Tag: Richard Burton

Cleopatra (1963)

Cleopatra (1963)

The biggest epic of them all – and one of the most infamous – is a mess but at times entertaining

Director: Joseph L Mankiewicz

Cast: Elizabeth Taylor (Cleopatra), Richard Burton (Mark Antony), Rex Harrison (Julius Caesar), Roddy McDowell (Octavian), Pamela Brown (High Priestess), George Cole (Flavius), Hume Cronyn (Sosigenes), Cesare Danova (Apollodorus), Kenneth Haigh (Brutus), Andrew Keir (Agrippa), Martin Landau (Rufio), Robert Stephens (Germanicus), Francesca Annis (Eiras), Isabelle Cooley (Charmian), Jacqui Chan (Lotos), Andrew Faulds (Canidius)

One of the most legendary epics of all time – for all the wrong reasons. Cleopatra is the mega-budget extravaganza that nearly sunk a studio, years in its shambolic, crisis-hit making that turned its stars into a celebrity brand that changed their lives forever. Painfully long, it’s a rambling, confused film that feels like something that was filmed before anyone had the faintest idea what the story they were trying to tell was. Then, just when you consider giving up on it, it will throw in a striking scene or intelligent performance and you’ll sit up and be entertained. Just never quite enough.

In its four hours it covers eighteen years. Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison) arrives in Egypt after victory over his rival Pompey at the Battle of Pharsalus. There he quickly becomes enamoured with Cleopatra (Elizabeth Taylor), the cunning, intelligent witty sister of bratty Pharoah Ptolemy XIII (Richard O‘Sullivan). Caesar takes Cleopatra’s side in the civil war for the Egyptian throne and takes her as a second wife, having a son (and potential heir) with her. Made dictator for life, he and Cleopatra return to Rome – where is assassinated. A friendless Cleopatra finds herself drawn towards Caesar’s deputy Mark Antony (Richard Burton), the two of them starting a passionate affair that will tear the Roman world apart and lead them into a civil war against Caesar’s politically astute but coldly realpolitik nephew (and official heir) Octavian (Roddy McDowell).

Cleopatra’s shoot – and the hullabaloo of press interest around it – is almost more famous (and perhaps more interesting) than the film itself. After a long gestation, filming started in London under the direction of veteran Rouben Mamoulian, with Taylor on board (for a bank-busting fee) with Peter Finch as Caesar and Stephen Boyd as Antony. Then it all fell apart. Taylor caught meningitis in the cold conditions, nearly died and the film nearly collapsed. The script was rewritten (again), Mamoulian, Finch and Boyd all left. Joseph L Mankiewicz came on board to write and direct, London filming (and all the sets) was junked and production moved to Rome. This all took a year.

In Rome, Rex Harrison and Richard Burton joined the cast as shooting began again practically from scratch. The planning however had been so laborious that Mankiewicz hadn’t been able to finish the script. So, instead, he decided to start shooting what he had and write the rest as he went. Sets were built for unwritten scenes and money continued to pour down the drain. This also meant a huge amount of hanging around for all concerned, spare time Burton and Taylor used to start a tabloid-filling affair which became the talk of the world. After nearly two years of filming, the studio ended up with millions of feet of film, a feud over whether to release two films or one long one and no-one with any real idea why they had made the film in the first place.

And God you can tell watching it. Cleopatra is an over-extended, rather unfocused mess that feels like the compromise product it is. What is this film trying to say? No one seems to know, least of all Mankiewicz. Is this an elegy to the loss of the Roman republic? Hardly when Caesar is presented as sympathetically as he is. Was the film looking to explore Antony and Cleopatra as tragic lovers or deluded would-be emperor builders? God alone knows. Is Cleopatra a temptress or a genius, a chancer or a political genius? No idea. Her infinite variety here is basically to be whatever the scene requires at the time, all wrapped up in Taylor’s effortless charisma.

Mankiewicz’s script – presumably written and then filmed almost immediately in many cases – falls back onto what he was comfortable with. Dialogue scenes are frequently over-written and over-long, so intricately constructed it was impossible to cut them down and still have them make sense.  The man who rose to the height of his profession directing witty conversation pieces in rooms, tried to do the same with his three leads in these massive sets. Acres of screen time stretch out as combinations of three leads spout mountains of dialogue at each other, often to very little dramatic impact. To keep the pace up, the film is frequently forced to take huge time-jumps.

Empires rise and fall in the gaps between scenes, armies assemble and are defeated in the blink of an eye. At one point Caesar and Cleopatra find a murdered character in the garden – the impact rather lost on the audience as this character is never mentioned before or after this. Years fly by and characters swiftly report off-screen events of momentous import, from Antony’s marriage and peace with Octavian to Caesar’s victory over Ptolomy. Caesar himself is murdered – Kenneth Haigh leads a series of stalwart British character actors in glorified cameos – in a silent ‘vision’ witnessed by Cleopatra, that cuts to Antony’s briefly shouting (unheard) his funeral oration (this at least means we don’t need to hear cod-Shakespearean dialogue in either scene).

The other thing that couldn’t be cut was the film’s epic scale. Cleopatra’s entrance to Rome plays out nearly in real time, a never-ending procession of flights of fancy parading into the capital capped with Taylor’s cheeky grin at the end of it at Cleopatra’s panache. The battle of Actium looks impressive – with its boat clashes, flaming ships and colliding vessels – so much so that you almost regret we don’t get to see more of Pharsalus and Philippi than their aftermaths. The huge sets are striking, as are the legion of costumes Taylor has to change into virtually from scene to scene.

Of course, what people were – and always are – interested in is how much the fire off-stage between Burton and Taylor made it to the screen. I’ve honestly always felt, not much. Perhaps by this point both actors were too fed up and punch-drunk from the never-ending project. Perhaps they simply didn’t have any interest in the film. Burton falls back on grandstanding – he confessed he felt he only learned how to act on film from watching Taylor. Taylor is undeniably modern in every frame, but she somehow manages to hold a rather loosely defined character together, so much so that you forget she’s fundamentally miscast.

Of the leads Rex Harrison emerges best as an avuncular Caesar whose well-spoken wit hides an icy interior overflowing with ruthlessness and ambition. The film loses something when he departs just before the half-way mark. (It’s a mark, by the way, of the film’s confused structure that Burton only appears an hour into the film – and that for an inconsequential “plot update” chat with Caesar’s wife Calpurnia). There are decent turns from Cronyn as Cleopatra’ advisor, Pamela Brown as a Priestess, Andrew Faulds as a gruff Agrippa and even George Cole as Caesar’s trusted, mute servant. Best in show is probably Roddy McDowell’s ice cold Octavian – like a version of Harrison’s Caesar with all charm removed – who would have certainly been an Oscar nominated if the studio hadn’t screwed up his nomination papers.

