The Robe (film)

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The Robe
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Henry Koster
Screenplay by
Based on The Robe
by Lloyd C. Douglas
Produced by Frank Ross
Cinematography Leon Shamroy
Edited by Barbara McLean
Music by Alfred Newman
Distributed by 20th Century Fox
Release date
  • September 16, 1953 (1953-09-16)(Premiere)
  • September 17, 1953 (1953-09-17)(New York City opening)
Running time
135 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$4.1 million [1] or $4.6 million [2]
Box office$36 million (United States) [3]

The Robe is a 1953 American fictional Biblical epic film that tells the mythical story of a Roman military tribune who commands the unit that is responsible for the Crucifixion of Jesus. The film was released by 20th Century Fox and was the first film released in the widescreen process CinemaScope. [4] Like other early CinemaScope films, The Robe was shot with Henri Chrétien's original Hypergonar anamorphic lenses.


The film was directed by Henry Koster and produced by Frank Ross. The screenplay was adapted by Gina Kaus, Albert Maltz, and Philip Dunne — although Maltz's place among the blacklisted Hollywood 10 led to his being denied his writing credit for many years — from Lloyd C. Douglas' eponymous 1942 novel. The score was composed by Alfred Newman, and the cinematography was by Leon Shamroy.

The film stars Richard Burton, Jean Simmons, Victor Mature, and Michael Rennie and co-stars Dean Jagger, Jay Robinson, Richard Boone, and Jeff Morrow. The 1954 sequel, Demetrius and the Gladiators , picks up exactly where The Robe ends. [5]


In Ancient Rome, Judaea, Capri, and Galilee (in the time period stretching from 32 to 38 AD.), Diana (Jean Simmons) tells Emperor Caligula that she has not heard from Marcellus Gallio (Richard Burton) for almost a year, when Marcellus was in Cana of Galilee. At that time, Marcellus was told by Paulus that Caligula had become the emperor.

Marcellus Gallio, son of an important Roman senator (Torin Thatcher), and himself a military tribune, introduces through flashback narration, the might and scope of the Roman empire. Marcellus is notoriously known as a ladies’ man, but is captivated by the reappearance of his childhood sweetheart, Diana, ward of the Emperor Tiberius. Diana is unofficially pledged in marriage to Tiberius's regent, Caligula. Nevertheless, she harbors a desire for Marcellus after a promise he made when they were children that he would marry her.

Caligula, who has a longstanding feud with Marcellus, arrives at the slave market, whereupon he enters into a bidding war with Marcellus over a defiant Greek slave, Demetrius (Victor Mature). Despite Demetrius being sold for a gladiator, and expected by Caligula to be a cheap buy, Marcellus wins the bidding war by pledging 3000 gold, and Caligula storms off. Marcellus has Demetrius released and orders him to go on his own to the Gallio home. Marcellus is surprised to find Demetrius waiting for him when he arrives, since Demetrius could have run off, but Demetrius feels honor bound to Marcellus, claiming he owes Marcellus a debt.

Word reaches the Gallio home that Caligula has issued orders for Marcellus to receive a military transfer to Jerusalem in Palestine. A place of unrest, Marcellus' father informs his son that Caligula hopes this new assignment will be his death sentence. Demetrius accompanies Marcellus to Palestine but, before the galley sails, Diana comes to see Marcellus, pledging her love for him and her intention to intercede on his behalf with Tiberius. Marcellus declares his love for Diana and asks her to make the emperor promise not to give her in marriage to Caligula.

Marcellus rides into Jerusalem with the centurion Paulus (Jeff Morrow) on the same day as Jesus's triumphal entry on Palm Sunday. Demetrius locks eyes with Jesus and feels compelled to follow after him, although he does not. Later, Demetrius learns of the plot to arrest Jesus after overhearing Paulus and Marcellus discuss the matter. He attempts to warn Jesus, but comes across a distraught man who informs him that Jesus has already been arrested. After bemoaning how Jesus was betrayed by one of his own, and imploring Demetrius to find the others and tell them not to lose faith, Demetrius asks for the man's name. As thunder crashes, the man reveals himself to be Judas, and he wanders off to hang himself.

