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Henry Koster
Richard Burton, Jean Simmons, Victor Mature, Michael Rennie, Jay Robinson, Dean Jagger, Torin Thatcher, Richard Boone
Writing Credits:
Albert Maltz, Philip Dunne, Gina Kaus (adaptation), Lloyd C. Douglas (novel)

The First Picture on the New Miracle Curved Screen!

Fictional story of a Roman senator whose life is changed when he comes into contact with the robe that Christ wore when he was crucified.

Box Office:
$5 million.
Domestic Gross
$36.000 million.

Rated NR

Widescreen 2.55:1/16X9
English Dolby Digital 5.1
English Dolby Digital 4.0
French Monaural
Supplements Subtitles:

Runtime: 133 min.
Price: $19.98
Release Date: 3/17/2009

• Audio Commentary with Composer David Newman and Film Historians Jon Burlingame, Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman
• “The Music of The Robe: Alfred Newman’s Score” Isolated Track
• Introduction from Martin Scorsese
• “The Making of The Robe” Documentary
• Publicity


Panasonic 50" TH-50PZ77U 1080p Plasma Monitor; Harman/Kardon DPR 2005 7.1 Channel Receiver; Toshiba A-30 HD-DVD/1080p Upconverting DVD Player using HDMI outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Kenwood 1050SW 150-watt Subwoofer.


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The Robe: Special Edition (1953)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (April 1, 2009)

Many think of 1953’s The Robe as the first-ever widescreen film. However, that’s not accurate, as a few attempts at aspect ratios broader than the standard 1.33:1 occurred before 1953. Indeed, the much-ballyhooed Cinerama process came out two years earlier. Heck, The Robe wasn’t even the initial flick filmed in Cinemascope; apparently How to Marry a Millionaire went in front of the cameras first.

So why does The Robe enjoy such a special place in the annals of movie history? Because it was the first widescreen movie to receive a broad release. Even This Is Cinerama played in only one theater. The Robe displayed the wonders of widescreen in a variety of spots, so it marked a real move forward for the format.

The question now becomes whether or not The Robe deserves credit as anything more than a trivia question. The film takes us to Rome circa 33 AD. We meet Marcellus Gallio (Richard Burton), the son of a senator (Torin Thatcher). Marcellus tends to be a bit of a drunken rogue and he ends up in hot water when he spars with Caligula (Jay Robinson), the heir to the throne.

Because of Marcellus’s insouciance, Caligula dispatches him to a miserable outpost at Jerusalem. The whole area’s abuzz about a carpenter prophet, and the Romans take action. Eventually they try this carpenter and sentence him to death by crucifixion, a task assigned to Marcellus. Marcellus’ slave Demetrius (Victor Mature) attempts to intercede on the carpenter’s behalf, but Marcellus follows the company line and does his duty.

Post-crucifixion, Marcellus and other Roman soldiers gamble at the foot of the cross. Marcellus wins the robe worn by Jesus, an object he values mostly because of its high quality. However, it soon becomes clear that the robe possesses more value than as a simple piece of cloth. Marcellus learns this and undergoes a transformation that spans much of the film.

I must admit I’ve never been a big fan of the Biblical epics of the 1950s and 1960s. What they muster in grandeur they squander in pomposity. Given its status in film history, I was curious to give The Robe a look, but I can’t say I expected a whole lot from it.

To my pleasant surprise, The Robe offers one of the most effective efforts in its genre. I think much of the credit goes to its lead actor. In most Biblical epics, the main characters tend toward the broad Charlton Heston side of the street. While I think Heston always manifested a great stage presence, he lacked much depth or subtlety; he couldn’t handle the nuances of his roles.

Burton offers a totally different beast here. To some degree, it feels like typecasting to see Burton play a drunken womanizer, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t manage to light up the role. I’m accustomed to parts like this coming across as one-dimensional, but Burton’s Marcellus turns into a real flesh and blood person.

Some of that comes from the script. While Ben-Hur was always supposed to be an upstanding and fairly noble character, Marcellus starts out as an amoral cad. He undergoes a much greater journey, as he develops into a different person through the film. Ben-Hur just stays pious while he gets slapped down a lot, whereas Marcellus develops a new outlook on the world.

While some of the credit goes to the character as written, I think Burton deserves most of the praise for the way the role works. In the hands of a lesser actor, Marcellus easily could’ve become cartoony, and he might’ve developed in a much more awkward way. With Burton, we feel his journey in a compelling manner. He seems like such a dissolute scoundrel that his transformation becomes quite effective, and the depth Burton brings to the part allows us to buy into the role to an even greater degree. Burton generally seems like a clipped, emotionally distant personality, so the manner in which he transforms Marcellus really impresses.

I wouldn’t call The Robe a flawless film, or even a great one. It loses some steam in its second act, especially when we’re stuck with lackluster bits like Miriam’s seemingly never-ending little ditty about Jesus. Really, it’s hard to pull off scenes of miracles and piety and not have them seem tedious.

Nonetheless, The Robe usually does okay with these sequences, again largely due to Burton’s presence. I hesitate to give one actor so much credit for a film’s success, but in this case, I think it’s accurate. Burton takes a potentially flat and tiresome story an edge that allows it to prosper.

The DVD Grades: Picture C+/ Audio B/ Bonus B

The Robe appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.55:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. I found a mix of ups and downs in this transfer.