Cleopatra still ended up with multiple Oscar nominations – even some wins – but took years to make back the money blown on it. At four hours, it bites off way more than it can chew and vey rarely comes together into a coherent shape. Scenes alternate between too short and way too long and three leads with very different acting styles struggle to make the best of it. You feel watching it actually sorry for Mankiewicz: it’s not really his fault, the scale of this thing would have sunk any director. Cleopatra has flashes of enjoyment, but much of it drags for the viewer as much as it did for those making it.

The Longest Day (1962)

John Wayne leads the charge on The Longest Day

Director: Ken Annakin, Andrew Marton, Bernhard Wicki

Cast: John Wayne (Lt Col Benjambin Vandervoot), Henry Fonda (General Theodore Roosevelt Jnr), Robert Mitchum (General Norman Cota), Richard Burton (FO David Campbell), Eddie Albert (Col Lloyd Thompson), Sean Connery (Pvt Flanagan), Curd Jurgens (General Gunther Blumentritt), Richard Todd (Maj John Howard), Peter Lawford (Brig Lord Lovat), Rod Steiger (Lt Com Joseph Witherow Jnr), Irina Demick (Jeanine Boitard), Gert Frobe (Pvt “Coffee Pot”), Edmond O’Brien (General Raymond Barton), Kenneth More (Capt Colin Maud), Robert Ryan (Gen James Gavin), Red Buttons (Pvt John Steele), Christian Marquand (Cpt Philippe Kieffer), Jean-Louis Barrault (Fr Louis Rolland), Arletty (Mdm Barrault), Paul Hartmann (Field Marshall Gerd von Rundstedt), Werner Hinz (Field Marshall Erwin Rommel), Wolfgang Priess (General Max Premsel), Peter van Eyck (Lt Col Karl Williams Ocker)

Darryl F Zanuck wanted to make the War Film to end all War Films. So, what better way than to restage D-Day itself, with a cast (as the poster brags) of 42 International Stars, playing out almost in real-time. It’s a grand ‘mock-documentary’ shot in black-and-white (so that actual war footage can be integrated into the film) and aims to show the perspectives of the four main combatants (the Americans, the British, the French and the Germans – with all their scenes played in their respective languages). Adapted from a definitive D-Day book by Cornelius Ryan, it makes for huge, now slightly old-fashioned, Sunday afternoon fun and one of the most iconic second world war films.

To make his dream come true, Zanuck left no stone unturned. Pretty much every single part is played by a ‘name’ actor (although, rather like Around the World in 80 Days, time has left some of them less recognisable than others) no matter how small the role. And I mean no matter how small. Many of the actors appear in no more than one or two scenes. Steiger chips in a brief speech as a Naval officer. Burton has two scenes as an RAF officer, one of the last of the “Few”. Fonda contributes a few minutes of heroism as Theodore Roosevelt Jnr. Robert Ryan briefs The Duke as General Gavin. Jean Servais makes a grand speech as a French Admiral. Gert Frobe doesn’t even speak as a (what else?) bullying German soldier. This parade of stars does though does mean you pay a lot more attention to every single part and it makes it a lot easier to keep track of who’s who.

It’s certainly a ‘producer’s’ film. Zanuck held complete creative control, splitting the directorial duties between three hired hands. Annakin directed all the British and French scenes (and most of the American ‘briefing room’ scenes). Martan, an experienced second unit director, was hired to shoot most of the battle sequences. Wicki looked after the German sequences. With the brief being to replicate the documentary style of actual footage, naturally this basically led to a film that doesn’t have the feel of being ‘authored’ (in the way, say, Saving Private Ryan does), but it’s functional shooting style and design does make it fairly easy to follow.

And it needs to be easy to follow, as this is a very long film indeed – and with the cast frequently changing from scene to scene, can become overwhelming. The quick changes of location – and the lack of time spent with any single character – often means it’s hard to connect to strongly to any of the individual characters. Most of the more prominent characters gain their personality solely from the actors playing them: so I don’t really know what the real Colonel Vandervoot is like, but I know his character here is basically ‘John Wayne’.

The more prominent roles in the script rely on these personality parts. Wayne probably has the largest individual role as the Paratrooper commander who breaks his ankle on landing, but doesn’t let that slow him down from hitting his objective. (Wayne also gets a great little speech, the sort of thing much missed in Ryan, where he praises Brit fortitude under the Blitz, which is a lovely moment of Allied brotherhood). Mitchum gets the juiciest action as General Cota, the highest-ranking soldier on Omaha Beach, who leads the first break out. At the other end of the ranking, Red Buttons brings charm and heartfelt emotion to the most memorable sequence as Pvt John Steele, the paratrooper who landed on top of the church spire at Sainte-Mère-Église, deafened by bells and forced to watch the rest of his platoon slaughtered on landing.

The scale is really what it’s all about. The recreation of the D-Day landings is stunning (the first boats, though, don’t hit the beaches until well over two hours into the film), and its genuinely hard to tell the difference between what is recreated and what is actual war footage. The film doesn’t shirk from showing the cost of war, or the slaughter on that beach (although of course, it looks reserved compared to Ryan). But the combat and operations elsewhere are also perfectly recreated. Richard Todd is very good as Major John Howard, in an expert reconstruction of the seizing of the Orne Bridges near Caen (in real life, Todd himself was one of the commandos serving under Howard and even has a scene where Todd as Howard talks to another actor as Todd).

These battle sequences make for compelling viewing. Slightly less so is the long build-up of the Allies to the attack. There are many, many scenes in various briefing rooms and for every delight (such as Jack Hedley’s briefing around “Rupert” a model paratrooper, dropped as a distraction) there are po-faced actors staring into the middle distance and discussing how important everything is. By far and away the most interesting content in the first half is less the Allies (waiting to leave) than the Germans (trying to work out how and where the Allies will arrive). These scenes feature a range of German officers, from the quietly resigned to die-hard, head-in-the-sand Fascists, and revolve around a series of fascinating debates on where, when or even if at all the Allied attack will come. With a cast of excellent German actors – Jurgens, Preiss, Hartmann, Hinz and Wolfgang Buttner are particularly fine – these scenes stand out as they present a perspective we don’t often get to explore. (Even though the film squarely accepts the German military view that the defeat was all Hitler’s fault and the army was completely blameless of any of the crimes of Nazism.)

After the slow-build, the explosion of tension and action is done really effectively. Sure, the film is long and episodic, but the ever-changing locations do frequently help with the pace. The film’s documentary style also lends it a great deal of authority that a more ‘fictional’ film would not have. After all, pretty much everyone in the film is ‘real’ and while the film could be seen as a collection of D-Day anecdotes, strange moments – such as a platoon of Germans and Americans passing each other on opposite sides of a low wall without noticing each other – have the ring of truth. The script was doctored by a host of major novelists and playwright (including Noel Coward) to brush it up, but really this is a producer’s triumph.

