Which isn't to say the film, based on Lloyd C. Douglas's novel, doesn't have it's weaknesses. For one thing the advantages of the new technology are still being realised. Many of the compositions aren't quite right either leaving things too cramped in the middle, or leaving too much space there. And some of the performances, Victor Mature's in particularly, are the kind that bring the genre into disrepute. The most common charge is of being overly camp, but this doesn't fully do it justice. A degree of camp is clearly intended, and arguably merited, for Jay Robinson's performance as Caligula, but it still goes over the top and clashes with the heavily reverential tone of many parts of the film. Mature's problem is different. With him it's not so much that he is intending to be camp, but over doing it, but that he appears to be be trying to play it down the line, but ends up in the camp camp anyway. There's just a desperate earnestness in his face which nevertheless fails to convince. But then perhaps that's because he knew that some of the dialogue is so weak that even Olivier would have struggled to redeem it.
Which isn't to say that moments of the film aren't transcendent and superbly executed. Andrew Greeley describes Douglas's decision to keep Jesus off-stage as "a master stroke of narrative technique" and it's hard to disagree. Recently I segued scores of short clips from Jesus films into one short telling of the life of Christ and this was the one I chose for the Via Dolorosa. Whether it was the novel's influence or the impact of the Hayes Code, the decision was made not to show Jesus' face at all during the film meaning that the camera's attention is far more focused on the reactions of those watching it. And it's one scene where Mature, who becomes the focus of the scene in Jesus' "absence", absolutely nails it. The score dominates everything here. There is almost no intra-diegetic sound here at all save the occasional sound of a cracked whip. Cruel and powerful sounding it grinds on mercilessly and inevitably to the next scene's awful climax. By focussing on the horror of the faces of the onlooking cloud it becomes far more powerful than Mel Gibson's relentlessly unflinching look at the brutality itself. They know the awfulness of the fate that awaits Jesus and it haunts not only them, but through their faces us too.
Moments later the film's other great scene unfolds, again due in part to the decision keep the face of Jesus hidden. Instead the camera focuses on the soldiers who get on with the job, and it's perks, whilst being lashed by the wind and the rain, stuck in a part of the world they despise. They care not one bit about the man who is dying, they just want him to get on with it so they can get back to the barracks. By opting to defer until later the moment at which Richard Burton's tribune Marcellus sees the light the scene regains it's tension. Burton is humanised by his desire to be professional and not completely unaffected by his prisoner's suffering, but again the focus is one those on the fringes of the traditional story.
There's two other moments that linger in the memory [the first is as Richard Boone's Pontius Pilate absent mindedly asks for the bowl to wash his hands just moments after he has already made his famously symbolical gesture. The confusion on his face as his servant respectfully reminds him of his error and Boone's noirishly delivered response "Did I? So I did." conjure up an image that is no less effective for being historically unlikely.
The other is the film's very final moment as Jean Simmons's Diana chooses to accompany Marcellus to his death for a faith she has so newly discovered that she barely comprehends it. The scene itself is not particularly well exceptional and it's marred by the worst of Robinson's excesses. Even the moment when Diana chooses death with Christ/Marcellus over life without them and the start of the procession to their fate is unexceptional. Yet somehow by the time they reach the end of the hall way, figuratively if not actually joined in union with Christ, something has changed and there is a moment which transports the viewer to another place.
Simmons role is not insignificant Babington and Evans in their seminal work on Biblical Epics suggest that the way Mature's purity of mind contrasts with the viable sexuality of his body embodies the tension at the heart of the biblical between morality and sexuality1. As the star of several such epics a good case can be made therefore for Simmons as Mature's female equivalent. Whilst her attractiveness and sexuality were always apparent, a strong morality seemed to run through the majority of her roles. This, then, endows The Robe with one other distinction: whilst the king and queen of the biblical epic don't share much screen time, it does at least cast Simmons and Mature together and it interweaves the fictional story of Marcellus' spiritual death and resurrection impressively with that of the physical death of Jesus.
1 - Bruce Babington and Peter William Evans, "Biblical Epics: Sacred Narrative in the Hollywood Cinema", Manchester University Press ND, 1993, p.227
Labels: Jesus Cameos