It’s Holy Week, so I figured I would take a break from Salem’s witch trials and tackle one of those old Hollywood Biblical epics. I settled on The Robe (1953, dir. Howard Koster), mostly because I’d never seen it before. It’s based on former Lutheran minister Lloyd Douglas’ 1942 bestseller of the same name; he wrote the novel after receiving a fan letter asking him what he thought had become of Christ’s seamless robe after the crucifixion.
The film tells the story of Marcellus Gallio (Richard Burton), a libertine Roman tribune who crosses Caligula (Jay Robinson, chewing the scenery like he hasn’t eaten in a week) and gets sent to Jerusalem just in time to preside over the crucifixion of Jesus. He’s accompanied by a Greek slave, Demetrius (Victor Mature), who witnesses Christ’s entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and immediately finds himself drawn to Jesus, despite not knowing anything about him. During the crucifixion, Marcellus wins Jesus’ robe in a gambling match but finds himself becoming increasingly distressed about what’s happening right above him. During a rainstorm, he tries to put the robe on to keep dry, but finds himself tormented by it. Demetrius takes the robe off him, denounces him and the Roman empire, and flees.
Back in Rome, Marcellus remains tormented, and the Emperor Tiberius concludes that he has been bewitched. He commissions Marcellus to return to Judea as a spy and find both the robe and the followers of Jesus, because he senses that these people will destroy the empire (apparently he’s read Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in galley proofs). Marcellus eventually makes contact with the Christians and finds them to be wonderful, loving people. He hears a crippled woman Miriam (Betta St. John) sing a song about Christ’s resurrection (basically, the Gospel narrative of Mary Magdalene at the tomb). When he points out that the so-called healer Jesus didn’t heal Miriam, she explains that he healed her of her hatred and malice, which she considers a far greater gift. Marcellus find Demetrius and demands that he burn the robe, but then he accidentally touches it and finds his sense of fear disappearing. He meets St. Peter (Michael Rennie). But then Marcellus and the Christians are betrayed to the Romans. Marcellus defeats the Roman centurion in combat (because apparently that’s how Romans resolve disputes), but refuses to kill him. At this point, Peter and the now-Christian Demetrius invite him to become a missionary with them and he accepts.
In the last act, Marcellus’ true love, Diana (Jean Simmons) learns from the now-emperor Caligula that Marcellus has returned to Rome to spread sedition. She learns that Demetrius has been captured and is being tortured, and she is able to find Marcellus and Peter hiding in a cave with a large crowd of Christians. Marcellus and the Christians bravely rescue Demetrius, but as they are trying to smuggle him out of Rome, Marcellus is captured. He stands trial before Caligula and the Roman people. He explains that he is a Christian now, but not a traitor, but Caligula refuses to hear it. He offers Caligula the robe, but Caligula panics and instead Diana takes it. When Marcellus is sentenced to death, Diana announces that she wishes to die with him and go to his kingdom. As they are escorted out, the Roman palace fades into clouds and a chorus sings “Alleluia!”, signifying that they are going to Heaven.
The Robe is a typical 1950s sword-and-sandal epic, with a religious twist. There are lots of people wandering around in generic Olde Timey robes, lots of fearful slaves and oppressed Christians, and lots of the slightly histrionic acting that was fashionable before Method acting became the standard. Burton is Burton, stalwart, moral, and troubled, and Jean Simmons is the female lead whose only purpose is to mirror the righteousness of Burton’s cause by converting. Every moment of drama is underscored with swelling music. But if you like that sort of thing, it’s a decent film, although Douglas was quite disappointed in it, and refused to allow his sequel, The Big Fisherman, to be adapted as a sequel to the film. (It was eventually adapted after his death.)