And it is a triumph for Zanuck. Everything he sought to do, he accomplished here – and the doubts that he could pull it off were moved as wrong, as those who doubted whether the Allied plan to cross the Channel would work. Hugely impressive in its staging, detailed in its recreation and with a cast of stars and top actors giving every scene a fresh bit of life, this makes for one of the all-time classic war films.

Equus (1977)

Richard Burton struggles to diagnose Peter Firth in play adaptation Equus

Director: Sidney Lumet

Cast: Richard Burton (Dr Martin Dysart), Peter Firth (Alan Strang), Colin Blakely (Frank Strang), Joan Plowright (Dora Strang), Harry Andrews (Harry Dalton), Eileen Atkins (Hesther Saloman), Jenny Agutter (Jill Mason

In a parallel universe somewhere, there is a film version of Equus that doesn’t have a single horse in it. It’s probably a better version than this. Peter Shaffer’s stage play was a sensation in the 1970s in the West End and on Broadway – but Lumet’s film robs it of the mystique that made it work, by introducing a (literally) brutal realism. This helps reduce the play into being a quite self-important piece of cod-psychology, with ideas that increasingly seem more simplistic the longer the play lasts.

Dr Martin Dysart (Richard Burton) is a depressed and discontented child psychologist, who is struggling with a general sense of ennui, not sure what is life is for and stuck in a loveless, functional marriage. These feelings grow in him, as he begins to work on the case of Alan Strang (Peter Firth), a troubled young man who blinded an entire staple of horses in a seemingly random act of brutality. What were the deep-rooted psychological problems that caused Alan to carry out this senseless attack? And, by curing it, will Dysart remove from Alan anything that makes him unique?

Shaffer’s stage play used a combination of impressionistic moments, and mime artists, to create the impression of the horses that dominate the imagination (and desires) of Strang. Moments of horse riding (or eventual blinding) were presented symbolically. Meanwhile, Dysart functions as a quasi-narrator, delivering long speeches to the audience on the case, it’s causes and (increasingly) his own feelings of inadequacy and emptiness. It’s a tightrope, that manages to prevent the at-times portentous dialogue and student psychology from seeing either too self-important or slight. Lumet loses this mesmeric suggestiveness, doubling down on its pomposity. It makes for a bit of a mess.

I can totally see why, on film, it was felt necessary to go for real horses. However, it just plain doesn’t quite work. Watching a nude Peter Firth hug, stroke and eventually ride a horse until he reaches an orgasm mid-canter, might have had a sort of magic acted out on stage with dumb-show, puppets and actors as horses. On film, it’s tiresome and suddenly way too much. That’s as nothing compared to the decision to stage the blinding of the horses at the film’s end by showing us in graphic detail a sickle plunging into the eyes of alarmingly real-looking horses, blood pouring across Firth’s face. As that’s (pretty much) the last impression left on the audience for the film, rather than swept up in symbolism you’ll feel grossed out by the graphic violence. It’s not good for the play.

In fact, overlong and too full of speeches and not enough scenes, you watch this and start to wonder if Equus was much cop in any case. Certainly, the way it’s staged here doesn’t work. When Shaffer worked with Milos Forman on Amadeus that play was radically re-worked, extended and remodelled into an actual film that shared lines and DNA with the play, but was a very different beast. Equus is basically pretty close to an exact filming of the stage script, except on location. The show-stopping speeches by Dysart – brilliantly delivered by Burton as they are – come across heavy-handed, portentous and (in the end) off-putting and alienating.

That’s to mention nothing about the plays take on sex and psychology which feels very tired. Needless to say, Strang’s problem is rooted in his relationship with his parents (they fuck you up, you know). His mother (played with wound-up tension by Joan Plowright) is a holier-than-thou type who thinks sex is something a little dirty, while his father (an equally buttoned-up Colin Blakely) is a deeply repressed man who thinks sex is something to be ashamed off. Bound that up with the parents clashes about religion and you wind up with a boy who sublimates his sexual feeling into a confused horse worship, laced with religious overtones.

Which all sounded more daring then than perhaps it does now. Now this sort of sexual confusion (various theories suggest that the young Colin felt his first ever sexual longings after sharing a ride on a horse with a young man and – ashamed of these homosexual yearnings – transferred the association with sex from the man to the horse) was familiar then – it’s pretty much the first thing we look for now. And the insights the play offers around this, don’t carry nearly enough impact or insight to make you feel you are learning something. Anger, frustration, impotence, fear and shame all rear their heads as expected.

Saying that, Peter Firth – who originated the role at both the National and on Broadway – is excellent as Strang. It’s a full-bloodied, committed performance – but also one that is packed with an acute empathy and insight, a sensitive empathy and vulnerability that makes Strang deeply sympathetic even when he is at his most odd.

Richard Burton – who lost his final Oscar bid with this film – is also very good as Dysart. The rich Burton voice is perfectly used for Dysart’s monologues (all filmed in one day, in consecutive order, by Lumet). Burton’s puffy, unhealthy face also matches up perfectly with the sadness and resignation in Dysart – qualities that Burton again brilliantly conveys, his eyes brimming with regrets and his voice catching behind it oceans of confusion, sorrows and self-accusation. It’s one of Burton’s greatest performances, the ideas and elaborate language being a gift for an actor like him who worked best when challenged with complex material.

Unfortunately, the play itself is bogged down in a grimy, unattractive literalism that grinds the life out of it and ends up making it look very slight (this isn’t helped by its huge length). While the acting is very good – Jenny Agutter is also excellent as a young woman whose attempted seduction of Strang triggers a breakdown – the direction is leaden and the play ends up feeling histrionic and simplistic rather than engrossing and insightful.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

Burton and Taylor play a feuding couple in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Director: Mike Nichols

Cast: Elizabeth Taylor (Martha), Richard Burton (George), George Segal (Nick), Sandy Dennis (Honey)

In 1966, Hollywood was only just emerging from the strict rules of the Hays Code. These governed everything from the themes a film could explore to the language you could use while doing it. But in the permissive 60s, it was finally beginning to crack – and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was one of the first films to really push it over the edge. This film helped usher in 70s Hollywood, where filmmakers finally felt empowered to explore darker themes and to do so with sex, violence and bad language. Five years after this film came out, something like A Clockwork Orange could become a box-office smash and a Best Picture nominee. Talk about the changing of the guard.

