David and Bathsheba and The Robe continue the anti-Communist theme

Dr Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow

La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia.

Several films had the same theme of the doomed empire and the final triumph over tyranny.  For the Christians, Jesus would become an avenging political figure who would march forward to right the wrongs of the tyrannical Romans.

David and Bathsheba, the 1951 Henry King Biblical religious romantic adultery epic melodrama. Gregory Peck played the adult David who had abandoned his religious path and suffered the consequences.

Similar points had been made in David and Bathsheba (1951) after King David committed adultery and Israel was laid waste with famine.  When David begged for mercy, the drought was broken and order was restored.  Disregarding God’s laws was a recipe for disaster.  Even though the film focused on David’s later life, it managed to depict his fight with Goliath in one of the closing scenes.  Armed only with a slingshot.  David went out to face the massive giant single handed.  The invincible Goliath was dispatching Israelites at will.  It appeared that David had no chance of success and he mist die like all the other challengers.  But he was full of true spiritual strength and used a slingshot to hurl a rock into Goliath’s skull.  The monster fell to the ground dead and the Israelite army stormed over the enemy.  The physically weak, but spiritually strong, had overcome the mighty forces arrayed against them.

The Robe (1953) made an enormous impact when it was released, which was partly due to it being the first cinemascope picture.  This process meant that audiences could see a massive image spread across a wide screen, however, the novelty value alone was not going to attract an audience.  Cinemascope was an attempt by the studios to counter the growing threat of television to box office returns.  However, the studios were not going to invest their millions in a new process for little return.  It appears clear that The Robe was a deliberate choice for the new process by the studio heads because they knew it would be guaranteed a box office return if it followed the formula set by its predecessors.

The Robe (1953) made an enormous impact when it was released, which was partly due to it being the first cinemascope picture. 

The robe was that worn by Christ when he was crucified.  It was won by a young Roman tribune gambling with other soldiers in charge of the Crucifixion.  Beyond the retelling of the biblical story, the event had other resonances for the Hollywood community.  Before calling for an investigation into Hollywood, Mississippi congressman John Rankin spoke of the crucifixion as part of the communist struggle.  He claimed that communism was based on the hatred of Christianity.

Remember that communism and Christianity can never live in the same atmosphere.  Communism is older than Christianity.  It is the curse of the ages.  It hounded and persecuted the Saviour during his earthy ministry, inspired his crucifixion, derided him in his dying agony, and then gambled for his garments at the foot of the cross; and has spent more than 1900 years trying to destroy Christianity and everything based on Christian principles. [1]

Rankin’s remarks were made in 1945.  The comments would have been well known in Hollywood as the speech was one of the first calls to investigate communism in radio, television and the film industry.  No evidence exists that it directly influenced the Robe’s screenwriters.  However, given the strong links between religion and politics in the cold war, it is clear that even a straight retelling of the Gospel had political connotations.

After being guilt ridden over the Crucifixion, the tribune passed the robe to his slave Demetrius who had been converted to Christianity.  Demetrius told his Roman tribune master that their empire was cursed because of the Crucifixion of Christ.  The Roman empire was once again depicted as doomed.  Emperor Tiberius Caesar foresaw the decline of the Roman empire in these terms.

When it comes.  This his how it will start.  Some obscure martyr in some forgotten province.  The madness infecting the legions, rotting the empire.  It will be the finish of Rome … This is more dangerous than any spell … It is man’s desire to be free.  It is the greatest madness of them all.[2]

Man’s desire to be free would eventually overcome the strength of the Roman empire.  The desire was linked with Christian strength and courage.  The formula of Samson and Delilah, Quo Vadis, and David and Bathsheba was being followed again.