Actually, the ups dominated. Colors tended to look quite good. A few slightly mushy elements appeared, but those seemed infrequent. Instead, the majority of the tones displayed nice vivacity and verve. Blacks were always dark and tight, and shadows showed pretty good clarity; though a few shots seemed somewhat dense, most low-light elements provided positive visibility.

Jagged edges and shimmering never created problems, and source flaws were quite negligible, especially for such an old movie. I saw a speck or two at most, as the vast majority of the flick looked clean and fresh.

The Robe lost virtually all of its points due to softness. Moderate edge enhancement impaired a lot of the movie, and many shots suffered from lackluster definition. Though this was most obvious in wide elements – of which we found many – even two-shots could look tentative. Parts of the flick appeared quite good, and I found a lot to like here. Unfortunately, the issues with sharpness meant that I couldn’t give the transfer a grade above a “C+”; the softness became a real distraction.

The Robe offered a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack that also seemed mixed, though usually good. For the most part, I found speech to sound clean and acceptably natural. Recordings from the era always betray some thinness, and that affected the lines here. Speech remained easily intelligible but tended to be somewhat edgy and brittle. The mix used some localized speech that worked reasonably well. Sometimes the placement was a bit off, but the lines usually popped up in the logical spots.

Music spread across the front channels but didn’t demonstrate real stereo imaging – or at least no delineation that I could note. I thought the score opened up across those speakers but I didn’t discern definite localization of the elements; this felt somewhat like “broad mono” in terms of music. The score sounded fairly good, at least; the music lacked great dimensionality but was reasonably clear.

Effects panned between channels, but this was done to a gentle degree. Those elements added a little life to the mix. They didn’t have a ton to do, but they seemed positive given the movie’s age. In terms of quality, they fit in with the other aspects of the track. The effects seemed somewhat tinny and a little rough, but they remained acceptably well-defined. Surrounds tended to reinforce the forward spectrum. Some quality issues left this as an erratic presentation, but it was definitely worth at least a “B”.

A few extras flesh out this disc. First comes an audio commentary with composer David Newman and film historians Jon Burlingame, Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman. All four sit together for this running, screen-specific look at the life and career of composer Alfred Newman, technical elements and the use of Cinemascope, the project’s development, cast and crew,

If you want to learn a lot about Alfred Newman, this is the place to go. If you want to learn a lot about the rest of the production, you should temper your expectations. Oh, we do find some good observations such as notes about Richard Burton’s self-loathing and the film’s technical side, but these remain in the minority.

That makes the commentary a bit of a mixed bag. On the positive side, we do get a lot of good info about Newman and the music, and the track remains interesting from start to finish. Nonetheless, I wish the participants balanced the various subjects better. Kirgo becomes almost the sole source of material about the film, as the others focus heavily on the score and Newman. Again, it’s an enjoyable track, but you shouldn’t expect a ton of facts about the production.

Another alternate audio track appears via The Music of The Robe: Alfred Newman’s Score. Select this option and you’ll get to hear Newman’s score play in Dolby Digital along with the movie. Movie music fans will be happy with this, especially since the score sounds very good – much better than the way it comes across if you opt for the 5.1 track that goes with film, in fact.

The movie opens with an Introduction from Martin Scorsese. In this one-minute and 18-second clip, the filmmaker tells us how his initial screening of The Robe impacted him and he also lets us know about the film’s restoration.

The Making of The Robe runs 31 minutes, 12 seconds as it presents remarks from film historian Scott McIsaac, UCLA film professor Jonathan Kuntz, director of photography John Hora, Institute of the American Musical president Miles Kreuger, RKO Story author Rick Jewell, Memo from Darryl F. Zanuck author Rudy Behlmer, 20th Century Fox: A Corporate and Financial History author Aubrey Solomon, screenwriter Philip Dunne’s daughter Jessica, director Henry Koster’s son Robert, and actor Jay Robinson. We learn about the source novel, its adaptation and long development, connections to the Hollywood Blacklist and concerns with the Production Code, cast and crew, the use of Cinemascope, the film’s reception and it sequel.

Concise and informative, “Making” gives us a fine look at the film. It tracks the project in a logical way and includes quite a few good tidbits. I learned a lot about the flick and enjoyed the experience.

Finally, a few elements appear under the “Publicity” banner. An Interactive Pressbook occupies 20 screens and brings the film’s original pressbook to life. What makes it interactive? We can click on all of the pressbook’s text to see the material in a more readable manner. That’s a nice touch that makes this feature more useful.

Various promotional stills come in the next three areas. These break into Poster Gallery (5), Lobby Cards (7), and Publicity Stills (62). All are quite good. I especially like the “instructive” drawing of Cinemascope that makes it look like the format offers triple the width of the standard Academy ratio, which is a rather extreme exaggeration; such an aspect ratio would be about 4:1!

Thanks largely to a stellar turn from its lead actor, The Robe provides an unusually interesting Biblical epic. Sure, it drags at times and suffers from some of the genre’s usual shortcomings, but Richard Burton provides such a strong performance that the film manages to remain compelling. The DVD offers generally good audio along with some nice extras, but the inconsistent picture quality causes problems. Though the DVD disappoints in some ways, it remains decent enough to merit a recommendation for fans of the genre.

Viewer Film Ratings: 4.1428 Stars Number of Votes: 14
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