Mike Nichols’ film debut is a faithful adaptation of Edward Albee’s Broadway smash, which had been controversial enough on stage for its full and frank exploration of a marriage consumed with bitterness, feuding and pain. Not to mention its open acknowledgement of extra marital sex, abortion and alcoholism all delivered with a literal “screw you!”. Elizabeth Taylor is Martha, daughter of the president of a small New England college, whose husband George (Richard Burton) is a failed associate history professor. The couple are locked into a dysfunctional marriage that mixes recrimination and a perverse, shared sense of humour. Drunkenly returning home after a party, they welcome a new professor (George Segal) and his wife (Sandy Dennis) to their home for a nightcap. There they quickly rope the couple into a series of increasingly personal “games” with an edge of cruelty and lashings of verbal abuse.

Today, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? has not always aged well, coming across at times as rather forced and overbearing, as is often the way with films that pushed the boundaries so effectively back in the day. Nichols has the confidence to avoid “opening up” the play too much – its single setting on stage is augmented here only with a brief drunken excursion out to a late night bar – and instead focuses on drawing out four superb performances from its actors (all Oscar nominated) and letting the camera move intricately around the confined rooms where the action takes place.

What Nichols really draws superbly from this film is the control of the film’s continual pattern of simmer, tension and release. The play is effectively a series of psychological games that George and Martha play between themselves. The film is like a drunken, truly mean-spirited version of Noel Coward’s Hay Fever, where the self-absorbed hosts similarly play elaborate ”games” with their confused guests. Most games involves Martha and George turning on each other, viciously attacking the other for everything from failure to drunkenness, with their guests used as the jury, mixed with “get the guests” interludes as the couple turn on the sexual and marital issues in their guests’ lives.

It makes for a series of compellingly delivered sequences – even if the constant thrum of tension and heightened half-mock, half-real fury Martha and George keep up for most of the film finally starts to bear down on the viewer. The film starts banging its points with a transgressive pride, which looks like increasingly like a lot of sound and fury over quite minor issues. But then that’s always the way with convention defying films – so many following films have buried these conventions, that the attention grabbing way this film does it looks quite tired and overworked today.

As Martha and George, Nichols was able to cast the most famous married couple on the planet at the time, in Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. With these titanic personalities working – for perhaps the only time – with a director who had the skill and authority to tame them, the two of them delivered probably their finest performances on film. It also adds to the illicit sense for the audience – like Nick and Honey – that we are trapped into seeing a series of personal and intense conversations and arguments. 

Finally accepting the sort of intense and challenging material he often overlooked for well-paid gigs, Burton is superb as George: a mass of passive aggression, condescending to everyone around him, capable of great cruelty but also a crushed, disappointed and vulnerable man, desperate for affection.

Elizabeth Taylor was similarly sensational – and Oscar-winning: puffy faced, blowsy and domineering as Martha, who similarly has buried her pain and loneliness under a never ending onslaught of aggression, mockery, tartiness and loudness. Brassy and bold, Martha at first seems the controlling, even abusive force in the relationship, but she is also isolated, scared and overwhelmed with pain. 

What’s brilliant about the relationship between the couple is at first it seems like George and Martha are a deeply unhappy couple, fuelled by hate. However, it becomes clear their feuding and contempt for each other is in fact part of a relationship grounded on mutual love and need (the final shot is their hands joined together), revolving around their mutual shared pain on their failure to have children. The couple’s primary “game” is a private one – a fictional child, invented to compensate for their mutual infertility – discussion of whom early on by Martha opens the door to the fury that follows. But it gives an insight into their relationship, actually kept fresh by their feuding.

By contrast, it’s the seemingly happier young couple who have serious problems. Nick, very well played by George Segal, is a dashing young buck who is actually selfish and, with a dream of sleeping his way to the top (despite his possible impotence), whose lack of depth is routinely savaged by both Martha and George. Despite this, Nick doesn’t seem to realise that this he’s in the middle of a series of games. He’s married his wife out of obligation for her pregnancy. Honey – an Oscar-winning turn by Sandy Dennis – on the other hand seems to be aware she’s out of his depth here, and reverts into an almost childish passiveness, mixed with awkward horror which slowly peels away to reveal her misery and depression. Slowly we realise Nick and Honey have nothing in common.

It’s a complex and intriguing play, brilliantly bought to the screen by Nichols whose camera (in stark black and white) bobs and weaves through the action, involving each actor in every scene (the camera often focuses on reactions as much as dialogue delivery). All four of the actors are great, but Burton and Taylor are nothing less than sensational (ironically their careers never seemed to recover from the amount they put out there, with more than a few speculating that their own marriage was but a few degrees different from George and Martha) and the film itself, while overbearing, is also still compelling in its complexity and stark insight into human relationships.

The Spy Who Came In From the Cold (1965)

Richard Burton lands in Cold War trouble in classic Le Carre adaptation The Spy Why Came In From the Cold

Director:  Martin Ritt

Cast: Richard Burton (Alec Leamas), Claire Bloom (Nan Perry), Oskar Werner (Fiedler), Sam Wanamaker (Peters), George Voskovec (East German Defence Attorney), Rupert Davies (George Smiley), Cyril Cusack (Control), Peter van Eyck (Hans-Dieter Mundt), Michael Hordern (Ashe), Robert Hardy (Dick Carlton), Bernard Lee (Patmore)

Spy stories fall into two camps. You get the wham-bam blast of James Bond and then you also get the grimy, isn’t-this-a-damn-dirty-trade stories that John Le Carré helped to turn into a major alternative. The book that really kicked off Le Carré’s career was The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, a slim, brilliantly written story of spies working exclusively in shades of grey. The book was a smash, the film was inevitable, and a damn fine film it turned out to be.

Richard Burton plays Alec Leamas, a former head of Berlin Station for the British Secret Service, who is recruited by the services’ leader Control (Cyril Cusack) as part of an elaborate scheme to discredit the cunning and dangerous head of the Stasi office in Berlin, Hans-Dieter Mundt (Peter van Eyck). Leamas will go through a pretence of disgraced dismissal, alcoholism, jail time and half a dozen other indecencies to attract the attention of the East German defector recruiters in the UK. But will the relationship he develops during his disgrace with librarian and idealistic communist Nan Perry (Claire Bloom) endanger the whole mission?

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold is shot in a grimy, gloomy black-and-white which is completely appropriate for the morally questionable escapades its characters get up to. Like Le Carré’s novel, the ends justify any means here, and questions of morality and justice are best benched. Characters who can’t let themselves to forget justice are doomed in this film. Genuine shows of real emotion and feeling are generally signs in this film that a person is doomed.

Martin Ritt’s literate script captures the style and tone of Le Carré extremely well – this is still one of the best, truest and most faithful capturing of Le Carré on the screen – and his direction also has a wonderful mixture of shabby kitchen-sink realism and classic Hollywood film noir class that makes for a brilliantly involving package. The pace of the film holds pretty well, beautifully carrying us through a parade of agents recruiting Leamas for the East Germans (each of which are dismissed with a shocking curtness by the next one along), and the final court room trial of Mundt (with its intricate exploration of the complex plotting of the novel) is extremely involving.

