The first Hollywood film made in CinemaScope, The Robe was based on Lloyd C. Douglas’ novel and was written by Gina Kaus, Albert Maltz and Philip Dunne, although Maltz was blacklisted and his name would not be in the credits of this movie for decades.
Directer Henry Koster knew something about being an enemy of the country himself, as even though he had escaped Germany before the war, he was considered an enemy alien and wasn’t allowed to leave his home at night during World War II. He’d go on to direct Harvey and Mr. Belvedere Rings the Bell.
Marcellus Gallio (Richard Burton) returns to Rome to discover that Caligula (Jay Robinson) is next in line to be Emperor. Despite being a playboy of sorts, Marcellus is in love with Diana (Jean Simmons), yet she is promised to Caligula. The two men engage in a bidding war for a Greek slave, Demetrius (Victor Mature), with Marcellus winning. He frees the man, who stays by his side, bound by honor.
In retaliation, Caligula sends Marcellus to Jerusalem, which is a death sentence. Before he leaves, Diane and Marcellus pledge their love for one another. When he arrives, Demetrius becomes much like Zelig, meeting Jesus (played by second assistant director Donald C. Klune with Cameron Mitchell’s voice) and later Judas (Michael Ansara) moments before he hangs himself. Demetrius begs Marcellus to save Jesus, who has already been judged by Pontius Pilate (Richard Boone), who places Marcellus in charge of the soldiers who will watch over the crucifixion. In fact, Marcellus wins the robe Jesus wore in a game of lots. When he attempts to use the robe to cover himself, he feels great pain and Demetrius curses both him and the Roman Empire.
He runs into the night with the robe and Marcellus descends into madness. He’s sent to destroy the cloth and is promised that he can marry Diane if successful. As he struggles, he soon learns that he believes in Jesus and is introduced to the apostle Peter. Thus begins a journey that will find Marcellus, Demetrius and Diane against the full power of the Roman empire.
When this first aired on TV in 1967, 60 million people watched it. We’ll never have TV ratings like that again. The film also had a sequel already in production before it was completed — despite nearly everyone dying — as Mature returned for Demetrius and the Gladiators.
Richard Burton wasn’t just an atheist who smoked a hundred cigarettes a day on set. He also was having an affair with Simmons, who was married to Farley Granger, who came to the set one day and threatened his life.