Updated: Mar 27
In my last post, I began my exploration of Easter and Passover movie adaptations by looking at The Last Days in the Desert. Like Last Days, today's Bible movies are, for the most part, original stories that are adjacent to the stories given to us in the gospels. And because The Robe and Risen share several striking similarities, I will be looking at them together.
Directed by: Henry Koster [The Robe]; Kevin Reynolds [Risen]
Starring: Richard Burton (Marcellus Gallio), Jean Simmons (Diana), Victor Mature (Demetrius), & Michael Rennie (Peter) [The Robe]; Joseph Fiennes (Clavius), Tom Felton (Lucius), Peter Firth (Pilate), Cliff Curtis (Jesus) [Risen]
Adapting: The Faith of the Centurion [Matthew 27:54, Mark 15:39-41, Luke 23:47]; Casting Lots for Jesus’ Clothes [John 19:23-24]
Synopsis (The Robe)
We follow the story of Marcellus, a Roman Centurion, and Demetris, his freed servant, as they arrive in Palestine just in time to participate in Jesus’ crucifixion and cast lots for his robe. This sets them on course to meet the early Christians and eventually join the movement, putting them in conflict with the Emperor Caligula. This conflict is further complicated due to how Diana, Caligula’s betrothed, also happens to be in love with Marcellus.
Clavius, a Roman Tribune, and Lucius, his partner, are sent by Pilate to track down Jesus’ missing body. Their investigation leads them to interact with a variety of Jesus’ followers and eventually brings Clavius to the point of believing in the risen Jesus, causing a rift between the two.
Both films share a number of important similarities: a protagonist Roman soldier who begins by not believing, encounters Jesus on the tail end of ministry, eventually comes to believe through the Christian community, and is put in conflict with the Roman establishment. Although the makers of Risen were surely aware of The Robe, the similarities they share are not necessarily the result of direct copying or borrowing, just as Spider-Man isn’t necessarily borrowing or copying Batman just because both include a vigilante whose sense of mission was sparked by the murder of a beloved parental figure. Rather, it’s more helpful to see both The Robe and Risen as falling into a common genre, the Conversion Story. The gospel account of the Roman Centurion’s words, “Surely this was the son of God!” suggests this genre, and so it’s not surprising that two films expanding upon the same scene have ended up following a similar formula.
In a Conversion Story, the drama is driven by the main character's resistance to God. Eventually, this resistance is overcome as his doubts are addressed and he encounters miracles or hears truth. Once the main character's doubts have been overcome and the character chooses to believe, a new conflict usually arises between the character's newfound belief and his/her former friends/family/culture, which is in some way opposed to God. That conflict can either lead to the conversion of others or to suffering/persecution of the main character.
While sharing the Conversion Story genre accounts for many of the similarities between The Robe and Risen, their distinct secondary genres can account for many of their differences. The Sword and Sandals Epic dominated the silver screen at the time when The Robe was created, and so we should not be surprised at how the film reflects many of the tropes of this genre (e.g. a melodramatic love triangle, big set pieces, and exotic locales). Risen, on the other hand, blends the Conversion Story with the Police Procedural, a creative genre blend that accounts for its unique pace and structure. Because both movies have their own original narrative and only tangentially adapt a biblical narrative, contemporary genre expectations influence the structure and feel of the story much more than we might expect if they were bound by a pre-existing biblical story.
In my next post I'll take a break from looking at Jesus-centered stories to look at the event that Jesus himself was celebrating throughout Holy Week. I'll begin by looking at the cinema classic, The Ten Commandments.