The film also has the benefit of a number of terrific performances, led by Richard Burton in the lead. By this stage of his career, Burton was already felt by many to be lost to serious acting in favour of big budget, Liz Taylor-starring pictures and Hollywood entertainment. But he rouses himself here to give one of his best ever performances. Leamas is a shabby, beaten down, little man (despite being played by Burton!) whose chippiness, dissatisfaction and aggression make him perfect as a possible defector. Ritt’s camera often focuses on Burton’s unflinching stares, his eyes seem to bore into the person he’s talking to, little oceans of anger and resentment.

Burton’s Leamas is deep down sick and tired of the world of spying, its betrayals and lies, and sickened with self-disgust at his own involvement in it. Burton skilfully underplays the role throughout, largely ignoring any temptation for grandstanding or big acting moments – instead he is as compromised, grey and lost as the rest of the film, in a superb performance of cynical disaffection. Bunched up, his grand voice dialled down, his eyes flickering with resentment – a great performance.

Claire Bloom is rather affecting as Nan (hilariously, her name was changed from Liz in the book as the producers feared she would be confused with the rather more famous Liz in Burton’s life) and Oskar Werner gives the film a major burst of energy just as it is flagging from one interrogation of Leamas too many, as a chippy, eager, sharp Stasi officer, who is determined to see justice done. The rest of the cast are filled out with some classy Brit character actors, who excel from suave (Robert Hardy) to seedy (Michael Hordern), while Cyril Cusack brings “Control” to cynical life and Rupert Davies gets to the be the first actor to play George Smiley on screen (even if he is only really an extra here).

Spy is a film of atmosphere. Frequently it trusts the viewer to catch up the plot as they go. Leamas actions are not always explained until late on – and we are constantly suspecting that we are only seeing half the story. Its a film that plays its cards close to the chest. This might alienate some, but it’s a true representation of Le Carre – and fits perfectly with the weary sense Leamas has of not being in control of his own life.

But what Ritt does so well is keeping that tonal sense of there always being another shady, compromising twist around the corner. All is never what it seems, and the film ends with an especially bleak series of footnotes as we find out just how ruthless both sides are prepared to be in this soulless chess game of Cold War politics. It’s the moments like this that Spy Who Came in From the Cold really nails. For Le Carré fans the film is a must: for those less interested in the world of espionage, they may find it takes a little too much time.

Becket (1964)

Peter O’Toole and Richard Burton make unlikely friends (and then enemies) in Becket

Director: Peter Glenville

Cast: Richard Burton (Thomas Becket), Peter O’Toole (Henry II), John Gielgud (Louis VII of France), Donald Wolfit (Bishop Gilbert Foliot), Martita Hunt (Empress Matilda), Pamela Brown (Eleanor of Aquitaine), David Weston (Brother John), Sian Phillips (Gwendolen), Felix Aylmer (Archbishop of Canterbury), Paolo Stoppa (Pope Alexander III), Gino Cervi (Cardinal Zambelli)

Burton and O’Toole in the same movie? There must have been a few late night benders on that shoot… You suspect actually that the backstage fun might have been just a little more sprightly and engaging than the movie itself, a lavish 1960s Hollywood Prestige film of English history. Based on Jean Anouilh’s semi-satirical play, it translates the clash between Church and State under Henry II into a very personal conflict between two men who each feel the other has let them down. 

Thomas Becket (Richard Burton) is a Saxon who has risen high in the service of Henry II (Peter O’Toole) at a time when all the top jobs are held by Normans. Becket and Henry do everything together: hunting, hawking, whoring, you name it, the two of them are inseparable. But while both are sharply intelligent men, Henry is basically lazy and principally interested in enjoying life, while Becket always has a slight streak of responsibility for his people and their rights. But despite this, the two men both have England’s interests at heart and a strong friendship. So when Henry makes Becket Archbishop of Canterbury, it should work a treat, right? Well wrong, because Becket quickly begins to feel his loyalty is to the Church and God, not to Henry – and soon a debate over the legal rights of the church has blown up into a full scale clash between the two former friends. Will no one rid Henry of this turbulent priest?

Becket is a fairly sharply written, waspish play about the love/hate relationship between two men, but its themes and ideas are basically secondary to the showcasing opportunities it gives to its two lead actors. That’s pretty much what happens with this film: for all the ups and downs of the plot, the thing that really lifts this film are those two performances. Take that away and you essentially have a stately period pace, flatly and unimaginatively filmed with the look-at-the-scenery-and-costumes steadiness of other films of this genre and time. So it’s just as well that both leads are clearly having a whale of time.

Burton invests Thomas Becket with a quiet authority and a growing sense of something that, if it’s not morality, is at least a sort of moral certitude. Burton’s Becket is not the straightforward good-guy: his stances are always governed at least partly by his own pride and ambition. His defence of the Church is partly motivated by the need to secure his position, and in his career beforehand he constantly shows that he is won’t let doing the right thing damage his position at the court. But there are also touches of genuine faith throughout, and Burton plays the monologues imploring God for guidance with earnest conviction. Alongside this, he plays Becket with a great deal of wry observance and subtle wit that makes this kaleidoscopic character constantly fascinating: you never quite know what he is thinking.

Burton’s restraint also allows O’Toole more room in the more expansive role of Henry II. The powerful king – proud, controlling, intelligent and bombastic – was always a perfect role for O’Toole: indeed he would play it again four years later in another play adaptation, The Lion in Winter (becoming one of the few actors to get two Oscar nominations for the same character). O’Toole roars through the film, bringing immense energy and humour to Henry’s many scenes of intense speechifying. But what O’Toole does so well is balance this with a genuine sense of vulnerability, a genuine pain at losing Becket’s friendship. For all the power and control, O’Toole understands that Henry is essentially a very lonely man with only one man anywhere near his equal. O’Toole’s sharply intelligent, dynamic performance is a real treat.

And it feeds into the underlying theme of the film: this sense of unrequited love between the two men. Henry, for all his egotism, is clearly in love on some level with Becket: a fact that Becket seems aware of, but doesn’t quite return with the same intensity. And in fact, to double Henry’s pain, it feels like the friendship is one partly driven by Henry’s position rather than something genuine between the two men – Becket is always more guarded and more critical as a companion. Though of course that is fair enough: Henry is, however good-naturedly, a supreme ruler who cares little for the welfare of the Saxons under his rule, happy to help himself to attractive women from the peasantry if he wants them. But then perhaps it’s Becket’s very distance, his certain level of speaking truth to power, that makes him so appealing to Henry: when Becket is around, Henry has competition for smartest guy in the room.

