17 May 2006 | john-ruffle
The Passion of the Robe
The Robe (1953) is interesting on at least two counts: (1) the film takes its place as the first ever CinemaScope theatrical release and is therefore worthy of close study by all motion picture students; and (2) the film depicts the Passion of Christ, (as the inciting action that triggers the subsequent plot development), and as such, threads that part of the storyline with a genre stretching back over 1,000 years, where we find the first extant Passion Play scripts (other than the Gospel records themselves, of course). This again makes the film worthy of study by film students and theologians alike.
The story of Christ on film is more important historically than may at first might appear. At either two or three reels, the first ever full "feature film" is arguably claimed to be the "The Passion Play" (1898), filmed in New York in 1897. The 'greatest story ever told' has hit the screen regularly thereafter, perhaps most famously in recent years with Mel Gibson's masterly personal tribute, "The Passion of the Christ" (2004).
I will now comment briefly on some of the technical and visual aspects of "The Robe". The camera work majors on long shots, and it is interesting to analyse how each shot is framed for all that width of screen. The camera is mostly static, and shots have longer than average duration; the compositions really are not designed for a lot of movement. This gives the film that famous "epic" style that goes for the grand sweep, both visually, musically and emotionally. There is not a lot of internalisation within the characterisation - it is the (literal) width and scope of the production that grabs attention. The filmic style is not very personal, however. It really is as if we have the best seats in an outdoor drama on a massive stage.
As you view, you may wish to make a note of the shots that seem to work best to the modern viewer. In the early part of the film, for instance, (just before the "Passion" sequence), Demetrius runs toward the camera in search of Jesus, after he's been beaten down by the Roman guards outside the gates of Jerusalem. An old lady sitting behind him on the cobbled pathway, has just finished tending his wounds. The shot is terrific, and works for modern audiences very well. Unlike a lot of the film, where much of the direction seems to be subjected to the demands of the CinemaScope process, this shot contains a dynamism that beguiles the film's age. Why? Because it uses the three dimensions of the set, along with arresting and dramatic movement, as Demetrius runs diagonally toward the camera and beyond us, toward the Crucifixion, which we see in the next sequence.
Another sequence that really works well is the chase in the second half. It is arguably the most dramatic sequence in the entire picture, and certainly uses CinemaScope to best effect, as the horses thunder toward the audience. Over fifty years later, and it would be hard to better.
By contrast, most of the film is played out in tableaux form, with action taking place across the width of the screen on lavish but shallow sets. The camera is a passive observer, unlike modern 'epics', which usually use very fluid camera set-ups along with computer-generated imagery (CGI). The actual crucifixion (masterful in what it does not show, by the way) is indeed an actual still life tableau, and could have easily been lifted straight out of the Oberammergau passion play. I do not say this to put the film down - this actually is a brilliant move, as it makes the action faithful to the genre of the passion play, which originally was played out exclusively through short tableaux.
In this writing, my aim has been simply to help you consider alternative ways of viewing this, and other, historic motion pictures. Particularly, you may wish to take note of the sometimes unusual way the film uses: (a) framing, (b) shot length, (c) staging, (d) camera movements, (e) the use (or rather, the almost total lack of use) of close ups and 'cut-away' shots, (f) lighting, and the (g) music score and dialogue. Of course, there is much more to note: the use of dissolves and fades, which helps underline the 'epic' grandeur of every sequence. And I've not even touched on the story line or the acting. (Question: how might it have played as a silent movie?)
In today's post-modernist society, the Passion play formula, with its emphasis on objective truth, may well gain renewed importance, since the narrative of Christ's passion may be in danger of becoming yet one more voice crying in a commercial wilderness devoid of ultimate human (and Godly) values of truth, goodness and conviction. The story of Jesus stands out as unique however it is viewed. The simple reason: the story of the Passion indeed IS unique! (Which is one reason why I consider it a 'genre' in its own right.) I contend, therefore, that "The Robe" is an important contribution to American cinema, both theologically and cinematographically; one among a select number of motion pictures, spanning over one hundred years of history, that every student should have opportunity to view and discuss at least once whilst still in full time education.
A sidebar: "The Robe" really needs to be watched in 'letterbox' (i.e. in the original format), which on a small display does not do the picture justice. With HDTV coming along, look out for a digital re-release that will restore the original to its pristine glory. (Also, a side-by-side comparison with the Academy format version - shot at the same time - would be beneficial.) Best of all, of course, arrange to get it screened in your local art house cinema, and see it as it is meant to be viewed: on the big screen.