When it comes, this is how it will start. Some obscure martyr in some forgotten province, then madness. Infecting the legions, rocking the empire, then the finish of Rome.
Expectedly reverent and Biblically respectful tale of the Roman who executed Jesus, based upon Lloyd Douglas’ novel. What this means, as with the majority of Biblical epics, is that it buckles under the weight of its perceived responsibilities, particularly whenever its characters are anecdotalising a passage from Scripture. As with the later Spartacus, the most involving sequences in the film centre on political intrigue in Rome. It would have been a far more interesting movie if Richard Burton had never been sent off to Palestine.
It seems strange now to see Burton in such a classically Hollywood star film (although there were others, such as Alexander a few years later), so it’s little surprise that he hated making it and cited it as his least favourite role. He may have been disenchanted with the whole thing, but he’s the most interesting presence here (except when Caligula’s onscreen). He struggles manfully to make Tribune Marcellus Gallio interesting, but it’s a lost cause once he’s touched Jesus' titular garment. Burton veers from OTT torment to one-note Born Again believer.
The main meat of the film verges on the insipid, lacking any creative spark or philosophical nuance. In that sense prize beefcake Victor Mature is a good fit as the slave Demetrius (who gets his own sequel), who becomes a ride-by convert as soon as he sees Jesus on a donkey.
Jean Simmons makes a pretty love interest (Burton thought so too, as he had an affair with her, to hubby Stewart Granger’s ire) and Michael Rennie, having already played Jesus in The Day the Earth Stood Still, gets No.1 disciple Simon Peter this time. Jay Robinson is the only one who really gets to have fun, oozing effete malice as Caligula; there’s no intimation of his proclivities, alas, other than to state his insanity.