Demetrius implores Marcellus to intercede on behalf of Jesus, but upon learning that Jesus has already been condemned by Pontius Pilate (Richard Boone), the procurator, Marcellus tells Demetrius the matter is settled and that he best forget he ever saw Jesus. Marcellus reports to Pilate, who informs him that Emperor Tiberius has sent for him. Before Marcellus departs, Pilate orders him to take charge of the detail of Roman soldiers assigned to crucify Jesus. While waiting for the execution to finish, Marcellus wins the robe worn by Jesus in a dice game from Paulus, who tells Marcellus that it will be a reminder of his victory over the King of the Jews.

Returning from the crucifixion with Demetrius, Marcellus uses the robe in an attempt to shield himself from a rain squall, but feels sudden and intense pain due to the cloth's mystical powers, and tears the robe off as he cowers against a wall. In a fit of rage, Demetrius curses Marcellus and the Roman Empire, calling them murderers and thieves. Demetrius then runs away, taking the robe with him. Marcellus, meanwhile, begins his descent into insanity. He is haunted by nightmares of the crucifixion, screaming "Were you out there?!" constantly, much to the chagrin of others. He reports to Emperor Tiberius at Capri, where he is reunited with Diana. Tiberius' soothsayer declares the robe cursed, and has begun to work its dark magic on Marcellus. Tiberius gives Marcellus an imperial commission to find and destroy the robe, while gathering a list of names of Jesus' followers, who Pilate reports have been causing trouble since the demise of Jesus. At Diana's request, Tiberius leaves her free to marry Marcellus, provided he successfully returns from his commission and cures himself of his madness.

Marcellus travels to Palestine and arrives at Cana, a city whose inhabitants believe Jesus has risen from the dead. Marcellus seeks to ingratiate himself with a weaver named Justus (Dean Jagger) and the other villagers in order to learn the whereabouts of Demetrius. He believes the people are robbed of sense and reason, watching as Justus's grandson gives away without a care a donkey that Marcellus gifted him, and encountering the paralytic Miriam who believes that Jesus healed her despite still being paralyzed. All the while, Marcellus continues to slip further into his insanity.

Upon learning that Demetrius and a big fisherman have arrived at the village, Marcellus searches for them. He finds Demetrius alone in an inn and demands that he destroy the robe. Demetrius tells Marcellus that the robe has no real power, and that it only reminds Marcellus of what he did – it is his guilt over the killing of an innocent man that has caused him to become so troubled. Marcellus attempts to destroy the robe, but succumbs to Demetrius' words before he can succeed.

Upon seeing that Marcellus now shares belief in Jesus, Justus calls the villagers together and begins to introduce the big fisherman, Peter. After proclaiming Peter's loyalty to Jesus, and telling Peter that he may speak in a moment when Peter attempts to correct him, Justus is killed by an arrow from a detachment of Roman soldiers lead by Paulus. Marcellus intervenes and Paulus informs him that his orders are no longer valid; Tiberius is dead, and Caligula is emperor. Marcellus informs Paulus that an imperial commission is valid until specifically countermanded by the new emperor. Paulus challenges Marcellus to make him obey via a sword duel. After a prolonged struggle, Marcellus prevails. Rather than killing Paulus, Marcellus hurls his sword into a tree. Paulus, humiliated by his defeat, orders the soldiers to leave.

Peter invites Marcellus to join Demetrius and him as missionaries. Marcellus hesitates, but when Peter tells Marcellus of his own denial of Jesus (which Justus ignorantly contradicted before his demise), Marcellus confesses his role in Jesus' death. Peter points out to him that Jesus forgave him from the cross, and Marcellus pledges his life to Jesus and agrees to go with them. Their missionary journey takes them to Rome, where they must proceed "under cover" as Caligula has proscribed them.

From Rome, Caligula summons Diana from her retreat at the Gallio home, to tell her that Marcellus has become a traitor to Rome by indulging his madness. He takes her to the guard room where a captured Demetrius is being tortured. Diana runs out of the palace to Marcipor, the Gallio family slave, who unbeknownst to Diana, has become a Christian. Diana deduces Marcipor has seen Marcellus, and she gets Marcipor to take her to see him.

