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The Robe: CinemaScope arrives with Biblical tale

RAMNATH N PAI RAIKAR | NT NETWORK

The global film industry, from time to time, has developed advanced techniques for making movie viewing, a better and more pleasurable experience. In 1953, the president of the Twentieth Century Fox, Spyros P Skouras introduced CinemaScope – to rescue the faltering movie industry from the assault of television – which was the beginning of the modern anamorphic format in both principal photography and movie projection. CinemaScope is an anamorphic lens series used for shooting widescreen movies. The anamorphic lenses theoretically allowed the process to create an image of up to a 2.66:1 aspect ratio, almost twice as wide as the previously standard format’s 1.37:1 ratio.

‘The Robe’ (1953), a Biblical epic film narrating the story of a Roman military tribune, who commands the unit responsible for the Crucifixion of Jesus, was chosen to be the inaugural movie to be shot in CinemaScope format. It was based on the 1942 historical novel with the same title written by Lloyd C Douglas. The book was one of the best-selling titles of the 1940s and held top position in the New York Times Best Seller list, for nearly a year.

Producer, Frank Ross first purchased the screen rights to this novel for $100,000 and entered into a joint financing and distribution deal with RKO in the 1940s. It was set to be directed by Mervyn LeRoy. However, the rights were eventually sold to Twentieth Century Fox, due to wartime austerity and RKO’s shaky financial situation. Henry Koster, whose long filmography ranged from Deanna Durbin musicals to historical pageants to forgettable comedies, was finally signed to direct the film.

Fox decided to shoot ‘The Robe’ in CinemaScope, with full tests in the process beginning immediately. This technology required only one camera and one projector, unlike other widescreen processes, such as Cinerama.

Richard Burton, an atheist, who did not care for the film’s religious theme was signed to play Marcellus Gallio. At one point, the producers even considered making Marcellus older and casting Laurence Olivier. Burton received an Oscar nomination for his role, even after critics had almost universally described his performance as “wooden”.

Initially, actor Jeff Chandler was announced for the role of Demetrius, but Victor Mature was signed in December 1952 to star in both, ‘The Robe’ and a sequel about Demetrius, to be shot consecutively. Janet Leigh and Jean Peters were considered for the role of Diana, which eventually went to Jean Simmons. John Buckmaster was tested for the role of Caligula, eventually enacted by Jay Robinson.

Koster chose Donald C Klune, his second assistant director to play the role of Jesus in the film (his face is never seen). Klune would thus sign all the extras’ vouchers and finish the paperwork while still in costume. He also had to eat lunch in his dressing room, as the studio thought it would be inappropriate for ‘Jesus’ to eat in the commissary at Fox.

The set of Cana, the village of Galilea where Marcellus Gallio meets Peter, was a redress of sets originally built for ‘Algiers’ (1936), that had stood on the studio backlot for seventeen years. The filming ended on April 30, 1953, two weeks ahead of schedule.

The film was shot by the eminent cinematographer, Leon Shamroy for whom the widescreen aspect ratio of Cinemascope format was an almost unparalleled challenge. While he helped many directors at Fox studios in the 1950s to adapt to the requirements of CinemaScope, Shamroy never really liked the new process. Despite his reservations about Cinemascope, Shamroy became an industry pioneer in the rush witnessed during the 1950s and the 1960s to develop new film formats.

Composer Alfred Newman while providing reverent score for ‘The Robe’, brilliantly coordinated the music with the use of CinemaScope and multichannel stereophonic sound, right from the opening thunderously ominous brass chords, accompanied by a wordless choir. His intense orchestration, acclaimed by many film historians as a triumph in the art of motion picture music, failed to receive even an Academy Award nomination for Best Score; though Newman still took home an Oscar that year, for his adaptation of music for ‘Call Me Madam’ (1953). Angered by the Academy voters’ snub towards Newman’s score for ‘The Robe’, distinguished film composer Franz Waxman resigned from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

The film was advertised as “The Modern Miracle You See Without Glasses!”, a dig at the 3D movies of the day. Since many theatres of the day were not equipped to show a CinemaScope film, two versions of ‘The Robe’ were made: one in the standard screen ratio, the other in the widescreen process. Setups and some dialogue also differed between these versions.

When released, ‘The Robe’ was lapped up by the audience, due to its sheer magnificence. Produced at a budget between $4.1 million and $4.6 million, it earned an estimated $17.5 million in North America during its initial theatrical release. Its worldwide rentals were estimated at $32 million.

