her at all, other than to depict her as an annoying wife who wants Caligula married to Diana.

Caligula himself is an interesting mix. The reference to him as Tiberius' heir and regent is an interesting idea and quite plausible, with Tiberius on Capri and Sejanus gone, though Caligula should be behaving better in his early scenes rather than being cross and tyrannical, as everyone liked him before he became emperor; thanks in part to his famous father, he was very popular. Although Diana calls him insane at the end, throughout the film Caligula comes across as slimy, unpleasant and high on power but not actually mad (that would require him to call himself a god, which might complicate things). This is a bit of a shame, as a story that set up the spiritual madness of a Christian holy fool (OK, a concept not popularized until the Middle Ages, but that's beside the point) and the apparent madness of the emperor would be really interesting. Instead, Marcellus stops acting mad as soon as he converts and Caligula just seems a bit like a poor man's Nero, only more sane, as he lacks any pyromania or absolute conviction of his own artistic brilliance.

There are some nice ideas here, but they're often not quite delivered convincingly. I rather like the idea of Marcellus being sent to Jerusalem as a punishment (rather like the way Jim Hacker in Yes, Minister lived in fear of being sent to Northern Ireland), though suggesting it's a death sentence is going a bit far. The idea of stories about Jesus being passed among Christians through songs and ballads is rather good, but the execution of it is not so good - the scene showing Mariam playing and singing is cheesy and vaguely nauseating to watch. I like the lack of music in the fight scene between Marcellus and Quintus, which makes it seem that much more brutal (within reason) and real, but later the film gives into temptation and produces fight music worthy of The Adventures of Robin Hood (which works fine for an adventure story, less well for something supposedly serious).

Overall, I rather enjoyed this film. The dialogue is absolutely awful and the sets cheap, but the pacing is rather good - it whips by much more quickly than other films of the period. For every toe-curlingly corny scene (the less said about the final shots of Marcellus and Diana, with her in a white dress evocative of modern weddings and both of them against a heavenly sky, the better) there's a nicely underplayed moment, like the one where Marcellus casually leans on the cross and gets Jesus' blood all over his hand. And no matter how terrible the dialogue, Burton is fantastic to watch. He sells all but the most ridiculous scenes and puts in a great performance, easily head and shoulders above everyone else in the film. It's worth the ticket price/DVD rental for him alone.

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  1. I usually enjoy flicks such as this. They are quite often so bad in dialogues, that it makes them fun to watch. But I must admit, I never saw this movie or even heard of it. I'll put it on my list of movie to watch in the future.

  2. I don't know, but it's possible the tendency to drop into KJV-language in the Jesus scenes may come from the book. The author was a minister and wrote several religious novels, including a sequel to this called The Big Fisherman, which was also filmed. I only know all this because I was thinking the book was by Thomas Costain and wanted to double check. I must have been thinking of The Silver Chalice, though.

    Making Tiberius something of a good guy is kind of weird.

  3. Umm, if we take the slave population as being 36%, wouldn't that leave 64% as the free population? I don't know if enough demographic information exists to tell us about family sizes, but if we assume a basic family unit of adult male, adult female, and two children, then the number of free men would be 16%, less than half the number of slaves. I know there's a lot of assumptions there, but even if we made the number of free men and slaves equal, that would mean squeezing the free women and children into 30% of the population.

  4. I think I saw this one years and years ago -- or maybe just caught the last bit. Is this the one where, at the end, the two leads (presumably Marcellus and Diana) go walking up into heaven with shiny sparkly bits and a heavenly choir and so on? Which may explain why I never bothered to catch it again, especially as otherwise I'm a big fan of these sorts of things.

  5. I only have vague memories of this one... probably saw it one year during Holy Week (they put all these old films on the screen then).

  6. @nomadUK Yes, that's the one. It's weirdly like Grease...

    @RWMG Yes, I guess that's true - but most of the 35% slave population would be out on the farms or in the mines, while a large proportion of the free men would be in the city, and a big proportion of the slave population would be women and children, so I guess it depends what's meant by 'Rome' and whether it's a straight comparison of male slaves to free men or all slaves to free men

  7. I've never seen this one myself, but my mother has, and really likes it.


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