The thing about the Bible epics of the 1950s is... I don't even know what the thing is, other than that they're one of the most curious, weird genres that ever existed, in no small part because of how aggressively they eschew being weird in any minute way, shape, or form. It's as square as any genre ever has been, which is of course the point: so square, so rigidly traditionalist and old-fashioned, that even in the better-made examples of the form, we seem to have pushed beyond mere aesthetic conservatism into something more akin to accidental primitivism, like the tradition of medieval religious plays had evolved separately into its own medium that just happened to function like the movies do. The stiff, declamatory dialogue and stiff, declamatory performances that serve as the bigot's idea of what these movies look like is based entirely on reality, and the effect isn't that of watching poor cinema, but of watching non-cinema.

Bible epics came in two flavors: Jewish stories and early Christian stories. The former are almost invariably better, having as they do more zesty narratives (issues of theology and faith aside, who can honestly deny that the Old Testament makes for more enjoyable reading than the New?), and they frequently subscribe to a trick as old as movies, in which filmmakers use Serious Intent ("we're making an adaptation of the Bible! It's faith-driven!") as a blind, while the usual spectacle and naughtiness are smuggled in ("Well, of course the Queen of Sheba has to be played by an internationally famous Italian sexpot, that just makes sense"). Movies about the travails of early Christians, though, are joyless trudges of glum-looking people glumly eschewing anything that might accidentally give them pleasure. When these films accidentally manage to be openly good for a scene or two it's almost exclusively because of the salacious, earthy, immoral Romans, who look more interesting, do more interesting things, and boast more layered performances - as for example in 1951's Quo Vadis, where Peter Ustinov's slimy Emperor Nero manages to be the single best thing in the entire subgenre.

The whole mess of Bible epics, on the whole, are so yawningly respectable, so brutally committed to a calculated non-aesthetic, so urgently denuded of humanity, they play at times - most times, in fact - like they were made by artists whose knowledge of Christianity began and ended with Jacobean Puritanism, with the assumption that this whole "audience of faith" thing consisted of people who only ever smiled or felt anything other than burning shame when they were considering the most arcane points of theology. They are the least fun things ever, really, no matter how much money was spent to make them as lavish in their pageantry as all the powers of Hollywood (and later, Italian) film studios could manage.

This combination of lavish production value and extreme sobriety gives the whole genre a peculiar dual identity that never manages to resolve itself, and oh, I should just start fucking talking about The Robe already. It is the essential Early Christian Times movie: not because it is best, nor the campiest, for it is far from being either. But it is, of all the ones I've seen, the most representative in almost every imaginable way. But that's not its chief point of historical interest, and if it was, I am sure that I wouldn't have caused myself to watch a second time in order to write this review. No, on top of everything else, The Robe was the very first movie released in 20th Century Fox's new format, CinemaScope, making it one of the key movies in the history of modern widescreen. It was not, bear in mind, the first film made in CinemaScope; that would be How to Marry a Millionaire, a light comedy that was finished well in advance of The Robe, but not premiered till November, 1953, nearly two months later. And for this we can likely credit studio president Spyros Skouras, for knowing that the way to best show off his new toy was with a grand historical epic full of giant sets and crowd scenes, and not a New York-set movie whose biggest innovation with the format was to find that you could use it to put three people in the frame at once.

We'll stow the technical discussion of CinemaScope, except to point out that in '53, its advantages were obvious: unlike Cinerama, which debuted the year prior, it required only converting a single projector, instead of Cinerama's three projectors and custom curved screen; unlike 3-D, it didn't require the viewer to wear glasses; unlike the more straightforward method of matting a film frame to a widescreen ratio (a technique introduced earlier in '53, with Paramount's Shane), it still added a sense of scale and depth to movies. That's a whole lot of gimmicks all coming out at one time, you might observe; the reason why, as has been acknowledged for years, was the dreaded television, a peculiar new device that people purchased and installed in their homes, allowing them to watch moving images in the distracted, overlit privacy of a room which they only shared with their family, or perhaps friends, instead of having the remarkable experience of sharing emotions and sensations with many other people in a shared moment of artistic transport.

