Today’s Essay

The Robe

Every year, ABC would air the Ten Commandments with Charlton Heston as Moses and Yul Brenner as Pharoh my family would gather around the television to watch this epic, star-studded movie with its equally impressive special effects. Who could forget the seven plagues visited on Egypt or the parting of the Red Sea. More importantly, it was family time and something that supported out Catholic faith as surely as our saying the Holy Rosary every night around our parents’ bed.

After a time, as we grew up, all the children grew away from church, my older brother running full speed from the faith. My older sister began to investigate nearly everything else including reincarnation and something called the Passover Plat which posited that Jesus had not died, but merely passed out and been nursed back to health by the women of his group. It was called the ‘Swoon Theory’ and irritated my mother to no end. I ended up in an alcohol, drug, and sex stupor for many years and found God, religion, and my faith an encumbrance and my two younger sisters went their own way as well.

Eventually, we all found our way back to the church, although it would take some of us longer than others. My brother once again found God on his deathbed, crying out to Jesus to save him while in an alcohol induced hysteria. It gave my mother the answer to her prayers. My older sister is an uber Catholic, spending all her money to feed the poor and to stand up against abortion. My younger sister has returned to her Catholic roots, taking my mother’s place as the source of pray and faith for the whole family. My youngest sister became a born-again Christian in a megachurch and has raised two wonderful Christian children and grandchildren.

My journey back was the second longest, beginning after I blacked out behind the wheel of my truck and drove it into a ditch. I walked away unscathed and even my truck escaped even the most minor damage. I didn’t stop drinking or drugging right away, but after that, it wasn’t the same, like my favorite food had lost its taste. Even after I became sober at the age of 25 after losing my best friend to suicide, I didn’t find my way back to God. It took replacing my dead friend with an atheist and seeing his return to Christianity. Slowly, bit by bit. I came home.

Since then, I have tried to re-create that time when we gathered around the tube to witness the celluloid miracles of Jesus, Moses and other prophets. I might listen to the original recording of Jesus Christ Superstar or watch a classic film or mini-series. This year, I watched Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth with Robert Powell as a blue-eyed Jesus and a new three-part docudrama of the story of Moses.

Best of all, I had the opportunity to again watch The Robe starring Richard Burton and Victor Mature. Burton plays the Roman centurion tasked with the crucifixion of Jesus and Mature his reluctant servant Demetrius whom Burton has rescued from the gladiatorial games and certain death. Burton ends up with Jesus’ robe, having won it by casting lots for it. After Jesus dies, the sky turns black, and it begins to rain. He orders Demetrius to throw the robe around him and when he does, the centurion writhes in agony and begs for the robe to be removed. Demetrius pulls the robe from him, curses the Romans and their brutality and disappears into the storm.

The incident drives the centurion mad, and he is given a commission by Tiberius to go to Galilee and find the robe and destroy it so that he might regain his sanity. Along the way, the centurion discovers his Christian faith and returns to a Rome now under the control of Caligula to free the captured Demetrius. Mature spends most of his time looking pained, ecstatic, or defiant and Burton delivers his soliloquies with Shakespearian drama although not always quite believably when professing his faith.

The film is historically inaccurate as Caligula took control in 37 AD and spent most of his time purging the Roman senate and nearly everyone else around him. Nero was the first Roman emperor to actively persecute the Christians some 20 years later, but the film is glorious and entertaining with an all star cast that includes Jean Simmons, Michael Rennie as the apostle Peter, Dean Jagger, and Jay Robinson as a gloriously mad Caligula. There are other cameos that are unexpected, like Richard Boone as Pontius Pilot and Michael Ansara as Judas. All the great character actors of the day also find their way there in minor roles as slave traders, wine merchants, soldiers, and Roman citizens. There is even a small boy who is played by Harry Shearer.

Films like this had an agenda or maybe several. First and foremost was to make money since that is what Hollywood is all about, but there were also many great producers and directors who wanted to promote the Christian faith and what better way to do that then to make the gospel dramatic and entertaining. And it worked. People loved these films. They return every year, and we watch them with the same fascination we had when we were younger. You could call it nostalgia for the spectacle that those movies brought. There was no CGI then. The crowded marketplaces were populated by hundreds if not thousands of people on gigantic sets with enormous painted backgrounds.

I think it is the fascination that we found when we were learning about God in a way that spoke to us, through the movies. There was no shortage of biblical movies when I was growing up, some good and some not so good. There was a sequel to the Robe entitled Demetrius and the Gladiators that did almost as well as the original. Theses days, biblical films and series are generally the product of Christians who absolutely want to further the faith. Everyone was surprised by the success of last year’s Sound of Freedom, so much so that many tried to minimize its success. Sound of Freedom’s success was the result of the support that the Christian community gave to the television series The Chosen and the box office receipts of both projects gave Hollywood and the Christian film making community the financial incentive to make films like The Hill and On a Wing and a Prayer starring Dennis Quaid, Jesus Revolution starring Kelsey Grammer and Big George Forman. These might be the films that kids today look back on when they trace their faith walk back to its beginning.

Some people say that Hollywood and God don’t mix. It’s true that the actors, producers, and directors of some of film’s greatest bible stories did not live the Christian life. These days, a person’s personal behavior is made public by the click of a camera or errant post on social media. In the 50s and 60s, their lives were hidden from us only becoming public after they had passed. Like God using Pharaoh, the Sanhedrin, Judas, Pilot and so many more weak and often evil people to move his message forward, Hollywood has sometimes become an unwitting partner with God, bringing souls to salvation or at least giving them something to think about.

Copyright 2024 by Jose Antonio Ponce