Roman Empire Obsession?

Back in September, I’d seen all sorts of memes about men’s alleged obsession with the Roman Empire. The New York Times reported on September 15th: “The Roman Empire began in 27 B.C. and fell in A.D. 476. And in A.D. 2023, it went viral on TikTok.”

Well, I’m not on TikTok, but found the whole thing ridiculous. Then I remembered that as an 8-year old kid, I so loved the movie “The Robe“, and particularly Jay Robinson‘s insane portrait of the Emperor Caligula. Till this day, I can recite his dialogue in the final scene of that 1953 Cinemascope classic by heart! In 1968, I even dressed up as Caligula for Halloween (pic below). Passing fad!

(That photo is taken in front of the “stoop” of my Yaya’s house at the time. Currently, my Aunt Mary is still living there at the age of 101!)

But, uh, over the years, I have collected books and movies and figurines, and, uh … well …

A lively discussion can be found on Facebook here. In it, I made the following remarks ….

On the meme:

Clearly I’m poking a bit of fun at this. Fortunately, none of us is defined by any single interest. I also have a lifelong fascination with horror films, sci fi, Hitchcock, film noir, The Honeymooners, and The Godfather… but I haven’t seen any memes on all that!

And on “The Robe”:

I loved both “The Robe” and “Demetrius and the Gladiators“. The first time I saw “The Robe”, it was broadcast on Easter weekend on the ABC network (March 26, 1967), with only one commercial interruption.

But here’s a cinematic footnote. When “The Robe” was filmed, it was shot in both standard ratio and Cinemascope formats. The version that I grew up with was the standard ratio. There are distinct differences not only in camera angles but also in dialogue, because most of the scenes were filmed TWICE. It’s long been said that the “flat” or standard ratio version is the better acted one. I have a VHS copy of it, which was taped off the AMC network (when George Clooney’s dad, Nick, was hosting). I subsequently transferred it to DVD.

When “The Robe” was officially released on DVD and restored for Blu-Ray, it was the Cinemascope version. I was amazed by the richness of the color, but SHOCKED at the differences in the dialogue. As I said above, I can recite that last scene in the film, practically word-for-word, down to the intonation of the actors. DRAMATICALLY DIFFERENT in the Cinemascope version. Alas, though they have a frame-within-a-frame comparison on the Blu-Ray version, they have never released the standard ratio version of the film, which is sad.

They knew the film was going to be a money-maker, because they finished filming its sequel the very month that “The Robe” was released (September 1953). They were both huge box office hits.

Here’s a link comparing the two versions of “The Robe”.

I was asked in the Facebook discussion why I didn’t identify with the Richard Burton character in “The Robe”; I replied:

Oh, let me make one thing perfectly clear: I didn’t identify with Caligula.

I definitely identified with the heroism of Burton’s character. It was a very inspiring story, and just as inspiring in its sequel, which picked up from the last frames of “The Robe.” In fact, I knew by heart all of Burton’s lines in his “trial” in the finale of “The Robe”.

While “The Robe” is of course faith-centered, there is something universally appealing about a Roman tribune who rose through the ranks due to his family’s connections, and was known as a “womanizer” and “drunkard”. He didn’t know what it was to be a “man of honor”, as his father implored him to be before he is shipped off to Jerusalem, by Caligula’s decree. “Perhaps there will be amusement in being a man of honor,” he tells his father.

Before too long, he is the tribune in charge of the crucifxion of Jesus and hammers the nails into the man to whose principles he later commits himself. His transformation into a man of honor who lives by those principles—and is willing to die for them—remains inspirational on the face of it.

It’s not without some irony that Ayn Rand alluded to the inspirational elements of “The Robe”. She wrote in a letter to Ross Baker: “A book expert in New York told me that the biggest fiction sellers of all times (and the surest recipe for a bestseller) have always been religious novels with a good story (‘Ben-Hur’, ‘Quo Vadis?’, ‘The Robe’)–and that ‘The Fountainhead’ is a religious novel [insofar as] it gives to . . . readers . . . a sense of faith, courage and moral uplift.”

Still, regarding Caligula, I was fascinated by Robinson’s unhinged rantings. At 7 years old, it was probably the most theatrical, over-the-top performance I’d ever seen. Caligula was never anyone I looked up to! Just a very colorful character who amused me, to say the least.

There have been other fine actors who have portrayed Caligula—most notably John Hurt in “I, Claudius“, who brought humor and terror to the role. Malcolm McDowell was equally unsettling in the 1979 X-rated rendering, “Caligula” (though I was barely of age to see it). But Robinson was the first to define the role on screen.

Interestingly, there was a 1937 Josef von Sternberg-directed adaptation of “I, Claudius,” which was never finished. It was the subject of a documentary called “The Epic That Never Was”, and starred Charles Laughton as Claudius and Emlyn Williams as Caligula. It had quite a cast (including Flora Robson and Merle Oberon). Some nice footage of the film can be found in that documentary, which is on YouTube for free [YouTube link]. It’s narrated by Dirk Bogarde.

Check out more information on the stillborn 1937 film.

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