The other night, I sat down and watched The Robe all the way through for the first time in my adult life. The product of a now-long-gone era when Hollywood respected the sensibilities of its audiences, The Robe has some fairly compelling scenes, and some pretty good features. Richard Burton made a good swashbuckling Christian; Jean Simmons was demure and virtuous, yet noble and steely; Jay Robinson made an especially diabolical Caligula. His oak-leaf chaplet was even arranged to make him look like he had horns.
On the other hand, the story is clearly told from a non-Catholic point of view. There are some things one would not expect to find in a story about the earliest Christians, and other things one would expect to find but does not. For example:
-- Judas Iscariot delivers an inspirational message before going out to hang himself.
-- Peter hides the fact that he denied Jesus, and allows everyone to think that he stuck with Jesus right to the end.
-- Jesus is held to be present only in His Word and not in the Real Presence of the Eucharist. In fact, it is not clear that Jesus is present among the early Christians at all, except as a memory.
-- There are no priests.
-- Nobody gets baptized or receives any Sacraments.
-- The Blessed Virgin Mary is virtually absent, and plays no role even at the foot of the Cross, where Scripture plainly places her.
-- And an item that I felt especially sensitive to because it was during the interregnum: the early Christians depicted in this movie do not respect the primacy of Peter.
Without the Sacraments, and the Mother of God, and the Holy Father, the Church is a cold, sterile, one-dimensional thing. It is just a collection of people being nice to each other for no apparent reason. What we see in The Robe is the beginning, not of the Universal Church, but the church of nice. There is no roaring furnace of charity at the heart of mere niceness: nothing to inspire missionaries, or artists, or musicians, or poets, or martyrs. There are no miracles in the church of nice, and no great saints. The church of nice, having no priests, offers no sacrifices, not even the Sacrifice of Calvary. In the church of nice, Peter has no real authority, nor any integrity, since it is permissible for him to allow the propagation of a falsehood about himself for the good of the church. The members of the church of nice will not worship Caesar as a god; but since Peter has no real authority, and the Mother of God does not illuminate the truth about her Divine Son, and there are no Sacraments to stoke the fires of sanctifying grace, there is nothing to prevent the worship of Caesar in the fullness of time, once it is judged expedient. The two main characters of The Robe do end up as martyrs; but if one's knowledge of Christianity came solely and entirely from the information conveyed in the film, one would be hard pressed to understand why they should have given up their lives for it.
The Robe is far superior to the standard run of Hollywood fare today, 99.99% of which is just pure trash. But it shows the Christian faith through a lens, darkly and incompletely, and therefore inaccurately. The Pope, the Sacraments (and therefore the priesthood) and the Holy Mother of God are precisely the things the world has against the Catholic Church; but her Founder made them necessary elements of the Christian faith, without which it has neither depth nor breadth nor height. It is necessary to bring a lot to the film in order to fill in the gaps, and not accept the errors. One more reason why Catholics need to know their faith.