Tuesday, March 31, 2009

"Were you out there?!?!?!?!"

This is the hysterical cry that Richard Burton explodes with whenever he's reminded that he is Roman who put Jesus to death and gambled in the shadow of the cross for the right to the titular cursed garment in THE ROBE, the second Cinemascope picture to be shot, and the first to be released in 1953.

It's a picture that has long been considered worthy only historically, akin to the Al Jolson version of THE JAZZ SINGER. But, as with that film, a belated viewing of THE ROBE reveals a fine entertainment, one that seemingly bristles enough with the excitement of its new technology to overcome the shaky, stiff mechanics involved with early dabbling in any new-fangled offshoot of an existing medium.

Beyond the 'Scope aspects, my enjoyment of THE ROBE is all in keeping with my general feeling that Hollywood Biblical epics (from INTOLERANCE to THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST) tend to have an inherent fascination, even if you (like me) don't subscribe to any Earthly religion with anything close to a whole-heart. I suppose it's the collision of big-budget spectacle and sincere spirituality that makes pictures like THE ROBE (or QUO VADIS or THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD, to name a few other critically-ignored epics) so interesting, the mixing of the staid with the wildly speculative.

It's often said that Victor Mature gives a better performance that Burton (in his first picture) here, but that's meant to be an insult to the latter actor, not praise to the first. While it's true that Mature seems sincere in his starry-eyed lust for the messiah, you try to pull off what Burton has to deal with here: First, he's bug-eyed and cursed by the robe, then he's gotta convince us that he's hearty enough to join the Christian march on Rome. Frankly, anybody who ever plays "bug-eyed and cursed" is gonna get accused of overacting.

Okay, it's not a great picture, but it moves and it's creepy-cursy-religulous, and (like QUO VADIS), it has a lot of sexual double-entendre that the code only allowed in because the entirety of the meal was considered so nutritious. It does NOT have the glowing Deborah Kerr (like VADIS), but it has Jean Simmons and that should be enough for anyone who's seem Simmons in David Lean's GREAT EXPECTATIONS. Her cup doth runneth over.

And the Blu-ray that Fox just released is startlingly good. Martin Scorsese opens with an intro, and he doesn't say he likes the picture, but he does seem to like the width of the picture. That facet of THE ROBE, the early Cinemascope action, is the main draw for this disc, as (among a horn o' plenty of extras, some film-centric and some blandly devout) there's a Picture-In-Picture track that allows a screening of the flat academy ratio version of THE ROBE (shot in case the Cinemascope version wouldn't play) down in one corner while the main version plays. This track is the best displayed explanation I've yet seen for the aesthetic rewards and give-and-take of the switch from 1.33 to 2.55. So the next time someone complains about those black bars, you make 'em sit through 130 minutes of THE ROBE and that'll shut 'em up.

I liked it.

1 comment:

Esperanto Grrl said...

I've always thought that my least favorite film genre has to be the Biblical epic or the Sword n' Sandal film (if you would consider them separate).

The crushing humorlessness, the insufferable piety, the unwarranted sense of their own grandeur.

No, critics ignore these movies for a reason. The Jesus movie with Jeffrey Hunter had a few very powerful images - the shadow of Christ passing over a leper and he's healed. Only Batman has a more distinctive shadow. But a few powerful images don't make a great film.

I've always thought Oliver Reed's character in "Gladiator" to be the only intentionally funny character in the history of the Sword n' Sandal movie - and, in many ways, the only real character.

I was always curious about the end of this particular type of film, sometime in the early to mid sixties. It seemed like the textbook example of a genre that that just burned itself out because of public exhaustion. I think the post-Lord of the Rings fantasy film has met a similar fate.

The turning point would probably be either "Cleopatra" or Sophia Loren in "The Fall of the Roman Empire."

That said, I always was fascinated by Victor Mature, not just because I have a taste for beefcake, of course...but because of what a skilled, charismatic actor he was. He was one of the few Hollywood types that could believably play an Ancient Roman, as seen in THE ROBE. The idea of say, Angela Lansbury playing an Ancient Philistine as seen in "Samson and Delilah" was downright laughable.