The Robe (1953)

[watched 5/15/11]

Isn’t it odd how an honest portrayal of Christian principle can have such a subversive tinge – and odd how easy that it is to recuperate this? It was essentially insurgent faith, a wildly reckless exercise in iconoclasm [there are some provocative quotes here, if one switches the referent to a more contemporary power than Rome]. “Power, not principle rules this world”, etc. Of course, this critical potential is dulled into nonexistence by the film’s Technicolor saturation in feel-good Christian self-congratulation. Can an atheist really appreciate this on anything other than a superficial level? Jesus is never shown, never developed as a character – an attachment to him is almost a prerequisite to ‘enjoying’ the film; the work of sympathy has to have been done beforehand. My brother watched the first 40 minutes or so – totally ignorant of the Gospels, he needed a lot of commentary simply to follow what was going on. Of course, this is understandable in 2011, and would be less common in 1953. Maybe there’s even an intentional motive here, to make the increasingly secular audience open up the New Testament. The Ten Commandments certainly had an element of this – De Mille, after all, was a paid informant for the FBI who played a role in the Hollywood witch hunts, and his film is definitively Cold War. The Ten Commandments is virtually an extension of the HUAC hearings, and a hysterical reaction to a perceived trivialization of Christianity in mass culture (hysterical because the rebuttal had to cost so much, and be so very long).

But The Robe is first and foremost spectacle, not real emotional drama – it was the first film released in CinemaScope, and it looks marvelous, from the costumes to the sets to the simple copiousness of the frame. As an attempt to Christianize mass culture, it would seem to have failed wildly: it did more to, if I can use such a term, mass culturize Christianity (so did De Mille’s film: Charlton Heston gained more than Christ from that production). Creating a “Christian epic” has long dogged writers who believe – Beowulf is Christian, but almost clandestinely; The Divine Comedy and Paradise Lost are too in love with the grandeur of sin to aestheticize virtue in any memorable way (famously, the dullest characters in Milton are God, Adam, and Eve). The Robe would seem to be another failed attempt in this line, and really must be “superficial” in the literal sense of the term even for a pious man. What has been made is a film about the possibilities of anamorphic widescreen, just as Avatar is principally a film about the possibilities of 3D (it’s worth mentioning that The Robe coincided with the first 3D era, within two years of House of Wax, Dial M for Murder, and a dozen lesser films which, then as now, were mostly desperate ploys to get people to turn off their TV sets and head to the cinema). But The Robe is remarkable as a curious suture of fantasies: the evermore fantastic society of the spectacle and a well-worn fantasy of an Arcadian Christian purity, and as such is quintessential early 50s fare: an admixture of technological-futurist optimism (think of Disney’s animated superhighways) and pastoral, Christian, communalist comforts –  “values” we would say today. This is like the Levittown of cinema.

Re:3d, also, it’s interesting the way some of the credits are shaped, as if they project out of the screen. The same thing happens in Invaders from Mars, released the same year. If I recall correctly, people have taken this in the latter case to mean that it was originally planned to be in 3D. But both of them could merely be riding on the coattails of the craze, dabbling in the aesthetics of hyperreality.

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