Marcellus and Diana are reunited, and Marcellus tells her the story of the robe. Diana is uncertain as to Marcellus' sanity, denying that the "beautiful story" he told could be true, but nevertheless she tells Marcellus where Demetrius is being kept. Marcellus plans and carries out a rescue mission, but Demetrius has been mortally wounded by his torture. Peter comes to the house of Gallio, where Demetrius has been taken, and heals him. The physician who had been attempting to heal Demetrius attributes Peter's healing powers to sorcery and flees. Marcellus' father disowns him as an enemy of Rome.

Caligula, learning of how Demetrius was rescued, issues orders in a rage that Marcellus be brought to him alive to stand trial by the end of the day. Marcellus flees with Demetrius, but upon learning they are being followed, gives himself up so that Demetrius can escape. Marcellus is captured, and while he awaits trial, Diana visits him in his holding cell and pleads with him to say what is necessary during his trial so that his life may be spared. Marcellus will not deny Jesus.

Caligula makes Diana sit next to him for Marcellus's trial. Marcellus admits to being a follower of Jesus; however, he denies the charge that he and his friends are plotting against the state. Marcellus attempts to hand the robe to Caligula, but Caligula refuses to touch it, remembering that it is “bewitched.”

Caligula condemns Marcellus to death after surveying the members of the audience, who demand his destruction based upon what they have heard. Caligula attempts to offer mercy to his former rival, saying his life will be spared if he denounces his beliefs that Jesus is the son of God and rose from the dead, but Marcellus defies Caligula. As Marcellus has his fate sealed, Diana stands with Marcellus, the man she considers to be her husband, in His Kingdom (Heaven). She denounces Caligula as a petulant, tyrannical monster.

Caligula condemns Diana to die alongside Marcellus. As they depart the audience hall for their execution, Marcellus is pitied by his forlorn father, and Diana gives the robe to Marcipor.

As Diana and Marcellus climb the staircase out of the court, with Caligula ranting behind them, the scene behind them changes: The two ascend a staircase to heaven. The hall full of people disappears and is replaced by a background of shining gold and the music includes the sounds of a celestial choir. As they continue to climb, they look at each other and, smiling, turn their eyes back up towards what awaits them.

Historical inaccuracies

Despite the careful attention to Roman history and culture displayed in the film, some inaccuracies are included: in reality, Emperor Tiberius' wife, Julia, who had been banished from Rome by her father Augustus years before Tiberius acceded to the imperial throne, was already dead.


Background and production

Frank Ross acquired the rights to the novel in 1942, before it was completed for $100,000. [6] [7]

The Robe was originally announced for filming by RKO in the 1940s and was set to be directed by Mervyn LeRoy, [8] but the rights were eventually sold to Twentieth Century Fox. Ross received $40,000 plus 20% of the profits. [7] RKO received $300,000 plus $650,000 from future profits. [7]

Jeff Chandler was originally announced for the role of Demetrius. [9] Victor Mature signed in December 1952 [10] to make both The Robe and a sequel about Demetrius. [11] John Buckmaster tested for the role of Caligula. [12]

Filming finished on April 30, 1953, two weeks ahead of schedule. [13]

The film was advertised as "the modern miracle you see without glasses", a dig at the 3D movies of the day. Since many theaters of the day were not equipped to show a CinemaScope film, two versions of The Robe were made: one in the standard screen ratio of the day, the other in the widescreen process. Setups and some dialogue differ between the versions.[ citation needed ] The film was usually shown on television using the standard 1.33:1 aspect ratio version that fills a standard television screen rather than the CinemaScope version. American Movie Classics may have been the first to offer telecasts of the widescreen version. Recent DVDs and Blu-ray Discs of the film, however, present the film in the original widescreen format, as well as the multitrack stereophonic soundtrack.


