1953 was a banner year for 2oth Century-Fox; the inauguration of the studio’s patented Cinemascope widescreen process and feature debut of The Robe ushering a new era in motion picture entertainment. It isn’t entirely correct to suggest that The Robe resurrected the Bible-fiction epic. That accomplishment was made two years earlier with MGM’s mind-bogglingly lavish, Quo Vadis (1951). However, unlike Quo Vadis, The Robe had Cinemascope’s expansive 2.35:1 aspect ratio to recommend it. Bigger doesn’t necessary equate to better, but audiences didn’t seem to notice in The Robe’s case; having been primed in their whetted appetites for more gargantuan thrills after the release of This is Cinerama (1952). Both Cinemascope and The Robe were immediate sensations and Fox, not about to let a good thing go to waste, invested everything it had in a sequel; Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954). In point of fact, this sequel was already well into production by the time The Robe hit theaters, Fox’s production chief, Darryl F. Zanuck having the foresight to see a new dawn creeping over the horizon; one where the edict of ‘bigger is better’ would serve to lure back the droves who had forsaken their glittering movie palaces virtually overnight to stay home and watch more modest diversions on television.
In many ways, Demetrius and the Gladiators is a more accomplished movie than its predecessor; Philip Dunne and Lloyd C. Douglas’ screenplay intricately balanced; Delmer Daves’ direction more sure-footed than Henry Koster’s on The Robe, as exemplified by the fluidity of Milton R. Krasner’s camera setups. Douglas had, of course, written the novel ‘The Robe’ and had also worked on the movie’s screenplay. But in the early days of Cinemascope there was something of a misunderstanding on how best to utilize its vast frame. Vincente Minnelli is, of course, famous for quipping that the proportions of the screen were only fit for photographing snakes and funeral processions. Henri Chrétien, the inventor of this anamorphic process, had rather promised Zanuck that Cinemascope’s elongated presentation format would eliminate the need for edits; the action able to be captured all in one or two shot camera setups. This was never the case. But Cinemascope did present the film maker with various drawbacks.
For starters, early lens crafted by Bausch and Lomb tended to inwardly warp any vertical objects situated near either the right or left edges of the screen. Panning too quickly created an unusual anomaly mimicking gate weave, while close-ups proved virtually impossible, the so-called Cinemascope ‘mumps’ – a horizontal stretching at center frame – grotesquely elongating actors’ faces, making them look pudgy in anything nearer than the proverbial medium two-shot. Finally, Cinemascope’s vast horizontal expanse needed to be filled with action. Too little and the scene, however delicately framed and filled with bric-a-brac, tended to look flat and empty. Thus, in retrospect, the Bible-fiction epic proved the magic elixir for Cinemascope; its thronging masses and Pagan pageantry ideally compensating for these forgivable photographic sins.
Demetrius and the Gladiators has plenty of the aforementioned to titillate and enthrall; George W. Davis and Lyle R. Wheeler’s superb art direction staggering in glossy, gorgeous Eastman-color, befitting the decadence of ancient Rome. At $1.9 million, Demetrius and the Gladiators wasn’t even that costly to produce, coming as it did on the heels of The Robe; Fox getting even more bang for its buck by utilizing many of the free-standing outdoor and indoor sets – including the absolutely spectacular throne room and amphitheater for key sequences, plus virtually all the beaded diaphanous gowns and Centurion guard breastplates already in existence. Once again, the robe worn by the crucified Jesus of Nazareth proved a pivotal plot point in this reconstituted tale about a slave forced into the arena by fate, but freed to pursue his destiny, willed by the hand of God: powerful stuff, to say the least, and given the A-list treatment from top to bottom.
Demetrius and the Gladiators plays to two very predominant themes in American cinema from the mid to late 1950’s; sex and religion – very strange bedfellows, indeed. The former is mostly implied – the stringencies of Hollywood’s self-governing body, the production code of ethics, willing to look the other way only so far - mostly with regards to costuming, per say (women in cleavage revealing, flowingly translucent gowns and shirtless muscle men in their thigh-high toga wraps, hairy calves exposed); all of it done for the sake of historical accuracy. But Roman orgies were decidedly forbidden for the screen – or rather, transformed into lavish house and garden parties where wine liberally flowed and everyone – even the Emperor – was occasionally left laughing. In a curious way, the innate absurdity in all this socially cleansed extravagance actually lent itself to more imaginative interpretations of what ‘ye ole’ antiquity’ must have been; the cultural aspects of Roman life meticulously researched down to the very last detail, but with mostly British actors assuming key roles to play their more lusty Mediterranean brethren with restrained drama.
