Richard Burton stars as Marcellus Gallio, a young Roman tribune with a taste for strong wine and shapely woman. While his father battles the encroachment of the imperial prerogative on the floor of the Senate, Marcellus strikes up a private rivalry with Caligula, the narcissistic heir to the imperial throne. This reaches its climax when Marcellus dares to outbid him at a slave market, securing possession of a fiery Greek captive named Demetrius. As a punishment for this impertinence, the young soldier is transferred to the back-water province of Judea.
Although Diana, his long-suffering childhood sweetheart, promises to use her influence at the court to have Marcellus brought home, he is discouraged and embittered by this sudden downward turn in his fortunes. His father encourages him to “be a man”, but everyone knows the transfer from Caligula is meant to be a death sentence. Marcellus decides to take Demetrius as his personal slave for his tour of duty in the Middle East, and although he extends the hand of friendship to him, the Greek declares that a man can never be a friend when he is also a slave, and he will only do his duty as far as he must.
Several days later, Marcellus’s unit is assigned to carry out the crucifixion of three “criminals” – one of them being Jesus Christ. Beneath the cross, he takes part in a dice game and wins the Nazarene’s robe. As he descends Mount Cavalry, an eerie storm blows up and he finds himself strangely possessed by the robe when it is flung on him to protect him from the rain. Demetrius, furious with his master for having put Christ to death, steals the homespun garment and runs away with it.
Marcellus returns to Rome a broken man teetering on the brink of insanity. Diana and the Emperor Tiberius convince him that he has been bewitched by Christ’s robe and that he must find and destroy it in order to free himself from the enchantment. Desperate to restore his senses, Marcellus returns to Judea and tracks Demetrius down to the town of Canaan, where he touched by the kindness of Justus, a simple weaver, and Miriam, a crippled girl with a beautiful voice, who both insist that Jesus has risen from the dead.
Several years later, he finds himself back in Rome with Demetrius and Peter where he is finally reunited with Diana. Long accused by the new emperor Caligula of desertion and treason for his embrace of Christianity and disappearance, she is initially disturbed by his newfound faith that threatens to tear them apart. His father also considers him a traitor and disowns him. But when Marcellus is captured by the authorities trying to help Demetrius escape them, he is put to the ultimate test of his convictions on trial before Caligula where he must defend his new-found faith in the Christ…or die trying.
The Robe was the first film to be shot in Technicolor, and the brilliance of the visuals made it a perfect choice to break in the new method. The quality of the sets and costumes is excellent, as is the music score, especially the love theme. As far as acting, Richard Burton electrifies the film with verve and passion, bringing to life a man at war with himself. Jean Simmons as Diana, the beautiful and gracious daughter of nobility, contrasts vividly with her lover in her steadiness and calm. But both will prove their long-suffering perseverance to each other and ultimately the faith they come to embrace. Jay Robinson as Caligula also makes a deliciously deranged baddie of the same variety as Peter Ustinov’s portrayal of Nero in Quo Vadis.
Another aspect of the film I find appealing is the way Marcellus doesn’t “lose himself” when he converts. He remains a loyal Roman and a fighting man. Where some films make it seem as if the Early Christians ascribed to a Quaker-like non-violence, we get to see some terrific sword-play before and after Marcellus’s transformation. Actually, the duel between Marcellus and Paulus would probably make it to a list of my favorite top 10 duels in movie-land, complete with a flying pot that gets smashed to smithereens by swinging metal! I must admit, though, that I find it hard to imagine Paulus just letting things lie after being beat in a sword fight in front of all of his men, even if Marcellus did magnanimously spare his life! I guess he was more honorable than any of us thought…?
As with all films of this type, there are some foibles. For example it is indicated that the Romans were the ones who were determined to capture Jesus, whereas the Gospel describes the Jewish Pharisees as being the ones who orchestrated the arrest and then brought Him to the Roman authorities in order to pass a death sentence. Also, they make it seem as if Judas reported to the Romans instead of the Sanhedrin.
Also, Emperor Tiberius is shown as being something of peach in comparison with the perverted Caligula, but in reality he was quite brutal and tyrannical in his own right. However, I suppose it could be said that he is just showing favoritism to the son of an “old army buddy”, even that that same “buddy” seems pretty intent on opposing the extension of imperial powers in the Senate.
It might be validly brought up that Marcellus’s conversation seems rather instantaneous, but there is quite a lot of emotional turmoil beforehand and sometimes conversations do transpire through a sudden epiphany. Through the example of others, the Christian philosophy of life and his own potential to be forgiven clicked in his mind and changed his heart. This whole transformation reaches its climax in his trial before the imperial court, which strongly reminds me of Thomas More’s trial in A Man for All Seasons. His kneeling to reconfirm his allegiance to Rome but standing up when asked to deny Christ is very nicely done, and the twist at the end involving Diana’s own sacrifice to join her chosen husband is especially powerful.
This causes him to seek out the ultimate treasure, even though half the time he doesn’t know what he is searching for. It takes the humility and faithfulness of those he encounters to help him find his way. Like them, it is our mission as Christ-followers to bear true witness for Our Savior in word and deed, realizing that each act we perform with love can make all the difference to someone searching for the truth.