Critical reception

Critical reaction of the film and CinemaScope following the premiere in New York was generally favourable. [14] Frank Quinn of the New York Daily Mirror called it "a new realistic and phenomenal concept of the art of motion picture production." [14] Kate Cameron at the ' New York Daily News gave it eight stars (four for the film and four for CinemaScope) and claimed that "any picture projected on a flat going to seem dull" after The Robe. [14] The only criticism came from Bosley Crowther of The New York Times [14] who wrote, "The human drama of this story of Christian conversion occurs amid sumptuous and scenic surroundings and are mighty impressive to see. But the mightiness of surroundings—the spectacle of settings and costumes—is meaningful only in relation to the story that is being told. And the story in this instance is not spectacular, so that the amplitude of its surroundings does not enhance its scope." [15] Variety wrote, "It is a 'big' picture in every sense of the word. One magnificent scene after another, under the anamorphic technique, unveils the splendor that was Rome and the turbulence that was Jerusalem at the time of Christ on Calvary." [16]

Edwin Schallert of the Los Angeles Times stated that the film was in "a class that is unique, deeply spiritual and even awe-inspiring." [17] Richard L. Coe of The Washington Post wrote, "Partly through the writing, partly through the variety of acting styles, this reverence does not stir the emotions. It is very hard to take seriously a film which presents so petulantly obvious a performance as Jay Robinson's sophomoric Caligula or a script which early observes: 'You have made me the laughing stock of Rome.' These and matters like them are not aspects of fine motion picture making." [18] Harrison's Reports declared, "Excellent! Even if it had been produced in the conventional 2-D form, Lloyd C. Douglas' powerful novel of the birth of Christianity in the days of ancient Rome would have made a great picture, but having been produced in the revolutionary CinemaScope process, it emerges as not only a superior dramatic achievement but also as a spectacle that will electrify audiences with its overpowering scope and magnitude." [19] The Monthly Film Bulletin called it "a routine addition to the numerous Hollywood Biblical films", presenting "a characteristically distorted and simplified view of Imperial Rome, with a ranting Caligula, a doddering Tiberius, and the customary scenes of 'spectacle' in the palace, the market-place and the torture chamber. The performances lack enthusiasm, and Richard Burton in particular seems ill at ease as the morose Marcellus." [20] Basil Wright wrote in Sight & Sound , "As a film on a religious subject, Henry Koster's The Robe has rather fewer lapses in taste than most of its predecessors. If the actual speaking of Christ's cry from the Cross is a major error, it is not multiplied. In general, the subject is treated with reasonable reverence and is a deal better than Quo Vadis , which was a perfect illustration of Aristotle's remark about the ludicrous being merely a sub-division of the ugly." [21]

Based on 20 reviews, the film holds a score of 35% on Rotten Tomatoes. [22]

Box office

The film premiered at the Roxy Theatre in New York City on September 16, 1953. On its public release the following day it set a record one-day gross (for a single theatre) of $36,000. [23] It set a one-week record gross (for a single theatre) [24] of $264,427. [25]

It earned an estimated $17.5 million in North America during its initial theatrical release. [26] Its worldwide rentals were estimated at $32 million. [27] [28]

Awards and honors

26th Academy Awards:

Wins [29]

11th Golden Globe Awards:



The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:

First telecast

ABC paid a record $2 million for the television rights, sponsored by Ford, for four screenings in the United States. [33] The film was first telecast on Easter weekend on Sunday 26, March 1967, at the relatively early hour of 7:00 P.M., EST, to allow for family viewing. In a highly unusual move, the film was shown with only one commercial break – a luxury not even granted to the then-annual telecasts of The Wizard of Oz . [34] The film received a Nielsen rating of 31.0 and an audience share of 53%, [35] with the second largest TV audience for a film, behind The Bridge on the River Kwai , with 60 million viewers. [33]

Home media

The film was released on VHS and DVD on October 16, 2001. [36] It was released on Blu-ray on March 17, 2009. [37]



The elaborate poster for the film has one glaring flaw. The woman's face is not Jean Simmons. Originally, Jean Peters had been cast as Diana, but became pregnant. Simmons was hired to replace her. But the poster was not changed, and shows the wrong Jean. [38]


The film's successful and highly praised sequel, Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954), featured Victor Mature in the title role. Demetrius and the Gladiators begins with Caligula's challenge to Marcellus and Diana as they climb the stairs to their execution. Filming was completed before The Robe was released. [5]


The Academy Film Archive preserved The Robe in 2008. [39]

In the first episode "Openings" of The Queen's Gambit miniseries series, the film is playing for the staff and wards of the Mathuen orphanage, and the final chorus of Alleluia provides a diegetic source of music while Beth breaks into the dispensary and overdoses. [40]

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