Despite the seemingly obvious limitations of television compared to the cinema, it took an immediate and obvious bite out of the audience, one that has never reversed itself in more than six decades of filmmakers doing their god-damnedest to make one of a kind experiences that demand to be seen on the big screen. The film industry threw everything it could at movies to try and win those audiences back: hence the technological gimmicks, hence the opulence and spectacle of things like the Bible epics, providing a panoply of grandeur that you simply couldn't get at home, not in the '50s anyway.

So The Robe, anyway, was the vanguard of that movement: it is a movie that sums up everything the mainstream film industry was going through and trying to become in 1953 about as perfectly as any one film has ever summed up any one year, and accordingly, it was one of the year's most giant hits, behind only Disney's Peter Pan. Which is pretty impressive for something such an unendurable slog. I should mention that The Robe was actually filmed twice: on the same sets and with the same script, the entire movie was made both with the anamorphic lenses that created its characteristic 2.55:1 aspect ration, and with standard spherical lenses that produced a 1.37:1 print. These were not different versions of one movie; they were, effectively, two different movies, shot in tandem but not in the same order, with different blocking and different choices made by the actors. By virtually all accounts, the 1.37:1 incarnation of The Robe, the one more familiar to an audience that grew up with its Easter Sunday screenings in the '60s and '70s, is absolutely better: the acting is improved, the directing is tighter and clearer.

I believe it. The CinemaScope version of The Robe is a dog, about which the best thing I can say is that compared to other early anamorphic widescreen filmmakers, director Henry Koster and cinematographer Leon Shamroy only infrequently left conspicuous, hanging dead space in the humongous frame. Though it's still the case that most of the important action has a tendency to bunch up in a squarish window. As far as the acting goes, the 'Scope film - and I'll henceforth stop bothering to identify it as such, I've only ever seen this one and as long as it has the same script, I don't think historical curiosity will ever send me out to find the 1.37:1 version - boasts a lead performance from Richard Burton that is really and truly shockingly bad. I'm not the actor's biggest fan, but there's still a level of British stage-trained competence that's easy to expect from him. He's painfully wooden here, only coming alive in moments where he can shout things angrily, and even that he does without altering the pissy glare that he wears like a kind of shield. It wasn't a project that the recent import to the U.S. was terribly fond of, and in after years he would describe it as one of the worst things he'd worked on; but it's rare to see an actor telegraph their inner disgust with the movie they're making so openly. Frankly, at times he's working at such askew angles to anything that would serve the character and the drama that it's easy to suppose he was trying to ruin the film from within.

On the other hand, much of The Robe is the story of a man who deals with a situation he desperately hates by remaining constantly drunk. And viewed in that respect, Burton was the most perfect casting choice in the world.

Burton plays Marcellus Gallio, a Roman military tribune in the 30s who, on one of his strolls through the capital, bumps into the beautiful Diana (Jean Simmons), a childhood friend he has not seen for many years, since they play-acted at being in love. It's no longer play-acting now, though, but it also puts Marcellus on the wrong side of Caligula (Jay Robinson), Diana's unofficial fiancé, and also the adoptive grandson and regent of the reigning emperor, Tiberius (Ernest Thesiger). The potential for a conflict between the men doesn't take long to erupt: at a slave auction, reacting to a deliberate slight from Caligula, Marcellus angrily outbids his rival for a Greek slave named Demetrius (Victor Mature), in whom Caligula is far more openly interested than we ever see him being towards Diana. This is enough to send the regent into a fit, and he arranges for Marcellus to be transferred to the worst hole in the empire, a rebellious backwater east of the Mediterranean called Jerusalem. Through Diana's intervention, Marcellus doesn't remain very long; he's really only in the region long enough to help crucify a rabble-rousing Jewish prophet, and win the dying man's robe as he and some centurions play games of chance at the foot of the cross.

Up to this point, The Robe is a competent if not particularly enjoyable tour of Roman politics and backstabbing, brought down by its dismal acting: Burton is checked out, Robinson goes to some astonishingly tacky lengths to play Caligula as the gayest gay man that '50s moral codes would allow for, Simmons is as checked out as Burton, but only because she wasn't a terribly good actress, and there's none of the weird anger he has to compensate for it. Only Mature actually puts across any real depth of character and interesting motivations (he ends up entranced with the Christians from the moment Jesus enters Jerusalem), and when Victor Mature is giving the best performance in a movie, that movie has problems. And the film is likewise hampered by generally shabby costumes that look like they came from a high school production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, or would if that show had existed yet; the gulf between the costumes and the elaborate, wonderful sets is certainly striking, at any rate. And the sound mix - CinemaScope was also accompanied by some of the first stereophonic sound in the movies, you see - is all the hell over the place, with two people facing each other from a distance of three or four feet sounding like they recorded their lines several days and cities apart from each other.

