The Screening Room
quo vadis the robe

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 ("The Robe")

Photos: © Fox and Warner Bros. All rights reserved.
Blu-ray Quick Glimpse

cover quothe robe

"The Robe" (Fox Home Ent.) "Quo Vadis" (Warner Home Video)

"The Robe" Director: Henry Koster
"Quo Vadis" Director: Mervyn LeRoy   

Cast: "The Robe" Cast: Richard Burton, Jean Simmons, Victor Mature, Michael Rennie, Jay Robinson, Dean Jagger  

"Quo Vadis" Cast: Robert Taylor, Deborah Kerr, Peter Ustinov, Leo Genn

The flat version of "The Robe" as a BONUSVIEW picture-in-picture extra available only through BD-LIVE; "The CinemaScope Story" doc  

Insightful historical "Quo Vadis" commentary by F.X. Feeney and good doc, " "In the Beginning, Quo Vadis and the Genesis of the Biblical Epic."

Not rated

Picture: Excellent
Sound: Excellent

"The Robe" is in CinemaScope!

"Quo Vadis" is in three-strip Technicolor!

Aspect Ratio (2.55:1) "The Robe"
Aspect Ratio (1.33:1) "Quo Vadis"

DTS-HD Master Audio ("The Robe")
Dolby Digital Mono ("Quo Vadis")

March 17, 2009
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