Clothes Make the Man: Richard Burton in “The Robe”

Richard Burton was one of the most iconic actors of his day. He was a Shakespearean actor who performed in plays for many years, mostly in productions of plays written by the Bard. He was also a frequent also-ran in the Academy Awards, ranking only behind Peter O’Toole‘s eight nominations without an award. (He was nominated seven times, including one for today’s movie).

Arguably it could be said that Burton is more famous for his off-screen relationships than his actual catalogue of film roles. He was married five times (although two of those times were to the same woman, Elizabeth Taylor, which maybe only counts as one time). Burton’s birth name was Richard Jenkins, Jr. He was made a legal ward — as opposed to being adopted — by his schoolmaster, Phillip Burton, and legally changed his name to Burton.

The Robe (1953):

In Imperial Rome, Centurion Marcellus Gallio (Richard Burton) returns from abroad. He is feted as he enters the city and is greeted by Diana (Jean Simmons). Diana was a childhood friend of Marcellus, and in their youth he had pledged to marry her when they were mere children.

Diana is now the ward of Emperor Tiberius (Ernest Thesiger), and Tiberius is planning to marry of Diana to his nephew, Caligula (Jay Robinson). Although Marcellus is rather blase’ about his commitment to Diana, he is less than enthused about having her be married to his political enemy, Caligula. The two are bitter rivals, born out by the fact that Caligula intentionally outbids Marcellus for two slave girls that Marcellus wants.

In retaliation, Marcellus intentionally outbids Caligula for Demetrius (Victor Mature), a renegade Greek slave that Caligula only wants as meat for the gladiator ring. To make matters even more contentious, Marcellus frees Demetrius. Caligula pulls some strings to get his revenge and has Marcellus sent to the most despicable post in the Roman Empire; Jerusalem. There, circumstances lead to Marcellus being responsible to see to the execution of a Jewish rebel named Jesus.

At the foot of the cross where Jesus is executed soldiers play dice and gamble on the garments. Marcellus wins the robe, which he immediately regrets because he has an attack of mental anguish which he blames on the robe because he thinks it is cursed. He gives it to Demetrius demanding that he burn it. But Demetrius has an epiphany and refuses. He also tells Marcellus he is no longer going to serve Marcellus because he will now serve the Master, Jesus.

For the middle part of the film, Marcellus continues to suffer from mental problems and determines that the only solution is to find Demetrius and the robe and have the robe destroyed. In this effort he is given a commission by the emperor top not only find his cursed robe, but to also weed out the followers of this new sect, who have been calling themselves Christians.

Of course, this being ultimately a Christian film, it was bound to happen that Marcellus converts to Christianity. \He is recalled to Rome, where Tiberius has died and Caligula is now the emperor. Caligula has Marcellus arrested for treason, since he is no longer fulfilling the mandate given him, and refuses to divulge the location of the Christians, especially the leader, Peter (Michael Rennie).

The Robe and its sequel which featured many of the same actors in the same roles, Demetrius and the Gladiators, come across as astounding epics. Your opinion on them may be influenced by your opinion on the Christian theology, but both are very good well-acted dramas. Burton, of course, is the standout performer in The Robe. But Victor Mature carries his own and Jay Robinson as Caligula is a treat, even though he seems to be over-acting. (He was a former Broadway stage actor, and these two films represent his first roles in Hollywood).

Jim Brymer, AKA Quiggy, runs the movie blog The Midnite Drive-In, check it out for more insights on other classic films.