I wanted to see The Robe on Blu-ray because I wanted to really see what the very first CinemaScope film looked like in the finest technical sense. I’d seen it once before and knew, of course, that it’s not much of a drama. So getting the Blu-ray was strictly a visual looksee deal, and that’s what I got. Or all I got, for the most part.
I’ve never read a positive critical re-assessment piece of The Robe. It’s not an awful film, but it’s certainly stiff and treacly and grandiose, and at times is bizarrely over-acted by Richard Burton. There’s never been a mainstream genre more tedious or lumbering than that of 1950s religious big-screen epics. They tend to be watchable only for the occasional supporting performance, the stately widescreen photography and the score (since the finest composers were always hired).
The only rich element in The Robe is Jay Robinson‘s flamboyant performance as Caligula. I’ve always preferred Demetrius and the Gladiators, the sequel to The Robe in which the squealing Robinson gets a spear through his chest at the climax. It also has Mature, several good gladiator fights, the stabbing deaths of four or five tigers, Susan Hayward, Richard Egan, Ernest Borgnine, and a stirring Franz Waxman score.
So how good looking is the Blu-ray Robe? Much of it is pretty damn beautiful. Or as beautiful as it can be given that the visual elements were never top-of-the-line.
The Robe was shot in 35mm with three or four smallish anamorphic lenses provided by Henri Chretien, a Frenchman who sold his “anamorphoscope” process to 20th Century Fox. In the early days CinemaScope seemed quite the marvel, but in hindsight it was the least of the widescreen processes. It wasn’t as rich as the 55mm process used for The King and I and Carousel, or the 65mm and 70mm processes that came along in the mid to late ’50s.
The CinemaScope image in The Robe appears muddy and over-saturated from time to time, and the original process gave a squeezed effect to people and elements on the sides of the screen.
But The Robe looks better on Blu-ray than I’ve seen it look before. It looks better than I ever imagined it might look. Handsome and needle-sharp for the most part, and even painterly at times. So to hell with the movie. Rent or buy this thing just to savor the shots. And to watch the extras, which are all nicely done.
It’s odd, however, that the doc about CinemaScope doesn’t mention the technical basics. One, the CinemaScope image was made to project an image at 2.66 to 1. Two, pasting a four-track magnetic sound track alongside the image took the aspect ratio down to 2.55 to 1. Three, the addition of an optical soundtrack (demanded by exhibitors) reduced it further to 2.39 or 2.35 to 1. None of this info is considered share-worthy. Weird.