Nowadays, people regularly go to the movies and see a very landscape-oriented picture, films are regularly presented with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1 or even 2.35:1 (heck, people even have “widescreen” televisions in their living room). This wasn't always the case. In fact, for a goodly long time, the aspect ratio of a film in the theater was about the same as an old-school television. With the advent of television though, the film industry tried to do different things, from 3D stuff to multiple projectors to widening the screen, in order to get people back into seats. For its part, FOX went with a process known as Cinemascope (a name we all know and are very familiar with), and started to shoot movies in a truly widescreen aspect ratio, 2.55:1.
The first movie FOX filmed this way, The Robe, has just been released to Blu-ray in fantastic fashion. It is well worth taking a look at not only for its historical significance in terms of the motion picture industry, but because it is still a great movie.
One in an incredibly long line of Hollywood movies that deal with biblical times, the films stars Richard Burton as Marcellus Gallio, a Roman centurion and son of an important senator and Jean Simmons as Gallio's love interest, Diana. Gallio makes the foolish mistake of upsetting Caligula (Jay Robinson) and is banished to Palestine. Among other duties, Gallio finds himself on the squad sent to crucify Jesus. As the soldiers wait for Jesus to perish, Gallio wins Jesus' robe in a game of chance, and, after wearing it, is driven mad.
The rest of the film finds Gallio struggling to regain his sanity and eventually learning the ways of Christianity from his one-time slave and current holder of the robe, Demetrius (Victor Mature). While Gallio may find himself on the wrong side of the law with his newfound religion, he is fervent in his belief that he is on the right side of the Lord and becomes as strong an advocate for Christianity as Demetrius.
Yes, the film may be a little heavy handed with its own proselytizing and somewhat melodramatic compared to what we are used to seeing on the screen today, but the story still manages to be incredibly engrossing and Burton and Mature's performances are fantastic. Burton was in fact nominated for an Academy Award for his role, losing out to William Holden for his role in Stalag 17.
The visuals that make up The Robe are simply astounding. As Martin Scorsese explains in the introduction the feature, this edition of The Robe has been painstakingly restored. The color and clarity the feature has is far superior to more recent features that have been released on Blu-ray, and the print itself seems free of all dirt and scratches.
The one quibble to be had with the look of the movie is that preceding some fade-outs and following some fade-ins, the color seems to pop to a completely different look. It almost seems as though whatever process was used to color correct and restore the film wasn't applied to some of these fade-in and fade-outs. But, the fact that it looks as good as it does, — and it does look truly spectacular — is amazing.
The audio mix is available in the original 4.0 channel format and as an HD 5.1 channel track. While not as impressive as the visuals (the surrounds are used sparsely), the clarity of the 5.1 channel track is impressive.
The release also comes packed to the gills with special features. The featurette on the making of The Robe is particularly fascinating, with several different historians and scholars examining the studio system of the time and what actually went into getting the project from novel form to the screen. Another equally interesting piece focuses itself on how exactly Cinemascope came about. There are also looks into Hollywood's fascination with The Bible, an audio interview with Philip Dunne, one of the authors of the screenplay, a look at the score for the film, and a couple of picture-in-picture tracks looking at the film's production. The disc also contains original publicity material for the film and the aforementioned Martin Scorsese introduction. There is even a commentary track on the feature with film composer David newman and three film historians, Jon Burlingame, Julie Kirgo, and Nick Redman.
The Blu-ray release of The Robe shows movie magic at its best. The amount of effort put into creating the original feature over 50 years ago and to restoring it today come across in all the glory of high definition. It may not have the most original of stories to tell, but it tells it with great vim and great vigor, and even if the plot isn't your cup of tea, any viewer will be completely entranced with just how brilliant the film looks.