There is a lot going on between the two leads, so it’s not surprising that much of the rest of the film doesn’t get a look in. For the other performers, John Gielgud landed an Oscar nomination for his two scenes (barely five minutes) as an arch and manipulative King of France, while Donald Wolfit is all puffed-up pomposity as Becket’s church rival. But the film is only focused on the two men and their political rivalry, so the context is always sketched in quickly, and the energy drops out of the film noticeably when they are apart. The film wants to frame the rivalry so much as a personal one that it doesn’t develop another interest in the political issues – so when scenes are obliged to focus on this, you feel the film starting to drag.

But that might also be because Anouilh’s play is famously historically inaccurate. For starters, Becket wasn’t Saxon, so his early lack of social standing makes no sense. The Constitutions of Clarendon (historically the reason for the falling-out in the first place) don’t merit a mention. Henry’s wife Eleanor of Aquitaine is presented as a shrew rather than one of the most intelligent women of the era, while Henry is also shown to be on poor terms with his mother, again contrary to the truth. 

But that stuff all stems from the play, and in the end it hardly matters as the film is positioning itself as the tale of a friendship turned sour between two men. O’Toole and Burton are sublime, and if the direction and film-making around them is pretty pedestrian (although the film looks great and has an impressive score) it doesn’t really matter in an actors’ piece like this. Most of what is good from the play is carried over to the film, and the dialogue and speeches are often very strong. It’s a very stately and rather overlong play that doesn’t really keep the momentum up. But it’s still enjoyable, still has plenty to admire and even if it’s overlong and dry, it gives you performances that really sing.

1984 (1984)

John Hurt is simply perfect as Winston Smith, in Michael Radford’s faithful Orwell adaptation 1984

Director: Michael Radford

Cast: John Hurt (Winston Smith), Richard Burton (O’Brien), Suzanna Hamilton (Julia), Cyril Cusack (Mr Charrington), Gregor Fisher (Parsons), James Walker (Syme), Andrew Wilde (Tillotson), Phyllis Logan (Announcer)

Few novels of the 20th century have had such a far-ranging impact as George Orwell’s 1984. Its concepts and ideas have dominated the popular language around topics from politics to reality television. Orwell’s idea of a dystopia, ruled by a controlling government, has inspired virtually every other story in a similar setting since. Hell, Orwellian is now an actual word.

Michael Radford had dreamed for years of bringing a film version of Orwell’s last masterpiece to the screen. This film is the end-result, shot (as it proudly announces at the end) in the exact times and locations the original novel was set in. Radford has created a hugely faithful adaptation that strains at the leash to cover all the complex political, philosophical and personal questions Orwell’s novel explores. From the opening sequence, expertly recreating the books “Two-minute-hate”, it’s immediately clear that Radford knows (and loves) this book.

Winston Smith (John Hurt) is a party worker in Oceania (a sort of super country consisting of North America, Britain and Ireland), whose role is to edit and adjust the historical records to ensure that everything the ruling Party has ever said was always accurate and correct. Unpeople are removed from old newspaper cuttings, economic targets are edited to match the final results. In his heart he has sincere doubts about the system and yearns for freedom – but it is not until a chance meeting with Julia (Suzanna Hamilton) that he finds a way to express his individuality through their love affair. But what does Inner Party member O’Brien (Richard Burton) have planned for him?

Radford’s film is a marvel of design. Its look and feel could have been ripped from the pages of Orwell. Today we’d call it almost steam-punk – every piece of technology is made of antiquated and repurposed pieces of equipment (such as phone dials or computer screens) that have a rusty, poorly maintained feeling that immediately communicates the run-down crapsack world the film is set in. Every building seems to be crumbling, collapsing, poorly made, unpleasant, dirty – every street is littered with wreckage. Who on earth would want to live anywhere like this?

The oppression of the design – all dark blues, greys, blacks and crumbling stone and rusty metal – is contrasted at key points. The (relative) opulence of O’Brien’s apartment – with actual comfortable chairs, plastered and painted walls and decent furniture – really stands out (as does Burton’s well-tailored boiler suit compared to the uncomfortable rags of the others). Roger Deakin’s photography also really mixes up the grime of London with the sweeping vistas of the countryside, the only place we see greens or brighter blues. 

Radford’s adaptation of the novel manages to hit every beat from the original. I’m not sure if it is quite accessible to someone who hasn’t read the novel: there is a lot of information only briefly communicated here, and the film makes no real effort to set up or establish the situation in Oceania. Some moments work a lot better if you know the book – the nature of Winston’s job most especially. However, Radford really captures the spirit of the original – and he really understands the contrasts in the book between its gloom and oppression and the free spirit of Julia, and what their love affair represents to Winston. 

The film contains a lot of nudity in these scenes (Suzanna Hamilton does full frontal several times –John Hurt’s bottom similarly appears a fair bit) – but it’s kind of vital. The characters are literally (and figuratively) laying themselves bare. It’s a clear visual sign of how they are rejecting the rules, systems and crushing control of the state itself. Alone they can shed the burden of being controlled and truly be themselves. It’s one of the few films where extensive nudity actually feels completely essential to the plot – and vital to communicating the character’s desire for openness.

Radford also draws some neat (inferred) visual parallels from the material of the book, most notably around Winston’s fear of rats. In the book, this visceral fear is never fully explored, but here in the film Radford has Winston plagued with dreams and flashbacks of stealing chocolate as a child from his starving mother – and returning to an empty room full of rats. Rats are linked in Winston’s mind with betrayal and inhumanity, the very qualities he most fears in the real world – and the impact of these animals psychologically on Winston seems all the more clear.

The film is further helped by the casting of John Hurt as Winston Smith. If ever an actor was born to play this role, it was John Hurt. Not only does Hunt’s gaunt face, emaciated frame and pale cragginess fit perfectly (he also looks a lot like Orwell), but Hurt’s gift as an actor was his empathy for suffering. His finest parts were people who undergo great loss and torment, so Winston Smith was perfect. He gives the role a great deal of damaged humanity, a naïve dream-like yearning, a desire for something he can barely understand. There’s a real gentleness to him, a vulnerability – and it makes Winston Smith hugely moving.

Suzanna Hamilton (in a break-out role) is a great contrast, as a confident, controlled, brave Julia – again there is something tomboyish about her that really works for the part. She’s both certain about what she is doing, but also unwise and naïve. It’s a shame her performance often gets overlooked behind Hurt and Richard Burton. This was Burton’s final film – and while he clearly looks frail, he gives O’Brien all the imposing authority of the melodious voice: you could believe Burton as both a secret rebel and as the face of the state. He’s really good here, hugely menacing and sinister.

1984 is perhaps one of the most faithful and lovingly assembled tributes to its source material you can imagine. In fact that’s the root of its two biggest flaws. Radford had an electronic score by the Eurythmics imposed upon the film (the band was unaware that Dominic Muldowney had spent almost a year working on a score rejected by the producers). This electronic, slightly popish soundtrack feels completely out of whack with the tone and style of the rest of the film. It’s very 1980s electronic tone doesn’t match the novel and it looks even worse today. That’s the danger when your passion project can only get finance from a record company!

