The Robe (20th Century-Fox), ablaze with Technicolor and alive with romance, action and Biblical pageantry, is Hollywood at its supercolossal best. It also represents an important new technical advanceCinemaScopethat may ultimately doom 3-D as well as ordinary "flat" movies. For the first feature in gigantic CinemaScope, Producer Frank Ross came forward with a gigantic story: early Christianity under the Roman Empire. Based on the famed bestseller of the late Rev. Lloyd C. Douglas, the film contains more piety than wit and more spectacle than humanity, but it is ably served by a competent cast headed by Britain's Richard (My Cousin Rachel) Burton.
As an epicurean Roman grudgingly won over to evangelical Christianity, highborn Burton is the successful rival of Prince Regent Caligula (Jay Robinson) for the hand of Jean Simmons, a ward of the Emperor Tiberius. When he further annoys the evil Caligula by outbidding him for a particularly stiff-necked Greek slave (Victor Mature), Burton is exiled to Palestine, where he lolls decadently in the baths and drinks wine while his slave Mature becomes a convert to the new religion.
Handed the routine military job of supervising the execution of Christ ("a fanatical troublemaker "), Burton passes the time on Calvary by winning Christ's robe in a dice game. In the earth-shaking storm that follows the Crucifixion, Burton loses his robe, his slave and apparently his sanity. Returned to Italy, he becomes convinced that he was bewitched by the dead Messiah, and accepts an imperial commission to go back to Palestine to investigate the un-Roman activities of the new sect. He finds Mature and the robe at Cana, in Galilee, but exposure to the gentle habits of the Cana Christians puts him on the road to conversion. The final act is played in Rome, with Caligula on the throne and the Christians hiding in the catacombs. The picture ends as Burton defends his new faith before the demented Emperor.
Director Henry Koster and Scriptwriter Philip Dunne have made a real effort to avoid the pitfalls of Biblical movies by balancing the saintly preaching of Dean Jagger (as Justus) and Michael Rennie (as Peter) with the muscular Christianity of Burton and Mature. There is a minimum of the sex and sadism that usually characterize Hollywood's explorations of Holy Writ. The CinemaScope screen is handsomely utilized for swordplay, torture chambers and a thundering chase sequence as well as for dramatic shots of the Way of the Cross and Christ's entrance into Jerusalem the week before the Crucifixion. Alfred Newman's music is especially effective in the Palm Sunday hymn and in a ballad charmingly sung by Betta (South Pacific) St. John.