The film basically weaves its story around the Gospel narratives of the Crucifixion. We see Jesus’ entry on Palm Sunday, and watch as Demetrius frantically tries to warn the Christians that the Romans plan to arrest Jesus, only to learn that he’s too late. The guilt-stricken man he hears the news from turns out to be Judas (cue thunderclap). Pilate is a haunted man, obsessed with washing his hands. We see Jesus trying to carry the cross and then being crucified, and watch Marcellus’ sense of guilt sink in as he goes from drinking and gambling to looking up at the cross as Jesus bleeds on him and says “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” It’s a surprisingly powerful moment even if it’s a little over-determined and lacking in subtlety.
This is probably the smartest part of the film, taking a story that most viewers of the day would have been familiar with and showing it from a fresh, unusual vantage point. Jesus is never clearly shown, as befitting a man who, in this film, is a powerful enough presence to convert people without even speaking to them.
After that, however, the film slowly goes wrong. The film opens in 33 AD, and perhaps a year passes between Marcellus’ conversion and his confrontation with Caligula at Rome, at which point Caligula has become emperor. But Caligula didn’t become emperor until 37 AD, so the film is compressing the facts because it wants Caligula to be the chief bad guy.
That’s a small issue, and I suppose one that can be forgiven. However, the film paints a picture of the Roman authorities as being instantly hostile to the Christians. The moment Tiberius learns about the Christians he orders Marcellus to root them out and destroy the robe. A year later, the Christians have already arrived in Rome in substantial numbers and are in hiding, because Caligula considers them traitors, and he orders the execution of Marcellus and Diana. In order for that to be true, Christianity would have to have enjoyed pretty much overnight expansion halfway across the Mediterranean, when the evidence suggests that in 40 AD there might have been a total of perhaps 1,000 Christians anywhere. Acts 1:14-15 says that in the months after the Crucifixion, there were only 120 Christians. So the idea of an underground community of several dozen Christians operating at Rome a year after the Crucifixion is pretty much an impossibility. Nor had Peter gotten there by that point; St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans was written around 56 AD, given or take a year, and he makes no mention of Peter despite greeting many people he knew of at Rome.
Just as unlikely is the film’s picture of Christians as immediately falling under imperial disapproval. Whereas popular imagination views early Christianity as being illegal the way that drug-dealing is illegal and therefore forcing Christians to live in hiding all the time, the reality is that in the first century AD, Christians were mostly seen as Jews, and Judaism was a legally tolerated religion, albeit one with a rocky relationship to the Empire. The earliest evidence of a Roman persecution against Christians comes from an early 2nd century author Suetonius, who says that Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome because they were making disturbances “at the instigation of Chrestus” (Iudaeos impulsore Chresto assidue tumultuantis Roma expulit). Most historians take this to a slightly confused reference to Christ’s Jewish followers being expelled (although there are other ways to understand the passage); this would have happened around 49 AD. The fact that Suetonius garbled “Christ’ and thought he was still alive during Claudius’ reign demonstrates that even half a century later, well-educated Romans could be completely ignorant of what Christianity was. Later, Suetonius tells us that Nero punished Christians, and the Roman historian Tacitus links this to the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD. The late 2nd century Christian author Tertullian seems fairly clear that Nero was the first emperor to execute Christians.
The whole confrontation with Caligula is Douglas’ fabrication, apparently to give the ending of his novel some dramatic tension. While it is not impossible that Caligula executed Christians, it is highly unlikely, because it’s improbable there were enough Christians at any point during his rule for him to take serious notice of them, much less become obsessed that they are a threat to his rule.
Rather what Douglas is doing is imitating later accounts of Christian martyrdom and projecting that idea back to a period before the first martyrs. He’s essentially making Marcellus and Diana the first martyrs. Later accounts of martyrdom emphasize a confrontation between the martyrs and Roman legal authorities, and then typically go on to describe the manner of the martyr’s execution. Here we get the legal confrontation but the execution itself has been euphemized as an almost literal walk in the clouds.