The other problem is the film is very much an adaptation: wonderfully done, brilliantly designed and acted, but it exists best as a companion piece. In fact the full enjoyment of the film pretty much relies on having read the book – and it has virtually no appeal to someone who didn’t already know the book (even the 2-minute hate that opens the film isn’t explained). Historically I think the film is very easy to overlook as it came out at a very similar time to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Brazil doesn’t adapt the plot of Orwell’s book – but in all other senses it’s an adaptation of the heart of that novel, told with greater artistry and imagination than here. It’s a thematic adaptation that is its own beast not just a page-to-screen version. That’s what 1984 is and, however well done, it will always be in the shadow of the original.

Radford’s labour of love is still a very good film. Somehow what was pretty bleak on the page is even more traumatising on screen. A lot of this is due to Radford’s balance between oppression and freedom, and the film’s perfect adaptation of the book’s themes. But a lot of it is due to Hurt’s heartfelt, sympathetic and perfect performance in the lead role. Literally no-one else could have played this role: and from the opening shots of him at a party rally, through scenes of love, torture and traumatised aftermath, he’s simply wonderful. Read the book: but once you do enjoy (if you can!) the film.

Anne of the Thousand Days (1969)

Henry won’t be happy with that girl: stagy adaptation of the Anne Boleyn story Anne of the Thousand Days

Director: Charles Jarrott

Cast: Richard Burton (King Henry VIII), Geneviève Bujold (Anne Boleyn), Irene Papas (Queen Catherine of Aragon), Anthony Quayle (Cardinal Wolsey), John Colicos (Thomas Cromwell), Michael Hordern (Thomas Boleyn), Katharine Blake (Elizabeth Boleyn), Valerie Gearon (Mary Boleyn), Peter Jeffrey (Duke of Norfolk), Joseph O’Conor (Bishop Fisher), William Squire (Sir Thomas More)

Anne of the Thousand Days fits neatly into Hollywood’s obsession of the 1960s: the grand British historical epic, crammed with costumes, old locations and leading Brit actors in beards mouthing “olde English” style dialogue. Some of these films are of course marvellous – A Man For All Seasons being clearly the best – some are merely competent. AotTD falls very much in the latter category. It’s a solid but dry and rather self-important piece of entertainment, more interested in wowing you with its pageantry than moving you with its emotion.

As the film opens, Henry VIII (Richard Burton) considers whether or not to sign Anne Boleyn’s (Genevieve Bujold) death warrant. The film then flashes back to tell us the story of Anne’s rise and fall. Along the way, the usual figures from Tudor history are wheeled out: Wolsey, Catherine, More, Cromwell and assorted Boleyns.  And of course, the whole thing ends with Anne proudly proclaiming her daughter will one day be the greatest queen of England, with quite exceptional clairvoyance given how unlikely that would’ve actually looked at the time.

The main problem is it isn’t sure what it wants to say about its central character. It wants to simultaneously position her as a strong, “modern” woman with her own ambitions but as a woman succumbing to passion. Essentially, it wants to have its cake and eat it: for Anne to understand Henry is far from love’s ideal vision, while not wanting to lose their “Great Romance”. So we have scenes where Anne questions why anyone would want to marry Henry or talks of her desire for peace, and later scenes where she demands the judicial murder of all who refuse to accept the marriage.

And it may want to show Anne as a modern woman, but – frustratingly – it’s only actually interested in her as a romance object. Her modernity is solely expressed in defying her family to try and marry someone other than Henry, and having spirited “I hate you/I love you” sparring matches so beloved of Hollywood. But the film has no interest in her intelligence, her involvement in the Reformation, or how this led into dangerous conflict with the increasingly powerful Thomas Cromwell (here her downfall is solely down to her inability to produce a son, and being jealous of love rival Jane Seymour, here playing the sort of minxy temptress Anne is often accused of being).

And even this simplified, Mills-and-Boon Anne is inconsistent– one minute she’s a sweet young girl bravely resisting her unwanted royal suitor. Then, she’s delighted with the power that comes with allowing the King to court her. Equally suddenly, she falls in love with him (though that scene is so confusingly written it’s initially unclear whether this is genuine or simply a ploy to win back the attention of Henry). Even away from the central “romantic” relationship, her character oscillates – she schemes revenge against Wolsey, but then is too nice to take Hampton Court from him.

Despite this, Genevieve Bujold delivers an excellent performance. The film successfully plays up her youth early on, and she brings the role a lot of passion, fire and intelligence. Her French-Canadian accent also makes perfect sense considering Anne was largely brought up at the French court. Bujold does her best to hold together an inconsistent character and delivers a real sense of Anne’s independence and intellectual strength. Not even she can completely sell the competing visions of Anne the film has, but she does a very good job with what she is given.

Richard Burton was allegedly fairly scornful of his performance, but he is terrific. One area where the film does succeed is repositioning Henry as a proto-tyrant, who literally cannot conceive he is wrong. In a memorable scene, Henry explains that, ruling as he does through God, any thoughts in his head must have been placed there by God, ergo he can never be wrong. If that isn’t a tyrant, I’m not sure what is. Burton’s charisma is perfect for a man who can flip on a sixpence from bonhomie to fury. While Anne’s intellectualism is overlooked, the film does a great job of demonstrating Henry’s intellectual fakery, via his bland and overbearing musical compositions (met with a rapturous response from the court). Lords literally breathe sighs of relief after they leave his presence. Burton may not be an ideal physical match, but embodies Henry’s ruthless selfishness and towering ego.

It’s a shame that, despite having strong performances, the film is not only so confused, but also so flat and dry. Charles Jarrott frames the film with a dull conventionality, carefully letting costumes and production design fill the screen like a dutiful workman. Has he got any really interesting ideas for shooting this stuff, or presenting a routine plot with any freshness? Not really. Instead we get spectacle, and inevitable rundown of events, but no real sense of novelty. It turns the whole thing into a rather slow, reverent slice of British history, dry and stodgy, ticking off events as it goes.

Those events come and go with a confused focus. The foundation of the Church of England is under explained. The fates of several characters are left unresolved – in particular Cardinal Wolsey (an otherwise excellent Anthony Quayle) simply disappears. The final condemnation of Anne is rushed and confused (you would be forgiven for not really understanding who she has been accused of sleeping with, and the alleged incest between her and brother is almost thrown away). Other characters are simplified (despite good performances from their actors):  so William Squire’s More is upstanding and honest, while John Colicos’ Cromwell is dastardly and scheming.

