DESOWITZ ON BLU-RAY/DVD
By Bill Desowitz
It's quite an opportune time to be releasing "The
Robe" on Blu-ray, and not just because it's almost Easter and the best time
to view this film about the birth of Christianity and the start of Rome's
descent. With the current 3-D revival, all of the hype has a familiar ring
to it that brings to mind the hoopla surrounding the rise of CinemaScope
with the 1953 premiere of Fox's landmark Biblical epic, which commercialized
the widescreen format with this 2.55:1 presentation. Watching "The Robe" on
Blu-ray certainly substantiates the film's strengths and weaknesses. On the
plus side, the film has probably never looked better, thanks to the superb
digital restoration by Schawn Belston, VP of Library and Technical Services,
Fox Home Ent., in collaboration with the Film Foundation and The Academy
Film Archive along with further assistance by Lowry Digital.
The sharpness and level of detail are tremendous
(particularly the opulence of the palaces, where the marble fixtures stand
out very well). The crowds and mattes come off nicely, too, and, overall,
the color is quite vivid. And given the limitations of Henri Chrétien's
initial Scope lenses, depth of field is surprisingly good and there's a nice
dimensionality at times. Leon Shamroy's cinematography really shines along
with art direction by George Davis and Lyle Wheeler.
As Martin Scorsese notes in his introduction, "The
Robe" was an eye opener as far as expanding the cinematic canvas. Indeed,
"scope" is the operative word in introducing a sense of visual grandeur and
epic scale to this story in which military tribune Marcellus (Richard
Burton) agonizes about crucifying Christ and seeks to destroy his robe, only
to redeem himself with the help of a Roman ward (Jean Simmons), his former
Greek slave Demetrius (a very touching Victor Mature), Christ disciple
Justus (Dean Jagger) and Saint Peter (Michael Rennie). Marcellus' conversion
is also helped by the condemnation of Emperor Caligula (a marvelously
flamboyant Jay Robinson). Unfortunately, Henry Koster's direction is weighed
down in solemnity and his compositions are often unimaginative. However,
there is a powerful sense of spiritual renewal that is part of the great
appeal of "The Robe."
Coincidentally, "Quo Vadis" also makes its Blu-ray bow.
It's the perfect companion piece to "The Robe" (made in 1951 and dealing
with the first generation of Christians after the Crucifixion during yet
occurring afterward during Nero's mad reign). But it's basically the same
story -- only less stirring, with Robert Taylor portraying a boorish
military tribune redeemed by the love of a Christian (Deborah Kerr) and the
influence of Peter (Finlay Currie) and Paul (Abraham Sofaer) as they
struggle to overcome the tyranny and decadence of the Roman Empire.
Shot in three-strip Technicolor and filmed at
Cinecitta and in the Roman countryside, "Quo Vadis" is far more opulent and
hyper-real than "The Robe," but obviously lacks its scope and dramatic
force. However, the Blu-ray shows off the brilliant cinematography (Robert
Surtees and William Skall), art direction (Edward Carfagno, Cedric Gibbons
and William Horning) costume design (Herschel McCoy) and Peter Ellenshaw's
marvelous mattes very well. But despite its popularity and influence (the
last overseen by Louis B. Meyer), this is no "Ben-Hur." Mervyn LeRoy's
direction is lackluster, and Taylor isn't exactly charismatic here.
Fortunately, Peter Ustinov's childish Nero is a delight and matched by
conniving advisor Petronius (Leo Genn). And the action (especially the
burning of Rome) and sense of spectacle are memorable.
Special thanks to Shamrock ("Quo Vadis") and Conor Sellers at Bender Helper
Photos: © Fox and Warner Bros. All