The Part of The Robe that Doesn’t Play Very Well Today
As noted, the film avoids showing Jesus directly (or even calling him ‘Christ’), which focuses the camera on Demetrius and Marcellus and their reactions to what is happening to Jesus during his execution.But it might also have been intended to avoid having to cast a specific actor in the role and make a statement about what Jesus looked like. American imagination at the time liked to depict Jesus as basically Caucasian, but most of the Jews and Jewish Christians are played by white actors wearing swarthy make-up. The exception here is Betta St. John’s Miriam, who is lovely and fair-skinned and gets to sing a song about the Resurrection. (And now I’m suddenly haunted by the idea of a 1950s Hollywood musical number in which a crippled woman sings about the Resurrection, complete with a chorus line. God help me.) The tendency to put white actors in swarthy make-up when they play Middle Eastern characters looks rather awkward to audiences today, but it was standard practice in the 1950s.
Somewhat harder to justify is casting Jewish actor Leon Askin as a money-grubbing servant who attempts to blackmail Marcellus and betrays him to the Romans, and then putting him in swarthy make-up and a curly beard. While the film calls him a Syrian in one line, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that he’s supposed to be a stereotypical greedy Jew. Given that all the good Jewish Christians are played by Caucasians like Michael Rennie, Dean Jagger, and Betta St. John, the contrast is rather striking. (Askin, incidentally, later went on to play the Nazi General Burkhalter in Hogan’s Heroes. He also played Martin Luther and Karl Marx. Now that’s a career with range.)
It’s also noteworthy that Jesus’ followers are always called Christians, never Jews, even though the term ‘Christian’ only developed somewhat later than the period of this film. There is no hint of Jewish rituals or the existence of a Jewish priesthood in Jerusalem and there’s barely any actual mention of Jews, except when a centurion comments that no one really knows what this ‘messiah’ of theirs is. Jews were still widely stigmatized in the 1950s, so the film is clearly trying to gloss over the Jewish origins of Christianity for a Christian audience that still looks down on Jews somewhat.
The Robe’s Version of Christianity
The Robe was made a time when the overwhelming majority of Americans were Christian but explicit discussion of religious belief was considered inappropriate in many parts of the country. Secularism was the dominant mode of public culture. So the film does a balancing act of presenting Christianity as something special and unique while not getting too specific about what Christianity is actually about.
Just as the film avoids showing us what Jesus looked like, it also avoids showing us what he had to say. Jesus gets only one line, spoken from the cross, and there’s no discussion of his sermons or parables. There’s a passing references to Jesus as the Messiah, but the centurion who mentions it doesn’t know what that means, except that it might be a king of some sort. He’s also called the Son of God once or twice, without any explanation. During his confrontation with Caligula, Marcellus says that Jesus “reigns in the hearts and minds of men in the name of justice and charity,” which is about as close to a statement of faith as the film ever gets.
Jesus’ followers are very honest, decent people. When Marcellus pretends to be a foolish cloth merchant in his effort to locate the robe, the Christian Justus (“justice,” get it?) shames the other Christians who let Marcellus over-pay them for their old clothes, and they all return the money. Marcellus gives Justus’ son a donkey, and gets angry when the boy gives the donkey away the next day so that his friend can have fun riding it. Miriam has somehow learned not to hate people after meeting Jesus on the way to the wedding at Cana. St. Peter is unwilling to let Justus claim that Peter stood by Jesus the whole time, instead admitting to Marcellus that he denied Jesus three times.
While Miriam sings a song about Jesus’ Resurrection, the film avoids saying that the Christians take it as literally true. Jesus is alive with his father and in the hearts of his followers, but there’s no sense of the Resurrection as a factual truth, or that Christ was seen later on by his followers, or that he will return someday. Nor is there any mention of key Christian doctrines like Substitutionary Atonement or Original Sin (although in 33 AD it’s unlikely that Christians would have used terms like that). The film ends with a symbolic journey of Marcellus and Diana to Heaven, without actually saying that’s where they’re going, and there’s no mention of the concept of Salvation or the Christian notion of the afterlife. So basically, the film’s version of Christianity is that it’s a moral code in which people are just really nice to each other and practice a vaguely-defined “justice” that stands in contrast to the tyranny of Caligula and Rome in general.
