The Robe Then And Now: An Indicator Of Where We Are

richard-burton-the-robeI happened across The Robe, the other day. I had never seen it. It was interesting to see how the Christian faith was portrayed to the world in 1953 in CinemaScope and how the film with its new technology was received. It is just as interesting to see how the same film is received today. When “The Robe” debuted it was the first film to appear in CinemaScope. In our age of high def, big-screen, 3-D everything the impression left by CinemaScope in 1953 is dulled but New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther (1905–81) captures a bit of it:

The panoply and splendor of Emperor Tiberius’ Rome, the turbulence of Jerusalem and the dustiness of the Holy Land have never been shown with more magnificence or sweep on a movie screen than they are on the great arching panel installed for the showing of “The Robe.” And the mightiness of masses and the forms of heroes have never loomed so large as they do in this studied demonstration, projected by CinemaScope. But an unwavering force of personal drama is missed in the size and the length of the show, and a full sense of spiritual experience is lost in the physicalness of the display.

The color and splendor are not entirely lost even today. That is what caught my eye as I was channel surfing. It was visibly different from the rest of the cheap, made-for-TV, infomercials, and “reality-TV” programming on at the time. The producers and director were clearly been at pains to recreate the first-century world and there was a very young, quite Shakespearean Richard Burton, who wasn’t over-acting. It was visually arresting.

The score was sentimental and syrupy and it was certainly “historical fiction,” but it was also respectful of its subjects. The protagonist, a Roman Tribune who participated in the crucifixion of Christ, is haunted by Christ’s homespun robe (Mark 15:23). Pagan that he is, he thinks the robe itself possessed magic. He becomes so guilt-ridden over his role in the crucifixion that he is on the verge of madness until he travels to Cana and comes into contact with Christians and the robe itself only to find that the robe is just a robe, that the power of the Christian faith lay in Christ himself.

There is fictional nonsense contrived for the sake of excitement. The basic gospel account is presented but the film has Christians, led by the newly converted Roman tribune, making a first-century Seal Team raid on Caesar’s palace to rescue a fellow believer who is being tortured. Nevertheless, it was interesting to see a mainstream film attempting to depict the suffering of early Christians. I grew up hearing the phrase, “like Christians to the lions” but it never dawned on me that the phrase referred to actual historical events. Even though it had lost its affective power, it was a reminder that Christians were persecuted for Christ’s sake. Does anyone use that phrase any longer?

It’s also interesting to compare the way the film was received then to the way it’s received today. Crowther, a leading film critic of his day, was respectful and quite fair. He acknowledged the film’s strengths and weaknesses without exaggerating either. This paragraph in particular caught my attention:

It is notable that Christ is seen only as a wide-robed figure on a distant hill and a tormented, indistinguishable victim burdened beneath the heavy Cross. In this respect the picture has dignity and restraint.

That visual restraint and respect, even if by our lights we should see it as a violation of the second commandment, is in stark contrast to the way Jesus is portrayed today by believers and skeptics alike. Restrained is not the adjective that comes to mind for The Passion of the Christ and respectful doesn’t describe The Last Temptation. Recently I saw a political/cultural spoof featuring a portrayal of our Lord that, once upon a time, would have brought howls of protest. Indeed, Jesus’ face was not often portrayed in film but since the 1950s that has become commonplace.

A few of the modern reviews collected by Rotten Tomatoes are striking for their viscousness. “Overblown, melodramatic, biblical nonsense” and “pompous schlock in CinemaScope”writes one critic. “Pious claptrap” writes the reviewer for the Chicago Reader. The cumulative score on Rotten Tomatoes is 35% but it’s hard to tell if the criticism is as much about the film’s  slow pace and direction as it is about the its subject matter.

It’s hard to imagine Crowther’s review finding space in the NYT today. In an age when Bill Maher and Sarah Silverman may say what they will with no fear of social or economic repercussions it’s becoming increasingly difficult to imagine Christianity being treated with respect in the public sphere. One cannot help but notice the restraint exercised by those same critics and figures when it comes to the prophet of Islam. Post 9/11 we don’t have to imagine what the consequences are for perceived or even rumored blasphemy against Islam. Say what one might about Jerry Falwell and the so-called Moral Majority but the only threat they posed to secularists was at the ballot box. Surely even the most ardent secularist knew in his heart of hearts that the “Christian right” would never actually gain sufficient influence to impose a theocratic regime?

Of course highly publicized Christians have done much to make public ridicule of Christ, his people, and the faith more plausible and even socially acceptable. We cannot un-ring certain bells. We cannot un-see Jimmy Swaggart crying. At the same time, that popular entertainers feel free to mock not only fallen followers of Christ but the Savior himself says something about the cultural status of Christ and his Christians.

Just as the centurion and the soldiers tortured and crucified Jesus without fear of consequences and divided his garments (but not his robe; Mark 15), and authorities later arrested Christians to demand that they repudiate Christ and honor Caesar as as god, so too our latter day pagans have come once again to regard Jesus as weak and his followers as disgusting. Such a development is, to be sure, uncomfortable for Christians  and it does not advance civil discourse to have either Christ or Christians treated so. Nevertheless, that Christ and Christians seem to be returning to their original place in society, that which they had under Paleo-paganism, might bring some unexpected benefits. It removes the veneer of civic piety that passed for Christianity under Christendom thus distinguishing authentic Christianity from civil religion. Second, it was in such a hostile situation that Christianity originally flourished. Of course, we cannot return to the status quo ante, as if there had never been Christendom or Benny Hinn, but we can understand where we are and plan, pray, and preach accordingly.


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  1. Your having mentioned the ‘syrupy’ score, and the ‘slow pace’ of the film, I wondered what how a metaphor of viscosity might apply to Rotten Tomatoes, and finally resolved that you must be referring instead to a quality of spite: viciousness.

  2. I remember reading and being moved by the book years before seeing the movie, in black and white on a small-screen TV. With all due respect, even at his best, Richard Burton overacted. In its message, The Robe was far better than The Ten Commandments, which sublimated its message for special effects. Nonetheless, it is difficult to imagine a serious and restrained portrayal of Christ in today’s film world.

  3. Scott, I like the film, even with its problems. Given the necessary low bar, it’s probably the best “Christian” movie Hollywood has ever produced. And I agree, this would never made today.

  4. Thanks, Dr. Clark, for the reminder about this film. I note that the Blu-ray “Special Edition” is available for a ridiculously low price. It’s apparently “restored” and “remastered.” Movie buffs will know, however, that these terms are sometimes more hype than help, long on promises but short on results. At around $10, though, you could hardly go wrong.

    Your review and comments reminded me of the “non-event” that was the 50th anniversary of Ben-Hur in 2009. Other than a superb Blu-ray edition with superior remastering and tons of extras, there was scarcely a nod in the entertainment press. In a sane world, the half-century anniversary of one of the dozen greatest movies of all time would have sparked special tributes and laudatory specials throughout the year. (Remember the 50th anniversary of Gone With the Wind? That was 1989, though, and political correctness wouldn’t allow such a celebration today.) Instead, in 2009 we got a collective yawn from the Hollywood elites. I can think of at least three reasons for this indifference (Ben-Hur is too significant for outright hostility): Simple earnestness, Christian themes, and – not least – Charlton Heston.

  5. Another good and respectful “Christian” movie was the underated Demetrius and the Gladiators, the sequel to The Robe, which I enjoyed as a kid. It actually deals with sin and grace in several scenes throuout the film.

  6. Unbelievable! Only yesterday I was telling my wife about this book, as we discussed that areas that are not covered in the Bible are just a speculation and sort of “fan-fiction”.

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