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Oscar winning biblical epic, and the first ever film to be shot in CinemaScope. Roman Richard Burton kills Christ, goes insane and then converts to Christianity
Mighty in every respect, Koster's sword and sandal epic operates on a scale hitherto unseen. Ten years in the making, the film cost 4.6 million dollars, with every single cent on display.
Richard Burton is the fictional Tribune Mercellus Gallio, newly stationed in Jerusalem where, under Pilate's orders, he's responsible for nailing Christ to the cross. As the significance of his actions dawns on him he's plunged into madness ("I'm mad!") and haunted by visions of Christ's robe, the search for which brings him into contact with underground Christians and thence to conversion.
By the standards of this holy extravaganza Burton's performance is comparatively modest, giving Victor Mature plenty of room to ham it up as the slave whose Pythonesque encounter with Christ ("He's not the King. He's... I don't know!") sets Burton on the road to redemption. Jean Simmons simpers as his love interest and Koster takes care to emphasise all the most lurid aspects of the crucifixion story. Thus we get Pilate obsessively washing his hands, Caligula shrieking as he struggles to stay the right side of sanity and God venting his wrath on Rome in the form of vicious squally showers.
Koster knows how to fill the screen but his direction of the more intimate moments, particularly those between Burton and Simmons, is heavy-handed, and his assumption that audiences already know the story results in some clumsy lurches between the set pieces. However, it's his use of the then new anamorphic technology that's ensured the film's place in history. The vast crowd scenes, the horses heading straight for the camera and the unexpected precision with which Burton wields a blade are still magnificent. Burton himself would give better performances in more refined films but in style as well as size The Robe represents a king-size blueprint.
Koster's overwhelming historical epic - and Fox Studios' new technology - changed forever the way films were made. Forty years down the line it's lost none of its power to impress. Everything, including performances, is turned up to eleven, and what it lacks in finesse it more than makes up for in sheer spectacle.
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