As for religion…while nobody in America at that time would have referred to the country as ‘an empire’ in the classical sense – America’s ‘e pluribus unum’ pride was firmly aligned to an even more fervent adherence to those Judeo-Christian principles that had united the country; ‘in God we trust’ more than just a catchy shibboleth emblazoned across its legal tender. And Hollywood, and the Catholic League of Decency saw to it that Bible-fiction stories like Demetrius and the Gladiators were equally educational – if slightly top-heavy in their moralization; serving as parables, or rather, blueprints for how one should aspire to live his/her life. Movies like this were perhaps more readily worshipped by the audiences for their scope and spectacle than their moral storytelling. But at their core, each remained the self-appointed custodian of America’s collective ideals and sense of morality imparted on the general populace; promoting virtue as its own reward and condemning the folly of excess, even as the movies themselves reveled in graphically illustrating the pageantry and implied debaucheries in glorious Technicolor.
One has to admire the machinery behind such an exercise; the mammoth undertaking alone – mostly done on studio back lots full scale, and, with an army of extras raising the bar very high. When we look back on movies like Demetrius and the Gladiators today they tend to take on the flavoring of quaintly intelligent, quasi-historical deconstructions that critique humanity in the present; the ancient world’s woes running parallel to our own; but ably conquering its worst vices through stringent adherence to faith; a lesson vastly promoted in both America’s houses of religion and politics. Bible-fiction epics served another purpose too; to promote a unified, unquestioning devotion to a singular higher authority, monolithically accepted in the 1950’s, though all too readily ignored, questioned or even crucified (pun intended) by our cultural mandarins today as myopic anti-everyone else.
Demetrius and the Gladiators is perhaps an easier epic to swallow than The Robe precisely because it leaves Jesus Christ and the crucifixion on the back burner, as it were. Apart from its prologue (picking up exactly where The Robe left off, with the public execution of Marcellus (Richard Burton) and Diana (Jean Simmons)) Demetrius and the Gladiators concentrates almost exclusively on the story of one man driven to question his own faith – bitterly forsaking it for a brief time – before rectifying his devotion to the Almighty by appealing to his better half. Setting aside its more obvious religious pretext, one can still admire the movie as a triumph of the human spirit over seemingly insurmountable odds and the mad Emperor, Caligula (played with demonic clarity by Jay Robinson). Sin itself is deliciously represented by the sultry Messalina (Susan Hayward, vamping as the devious minx). To counterbalance Demetrius’ fall from grace (Victor Mature reprising his role as the liberated slave from The Robe), we get Barry Jones as Caligula’s benevolent uncle, Claudius: a true noble, granting mercy and tolerance to an unfaithful spouse with outstretched hands of tolerance – professing, at least in the final moments – to endeavor towards a new and enlightened era in modern Rome.
Our story begins with Caligula’s vitriol, condemning Marcellus Gallio and Diana to death – the finale from The Robe, though interestingly, shown to us from slightly different angles, suggesting the scene was either photographed two different ways while shooting The Robe or that cast and crew were reassembled at a later date to reshoot the finale in anticipation of this sequel. Diana gives the robe worn by Christ to Marcellus’ devoted servant, Marcipor (David Leonard), instructing him to pass it on to ‘the Big Fisherman’ – meaning Peter (Michael Rennie). The robe is then handed over to Demetrius, the loyal slave given his freedom by Marcellus, before the pair is led away to their execution. Observing from the galleries are Caligula’s uncle, Claudius and his much younger wife, Messalina, whose penchant for seducing virile Roman warriors to satisfy her own wily sexual appetites is well-known at court.