The Robe’s credited screenwriter Phillip Dunne was a strong opponent of the HUAC and the blacklist, and was a founding member of the Committee for the First Amendment.[3]  In his autobiography, he revealed that the writer of the uncredited first draft of The Robe was Albert Maltz, one of the Hollywood Ten.[4]  Either Dunne or Maltz managed to place a jab at HUAC within the film.  The tyrant Tiberius Caesar was constantly asking for the names of Christians.  ‘Names.  I want the names.’ he says.[5]  The writers were equating the tyranny of Rome with HUAC.[6]

If the empire desires peace and brotherhood among all men, my king will be on the side of Rome.  But if the empire and the emperor wish to pursue the course of aggression and slavery that has bought agony and terror and despair to the world.  If there’s nothing to hope for but chains and hunger, then my king will march forward to right those wrongs.  Not tomorrow sire, your majesty might not live to see the establishment of his own kingdom.[7]

The film had the same theme of the doomed empire and the final triumph over tyranny.  For the Christians, Jesus was an avenging political figure who would march forward to right the wrongs of the tyrannical Romans.

The Robe was used extensively by evangelist Billy Graham.  Before a tour of a new country such as New Zealand or Australia, he would send out tightly organised advance parties.  These highly efficient men would tell ministers and church groups to screen The Robe as it was a ‘tract for our times’.[8]  It appeared that The Robe was used as an inducement to see Billy Graham documentaries such as Battleground Europe, The Mighty Fortress and Eastward to Asia.  Graham often discussed communism in his sermons and he saw the world as divided into two camps: communist and the west.  He believed only a revival of faith would avert a nuclear holocaust which he saw as a biblical judgement for the United States’ sins.[9]

[1] Congressional Record, 91, part 6, 17 July 1945, p. 7337.

[2] The Robe, (d) Henry Koster, (w) Phillip Dunne.

[3] Remark by Ring Lardner Jr. at Australian Film Institute Public Seminar on 26 March 1991.  Mr Lardner, one of the Hollywood 10, said that when he was dismissed from Twentieth Century Fox, that Dunne and director George Seaton offered to walk off the lot with Lardner in protest.  Lardner replied that the protest would be futile unless it was 60 people involved.  (From notes taken by writer at seminar.)

[4] Dunne also talked about Maltz’s role in The Robe in McGilligan , Pat. (ed.). Backstory: Interviews with Screenwriters of Hollywood’s Golden Age, University of California Press, London, 1986, p. 164.

[5] The Robe (d) Henry Koster, (w) Phillip Dunne.

[6] The same idea re-emerged in a stronger fashion in Ben-Hur (1959).  The Roman General Massala, played by Stephen Boyd, demands that Jewish leader Judah Ben Hur, played by Charlton Heston, name the names of those who would resist Rome:

BEN-HUR…(I’ve) spoken against violence, against insolence.  Most of the men I’ve talked to agree with you.
MASSALA:Oh not all.
BEN-HURNo … not all.
MASSALA:Who does not agree?
BEN-HURThey’re resentful and impatient.
MASSALA:Who are they? … Yes, Judah who are they?
BEN-HURWould I retain your friendship if I became an informer.
MASSALA:To tell us the names of criminals is hardly informing.
BEN-HURThey are not criminals, they are patriots.

Ben Hur’s director William Wyler was one of the 25 directors who signed the petition for Joseph Mankiewicz, who had been publically outspoken against the HUAC hearings and was under conservative attack.  It is interesting to not that Ben-Hur was one of the few biblical films where the allegory appears to be directed against fascism rather than communism.  The Jews and Arabs are derided by Massala as a ‘conquered race’ and he sees Rome as a superior power.

[7] The Robe, (d) Henry Koster, (w) Phillip Dunne.

[8] Remark by Professor John Salmond on 22 March 1991.  Professor Salmond was a journalist with a New Zealand newspaper and he covered the Billy Graham tour in 1959.  For more details on the detailed and extensive preparations for Billy Graham’s tours read S. Baggage, & Ian Siggins, Light Beneath the Cross: The Story of Billy Graham’s Crusade in Australia, The World’s Work, Kingswood & Melbourne, 1960.

[9] Mark Silk, Spiritual Politics, p. 65.  Grahams’ outlook was discussed in the blog on When Worlds Collide.  After Graham’s highly successful Los Angeles revival in 1949, Cecil B. DeMille was rumoured to have offered Graham a screen test.  See Stephen, J. Whitfield, The Culture of the Cold War, John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1991, p. 78. Graham returned the compliment by calling DeMille ‘A prophet in celluloid’, USA, Box 14, Folder 1, Cecil B. DeMille Archives.

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