The confidence of the studio resulted in a sequel to ‘The Robe’ titled ‘Demetrius and the Gladiators’ (1954) being immediately put into action. Victor Mature reprised his role as the Greek slave and follower of Simon Peter. The sequel takes place right at the end of ‘The Robe’, in the year 53 AD. A third film was also made about Simon Peter titled, ‘The Big Fisherman’ (1959), with Howard Keel in the title role.

 

TRIVIA

The elaborate poster for ‘The Robe’ has one glaring flaw. The woman’s face on the poster is not Jean Simmons. Originally, Jean Peters had been cast as Diana, but became pregnant. Simmons was eventually hired to replace her. However, the poster was not changed, and shows the wrong Jean.

Despite the careful attention to Roman history and culture displayed in ‘The Robe’, some inaccuracies are included: In reality, Emperor Tiberius’ wife Julia, who had been banished from Rome by her father Augustus – who preceded Tiberius as the emperor – years before Tiberius acceded to the imperial throne, was already dead. Throughout the film, the region encompassing Jerusalem is said to be “Palestine”. In reality, it was still being called “Judea”; the name would not be changed to Syria Palestina until the year 135 AD, 102 years after these events.

‘The Robe’ was first telecast by America’s ABC-TV on Easter weekend in 1967, at the relatively early hour of 7 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, to allow for family viewing. The film was shown with only one commercial break, a luxury not even granted to the then-annual telecasts of ‘The Wizard of Oz’ (1939).

CinemaScope technology arrived in India six years after it was first used for ‘The Robe’. ‘Kaagaz ke Phool’ (1959) directed by Guru Dutt is the first Indian CinemaScope film. It was however a Black & White film. The first Indian CinemaScope film made in colour is ‘Pyar ki Pyaas’ (1961) directed by Mahesh Kaul.

 

plot

During Emperor Tiberius’ (Ernest Thesiger) reign, Rome is rich with treasures and slaves. Caligula (Jay Robinson), the emperor’s regent comes to buy gladiators. At this time, promiscuous Tribune, Marcellus Gallio (Richard Burton), son of the Roman senator Gallio (Torin Thatcher) meets his childhood love, Diana (Jean Simmons), who is warden of the emperor and is unofficially pledged in marriage to Caligula. At a slave auction Marcellus competes against Caligula and buys a seemingly worthless but defiant Greek slave, Demetrius (Victor Mature). Angrily, Caligula issues order for Marcellus to receive a military transfer to Jerusalem, a dangerous place with rioting citizens and corrupt soldiers. Meanwhile, Diana tells emperor about her reluctance to marry Caligula.

Before departing for Jerusalem, Marcellus releases Demetrius from slavery. Nevertheless, Demetrius accompanies Marcellus. Their arrival in Jerusalem coincides with the triumphal entry of Jesus on Palm Sunday. Demetrius feels compelled to follow Jesus, while Marcellus gets orders to arrest Jesus. Demetrius tries to warn Jesus but he has already been betrayed. Demetrius meets repenting Judas (Michael Ansara) and tries to get help from Marcellus but as Jesus is already condemned there is nothing he can do. Meanwhile, on Diana’s request emperor calls Marcellus back to Rome. Before returning he must supervise the crucifixion. The soldiers gamble for the items of the crucified. Marcellus wins the robe of Jesus. Demetrius takes the robe from him, and curses Marcellus and the Roman Empire.

Marcellus begins to go crazy. Physicians of the emperor suggest that the robe must be found and destroyed. Marcellus must also get the names of the Christians to suppress the new religion. Marcellus disguises himself as a merchant. He is conflicted because Christians seem honest and decent folk. Justus (Dean Jagger), a weaver tells Marcellus about the resurrection of Jesus. Also a crippled singer, Miriam (Betta St John) tells him that they already know that Marcellus is a spy but they want to help him find his goodness. Demetrius explains that it is not the robe that is making Marcellus mad, but his guilty conscience. After meeting Apostle Peter (Michael Rennie) Marcellus converts to Christianity.

Meanwhile, the emperor dies and is replaced by Caligula, who soon labels Marcellus as traitor and begins to persecute Christians. Marcellus’ father disowns him as an enemy of Rome. Diana sees Demetrius arrested and tortured by Caligula and approaches Marcellus for help. Marcellus frees Demetrius but gives himself up so that Demetrius can escape. He is captured and put on trial. Caligula condemns Marcellus to death as Diana accepts Christ and seeks to join Marcellus, the man she considers to be her husband, in His Kingdom (Heaven). Caligula condemns Diana to die alongside Marcellus. As they depart the audience hall for their execution, Marcellus is acknowledged by his repentant father, and Diana gives the robe to Marcipor (David Leonard).

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