While it’s vague about what being Christian involves, The Robe is certain that it’s better than being pagan. The film opens with a surprisingly long voice-over by Burton in which Marcellus describes Rome. As he puts it,
“Some say that we are only looters of what others have created, that we create nothing ourselves, but we have made gods, fine gods and goddesses, who make love, war, huntresses, and drunkenness. For their power lies not in their hands of marble, but in ours of flesh. We the nobles of Rome are free to live only for our own pleasure. Could any god offer us more? Today we traffic in human souls.”
As he says this, the film shows us statues of the Roman gods, and finishes with a sculptor carving a new statue of Bacchus. The message here is clear; the gods of the Romans are merely human creations designed to justify humanity’s baser urges. The film contrasts this with the higher moral calling of Christianity, which gradually wins over first Demetrius, then Marcellus, and finally Diana. First Marcellus and then Diana are confused by Christianity’s message of being nice to people; they insist that real people aren’t like that, but gradually have a change of heart. That the film ends with the conversion of a woman named after a Roman goddess seems more than a coincidence, especially since the film’s opening includes a statue of Diana the Huntress to remind the audience of that goddess.
The film also walks a fine line in regard to its supernatural elements. Christ’s execution is accompanied by a storm, rather than the Biblical darkness and earthquake. The Resurrection is mentioned only in a song, suggesting that it might be metaphorical. Miriam’s healing is spiritual rather than physical, and when Peter comes to heal the wounded Demetrius after his rescue, the scene shifts to outside the room, where a pagan physician is insisting that Demetrius will die, so his recovery is surprising but not explicitly a miracle. The closest thing to a formal miracle happens when Justus says that his young boy was born with a deformed foot but that Jesus healed him; we see the boy running and playing like a normal boy.
Jesus’ seamless robe is likewise ambiguous. When Marcellus first touches it, he is overcome with agony, and the second time he touches it he is healed of his fear, but the film presents these as more psychological than literal, the manifestation of a guilty conscience that later heals. Caligula’s fear of the robe is a sign of the inferiority of Roman society to Christianity, and Diana’s taking of the robe is a sign that she has converted, not the cause of it. So the film allows the viewer room to see the robe as a miraculous relic, but formally presents it only as a symbol of Jesus’ love and acceptance.
Although St. Peter appears numerous times during the second half of the film, he gets only one scene of importance, in which he invites Marcellus to come with him and Demetrius. Justus claims that he was Jesus’ closest companion, but Peter later corrects the statement by admitting his denial of Jesus. He is repeatedly called ‘the big fisherman’, a term that implies leadership without actually saying it. There is a suggestion that Peter is responsible for Christianity coming to Rome, but nothing more than that. Catholics can view this Peter as the first bishop of Rome and Prince of the Apostles while Protestants can view him simply as an important Biblical figure. So the film can be watched with equal comfort by a secular American, a Protestant, or a Catholic, and thus represents a compromise meant to satisfy everyone. The only people likely to be offended by it are conservative Protestants like my Lutheran minister father, who would have been irritated by the film’s refusal to take a firm stance on what Christianity involves.
The film establishes a moral hierarchy in which Christianity is clearly superior to paganism, and implicitly superior to Judaism by virtue of its near-total removal from the context. But the film avoids anything that would mark it out as committed to a particular view of Christianity as anything more than a powerful but vaguely-defined moral system. In that sense, it’s the perfect Hollywood Biblical epic, religious without being religious.
Want to Know More?
The Robe is available in multiple formats through Amazon.
If you want to know more about the first generation of Christians, a good place to start would be Wayne Meeks’ The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul, which seeks to reconstruct the early Christian community from clues in the writings of St. Paul. Another way to approach the subject is Early Christian Writings: The Apostolic Fathers (Classics), which collects the earliest extra-Biblical Christian texts, such as Clement’s Letter, the Shepherd of Hermas, and The Didache, the first summary of Christian doctrine and practice.