So maybe not "competent" and not particularly enjoyable, but it gets the job across. Once Jesus's robe enters the picture, though, things just get absurd, with Marcellus finding himself going insane with guilt, and suffering apparently physical pain every time he touches the robe; when Demetrius steals it before the tribune returns to Rome, this sets us up for a very lengthy story arc in which Marcellus journeys the length and breadth of Palestine, encountering the new Christians and their leader, Simon Peter (Michael Rennie, who at least has the presence of mind to play Peter as a kind man, and not a saint-in-the-making), and eventually being converted to their religion, not through conviction that it is true and beautiful and moral - indeed, the more evidence he sees that Christianity is charitable and kind, the more it repels him - but because the robe essentially magics him into faith, during a scene where a bug-eyed, screaming Burton outright decides that he's going to play things in the campiest way possible, before camp was even a thing.

It's hard to actively hate anything as deeply earnest as The Robe, but it is a long, tough sit, with a 135-minute running time that's not even particularly notable by the genre's standards dragging itself out through scene after scene of Burton and Mature and Dean Jagger (as the leader of a local Christian community) and eventually Simmons intoning Philip Dunne and (uncredited blacklist victim) Albert Maltz's surface-level dialogue about religious philosophy. There's not even really a story behind this - something to do, vaguely, with the new Emperor Caligula punishing every Christian he can get his hands on, but that doesn't really drive much besides the final ten minutes - just depicting early Christians going about their business, which apparently involved doing virtually nothing else besides talking about being early Christians.

As dramatically inert as it is, at least it does manage to be fairly effective at spectacle. The costumes, I've said, kind of suck, but the sets are frequently amazing, and Koster has enough sense of the new format he's using to show them off in all their scope. The compositions are all functional, at best, but the simple act of looking at stuff is, by itself, enough to keep the movie afloat, visually. Because the stuff is awfully lovely.

Beyond that, there's a pretty fantastic score by Alfred Newman that basically wrote the book on how all future epics would be scored (and not just epics: John Williams pretty clearly had The Robe somewhere in the back of his mind when the time came to score the Indiana Jones pictures, at least), and combined with the generally extravagant visuals, that's enough to give us the sense that we're watching something Mighty and Impressive. Which, I suppose, it is - there's no question that this was a major production, Fox's big prestige release of '53, with all the seriousness of purpose and moral gravity that you could ever hope to stuff into a prestige picture. That it doesn't work is practically incidental.

Listless as it is, The Robe still impressed the hell out of people, kicking off a sequel built around Mature, Demetrius and the Gladiators, that was in production before the original was already released (as it was and ever shall be). That film is at least energetic enough to be fun, though it's still pretty lumbering, as all of these behemoths were lumbering. But profitable. Between grandiose historical epics, and the huge war movies and mega-musicals that succeeded them, Hollywood was quickly learning the economic appeal of throwing a lot of resources into huge productions that appealed above all on the level of spectacle; that spectacle would, over the next 15 years, grow more and more bloated and alien until the only thing that saved the industry was burning it down to the ground and starting fresh. It's not the last we'll be revisiting that story as we go along, but it sure is something to think about.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 1953
-Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr have sexy surf sex in Fred Zinnemann's From Here to Eternity for Columbia
-Ward Kimball and Charles A. Nichols oversee the CinemaScope short Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom, the most aesthetically audacious thing ever made at the Disney studios to that point
-Warner Bros. introduces the world to giant monsters from the ocean depths, and the peerless work of effects wizard Ray Harryhausen, with The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms

Elsewhere in world cinema in 1953
-In Japan, Ozu Yasujiro creates the greatest depiction of family dynamics ever put to film, Tokyo Story
-Henri-Georges Clouzot's Franco-Italian The Wages of Fear raises the bar for all thrillers ever since
-Luis García Berlanga, and Spanish cinema generally, explode into international prominence with ¡Bienvenido, Mister Marshall!