Anne of the Thousand Days is rather old fashioned and probably best watched now as a Sunday afternoon film. It tells a very, very familiar story (how many times have we seen Henry/Anne’s romance on screen before and since) without too much originality, and largely fudges putting together a clear sympathetic portrait of its central character. Having said that, it is well acted and looks wonderful. It’s just also rather dry and far too aware of having an “important” story to tell.

The Robe (1953)

Richard Burton puts on his best “worried with a hint of madness” face as he explains Christianity to Jean Simmons and the viewers.

Director: Henry Koster

Cast: Richard Burton (Marcellus Gallio), Jean Simmons (Diana), Victor Mature (Demetrius), Michael Rennie (Peter), Jay Robinson (Caligula), Dean Jagger (Justus), Torin Thatcher (Senator Gallio), Richard Boone (Pontius Pilate), Betta St John (Miriam), Jeff Morrow (Paulus), Ernest Thesiger (Tiberius)

In 1953, Hollywood was running so scared of TV they needed a magic cocktail to win viewers back to the big screen. They settled on their main advantages over TV – a very big screen, colour and a lot of money. Sweeping epics were born – but in order to get as many people in as possible, gotta make sure it’s an important piece of filmmaking as well. What’s more important than religion?

Marcellus Gallio (Richard Burton) is a carefree playboy Tribune, interested only in splashing his cash on bets and slaves. After betting against heir-to-the-throne Caligula (Jay Robinson) for rebellious slave Demetrius (Victor Mature) – plus charming away Caligula’s betrothed Diana (Jean Simmons), also Marcellus’ childhood sweetheart – he is banished to Palestine. Marcellus is soon ordered to crucify a humble carpenter from Nazareth, leader of a new religion that Demetrius swiftly converts to. After being confronted by his former slave atop Calvary, Marcellus finds himself wracked with guilt about his actions – and on a journey towards conversion and martyrdom. The Robe of the title is the Turin shroud, here a red rag macguffin passed from pillar to post.

By any objective standards, The Robe is a pretty terrible film. It’s long, self-important, slow, talky, episodic, poorly-structured and, above all, boring. Despite its length, nothing much really happens. Marcellus is a waster, he crucifies Christ, he feels guilty, he goes a bit barmy, he converts, he dies. That’s kind of it. When important moments happen, they flash past so quickly you start to think you missed something – I rewound Marcellus’ crucial conversation with St Peter where he finally converts as I assumed I’d missed something he changes his mind so quickly. I hadn’t.

The whole film is full of sudden, juddering changes like this. Marcellus and Diana are estranged for years – next thing we know they are in each other’s arms. Demetrius is a convert after one glance. Within seconds of screentime, Marcellus goes from unconcerned to wracked with guilt over Christ’s death. The whole first scene sets up Caligula as an antagonist only to have him disappear for almost an hour. Demetrius is suddenly being racked in a dungeon in Rome. The film keeps slowing down for lots of Christian reflection on the righteousness of the holy message.

Oh blimey, the Christian message of the film is not subtle. The film drips with sanctimony and wearying self-importance, with no trick missed. Angelic voices, light from the sky, actors staring upwards with awe, impossibly sweet youths frolicking with joy, wise old buffers droning on: it’s all here, every single note you would expect of the classic Hollywood “Swords, sex, sandals and sanctimony” epics. It’s all ridiculously on the nose, with Burton reduced to having to carry the entire weight of Christianity seemingly on his shoulders, with only the most bland and forgettable of lines to support him. Nothing eases up right into the final moments, when Marcellus and Diana walk towards the camera as the background fades away to be replaced by clouds. Yeah we get it: they are off to heaven. The big thing the film struggles to get across in all this is why the Christian message had such appeal to Marcellus and others, or why these people might have put so much at risk for it, but this sort of thing is beneath the film’s clumsy interest, as if any actual analysis would be sinful.

Burton, bless him, struggles through the role with the slightly disconnected air of a man who thinks the entire film is beneath him (he famously called the role “prissy”). He must have been stunned to get an Oscar nomination. But to be fair it’s a really tough part, with Marcellus required to go from a sort of relaxed dissoluteness, via disconnected pride, to a sort of catatonic series of fits before back to serene peace. Saying that, Burton’s fits over the robe itself aren’t going to win any awards for subtlety, done with a wild eyed hamminess that looks impossibly old fashioned today. But it’s all comparable – next to Robert Taylor in Quo Vadis, Burton feels like the height of emotional realism. It’s not helped that he’s paired a lot of the time with Victor Mature, who acts throughout with a sort of balsawood earnestness that requires a great deal of middle distance staring in awe. The video below gives a good idea of both performances. Watch how wildly varied the writing is of Burton’s part and feel a little bit sorry for him.

Very few of the other performances make positive impressions. Jean Simmons as Diana is such a bland, forgettable character that her conversion only really makes sense because we have learnt so little about her over the course of the movie. Jay Robinson goes for overblown as Caligula but instead sounds like a shrieking child in a pretty woeful performance. 

These two failed performances add to the film’s problems. Caligula is such a non-presence for most in the film that, as the nominal antagonist, his lack of impact makes the film shapeless, lacking any “villain” we can hate or provide any sort of obstacle for Marcellus to struggle against. Similarly Diana is so bland and anonymous a personality, that we neither root for their relationship, nor experience any concern for its outcome.

The film is directed and framed in an equally dull way. Its only claim to fame today is its status as the first film to be released in Cinemascope. This ultra-wide screen was intended to be another rival to TV – never mind the little box, look at the mighty vistas! But the importance of widescreen hangs over every creative decision of the film. Nearly every shot in Koster’s turgid direction is either middle or long, with the camera held static, focused on getting as much of the background in as possible, the actors often reduced to focus or foreground interest around the scale. It’s no wonder few performances break through this overbearing backdrop.

Every so often you get moments where you think the film is going to burst in life. They’re rare but they are there. There is a great scene between Demetrius and a man revealed (eventually, but it’s pretty obvious from the start) to be Judas Iscariot fresh form Gethsemane (Michael Ansara as Judas might, in two minutes of screentime, give the best performance in the film). Marcellus has a pretty good (if inexplicable) sword fight with a former rival. A mission is launched to rescue Demetrius. But every time something happens like that, the film immediately doubles back into heavy-handed symbolism and dull, unrevealing chat, all of which is focused on hammering home the message. 

The Robe is an impossibly dated religious epic, worthy, dull and lacking any real interest or reason to watch it. Its star seems a little embarrassed to be there. No-one else makes any impact. It’s directed with a flatness that turns it into a series of lifeless paintings. Its story turns a major moment of history into a boring, inconsequential series of events. It lacks even the campness that many epics of this genre carry that make it a good tongue-in-cheek watch. It’s just a yawnathon from start to finish, a crushingly tedious saga that has all the subtlety of being hit across the face by a prayer book for over two hours.