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The Robe

MGM/20th Century Fox . R4 . COLOR . 128 mins . G . PAL


The Robe is the story of Roman Tribune Marcellus Gallio (Richard Burton), who, after insulting Caligula during a shopping spree at the local Roman slave market, finds himself posted to Jerusalem. Whilst there he is assigned the task of crucifying a rather troublesome gent by the name of Jesus Christ. With this achieved he wins Jesus' homespun robe in the drunken celebrations that follow. However, he is soon convinced the robe is bewitched and the cause of his nightmares, paranoia and erratic behaviour. With the help of his slave, Demetrius, Gallio sets out to learn more about the man he crucified, but the more he learns, the more he questions just what it is he has done. This journey of personal discovery also brings him to question the meaning of life, the very nature and validity of Rome's rule, and the wisdom and fairness of The Emperor.

Gallio also has a girlfriend, Diana (Jean Simmons), who seems to follow his every word like some lost lamb, but this romantic sub-plot would seem almost thrown in at the last minute. If I were a cynic, I might suspect that Diana was written in as a smokescreen, to distract viewers from the subtle homoeroticism that exists between Gallio and his slave, Demetrius. Let’s just say it wouldn't have been the first time - or the last.

It's difficult to be critical of a film that tried so hard to save Hollywood from a decline in popularity due to the advent of television and the threat that it posed. Hollywood needed to provide the movie-going public with something they couldn't get from a little box in the corner of their living room, and The Robe was a part of the solution. What Hollywood offered in the 1950s and 1960s was a slew of movies that promised lavish costumes, handsome stars, glamorous starlets, and epic Bible stories in widescreen glory. Much was learned from The Robe and later films such as Ben Hur and Spartacus went on to become cinema classics, but the same cannot be said for The Robe. True, it has big name stars including Richard Burton and Jean Simmons, and was the first movie to be filmed in CinemaScope, (“The modern miracle you see without glasses!” went the claim) but it lacks a killer storyline. It does have a few dramatic scenes including a great sword fight between Marcellus Gallio and some Roman big-shot who fancied himself with a sword - but this really isn't enough to save it from being a slow moving story with little on offer to lift it above mediocrity.

However, not everything about The Robe is horrible. While some of the acting is no better than what I might find at my local community theatre, everyone is trying hard - perhaps a little too hard – and there is at least one outstanding performance from Jay Robinson who plays the campest Caligula I have ever seen. Without a doubt, he is a scene-stealer whenever he appears. The character is what I imagine you would get if you crossed Kenneth Williams with Dr Zachary Smith of Lost in Space - nasty, weedy, sour and enjoying every minute of it.


The Robe is presented in an aspect ratio of 2.55:1 and is 16x9 enhanced. Sadly, there are few positives to report, but credit does need to be given to the filmmakers that at least gave us some lavish costumes and sets to look at, because on DVD this film is a failure.

Immediately obvious when watching The Robe is the number of negative and positive film artefacts that appear throughout the entire 128 minutes. From the opening credits until the last frame, there are countless examples of almost every type of film artefact known to man (and woman). There are so many white flashes, most noticeable during the night scenes, it looks as if fireworks are going off. There are dirty marks, dust, scratches, and vertical and horizontal lines in every scene. Some of the worst instances are the white flashes from 27:22 to 30:50, vertical white lines at 49:26, and a thumbprint (?) at 56:34. If even a small amount of effort had been put into restoring this, it would have made for better viewing. I find it hard to believe that even a film this old has to look this bad.

Colours vary greatly and appear to be strobing throughout the entire film. This was most distracting and I suspect is a consequence of its age, but is impossible to ignore. The sharpness also varies greatly and much of the film appears soft and grainy. Shadow detail is extremely poor, especially during the many night scenes. Even some of the daytime scenes look like night. Black levels are not spared and low level noise can be detected. Aliasing was an infrequent problem, the main offenders being steps and some of the Roman uniforms.

There are also severe instances of edge enhancement, the worst occurring during the various night time scenes, especially in Chapter 4 and at 57:20, where the fellow running down the hill toward the camera looks like a ghost!

The layer change occurs at 57:17 during a fade-out and is almost undetectable.


Thankfully, the audio on The Robe, while far from wonderful, is an improvement on the video transfer. The most notable aspect of the only option, Dolby Digital 4.0 (which is basically the same as stereo-surround), is the amount of dialogue that comes from the left or right front channels when the actor is centre screen. There are many occasions where two (sometimes three) actors are talking and the one least centred will be heard from either the left or right speaker, depending where they are on screen. The other actor (or actors) continues to be heard from the centre speaker. It seems that Hollywood once favoured this method of stereo separation in a further attempt to demonstrate the glory of a cinema experience, compared to sitting at home watching television. Personally, I was more distracted than impressed, and at times I caught myself wondering who it was speaking off camera.

Apart from this annoying ‘feature’, there is little more worth noting. There are no audio-sync problems and the vocals are generally clear, except during some of the crowd scenes where background noises tend to interfere a little with the dialogue. The surround speakers are rarely active except for the odd crowd scene or for some of the music. The subwoofer is rarely heard and only during loud noises such as thunder.

The music score by Alfred Newman sounds rather good and is typical of biblical epics. Lots of trumpets and drums in the fight scenes and dripping violins during the more romantic moments.


If you are thinking the extra features might sway you to buy The Robe, prepare to be disappointed. The main menu is static, presented in an aspect ratio of 1.78:1, is 16x9 enhanced, and has no audio. There are a range of subtitles including English, which is faithful to what is being said on the screen. The only real extra is the two minute theatrical trailer, presented in an aspect ratio 2.55:1, also 16x9 enhanced, and in Dolby Digital stereo.


The Robe has long been relegated to Sunday afternoon movie status and it's little wonder. It may have received five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actor (Richard Burton) and may be the first motion picture made in CinemaScope, but there is little on offer to make anyone rush out and buy it on DVD. It’s not that it is unwatchable, it is just that there are so many films in the same genre that do it better.

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      And I quote...
    "A lacklustre presentation of a pretty ordinary movie. The (DVD) Gods do not favour us, O’ Caesar."
    - Terry Kemp
      Review Equipment
    • DVD Player:
          Akai ADV-1000
    • TV:
          TEAC CT-F803 80cm Super Flat Screen
    • Receiver:
          Pioneer VSX-D409
    • Speakers:
    • Centre Speaker:
    • Surrounds:
    • Subwoofer:
          Sherwood SP 210W
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