The thoroughly mad Caligula has placed an inordinate emphasis on reacquiring the robe, believing it alone has bewitched his courtiers and, in fact, holds the secrets to ‘eternal life’. The skies over Rome thunder with God’s wrath, Caligula pacing the cavernous halls of his throne room before intruding upon Messalina’s slumber and Claudius, who has been toiling all night in an adjacent study over several reports from Galilee about the crucifixion of the Messiah. Caligula, however is far more interested in the couple’s sleeping arrangements, suggesting Messalina is using Claudius to manipulate and overthrow his government.
Later, at Marcellus and Diana’s tomb, Peter offers a solemn prayer to their loyal followers – Demetrius unable to bring himself to accept their deaths and offering Peter the robe. Peter instructs Demetrius to keep the cloth safe and Demetrius elects to take it to the potter’s house where his beloved, Lucia (Debra Paget) resides. Demetrius asks Lucia to keep the robe safe for him until Peter’s arrival. Unhappy chance for all that the Pretorian Guard arrives under orders from Caligula. In the ensuing struggle to reclaim the robe, Demetrius strikes one of the soldiers and is arrested for sedition against the state. Caligula sentences Demetrius to death, but is discouraged from carrying it out by Messalina, who suggests the ‘Christian’ would make a more handsome and worthy edition to the Emperor’s gladiator school, presided over by Strabo (Ernest Borgnine); a one-time warrior given his freedom by Caligula. Later, Messalina sneaks into the gladiator school to see Demetrius. Once again, his attempts to flee are thwarted by the Pretorian Guard.
Demetrius vows to never fight in the arena, telling Strabo that according to his religious beliefs it is a sin to kill. At the school, Demetrius befriends Glycon (William Marshall), but makes a rather bad enemy of Dardanius (Richard Egan); a vane champion. Diana arranges for some diversions for the gladiators who are about to die; a night of wine and women. Demetrius meets the naïve prostitute, Paula (Anne Bancroft). She is smitten with Demetrius, although he is quite disinterested in her. Presently, Dardanius attempts to humiliate Demetrius by inquiring if it is true that all Christians must turn the other cheek – striking Demetrius in the face with a hearty laugh before being brutally knocked to the ground by Glycon. Observing the confrontation from the relative safety of her box, Messalina tells Strabo to pit Glycon against Demetrius in the arena the next afternoon.
Before Caligula, Glycon and Demetrius stage a pretend sparring match that fools no one; each refusing to violently attack or murder the other. The crowd begins to boo them. When Glycon trips and falls, losing his sword, Demetrius whispers for him to pick it up. But Caligula orders Demetrius to swiftly dispatch the fallen warrior. Instead, Demetrius pleads for the Emperor to spare Glycon’s life; in doing so incurring Caligula’s considerable wrath. Caligula releases Glycon – then sets a pack of tigers to devour Demetrius. Instead, Demetrius kills the wild beasts with only a knife as his protection. The crowd loves it, declaring Demetrius their latest hero. But Demetrius is badly wounded by the attacks and Messalina quickly sees to his wounds. Upon being restored to health, Demetrius is brought to Claudius’ home by Messalina, who attempts to break him of his Christian beliefs. Her seduction is thwarted by the Emperor’s command.
It seems Messalina’s uncle (Selmer Jackson) and cousin (Douglas Brooks) have been found out in their attempt on Caligula’s life; having implicated Messalina in the rumored murder plot. Already primed to believe the worst about Messalina, Caligula accosts ten of his senators to swear she is plotting his overthrow. But Messalina works quickly to diffuse the situation by altering Caligula’s allegations so that it now appears as though the senators have been malicious in their attempts to smear her reputation. Drunk with power and utterly insane, Caligula sentences Messalina’s uncle and cousin to death, but sets her free while threatening to put all of his senators to death for lying to him. Later, Messalina confides in Demetrius that she is, in fact, guilty of conspiring with her late uncle and cousin to overthrow the Emperor. Unable to convince Demetrius to run away with her to the high country as her protector, Messalina orders Demetrius’ to be returned to the gladiator school, bitterly determined to see him die in the arena in order to keep her secret.
During yet another orgy arranged by Messalina for the gladiators, Paula smuggles Lucia in as a prostitute so she may spend a few brief hours with Demetrius before he fights the next day. Regrettably, Lucia is found out by Dardanius. Demetrius is dragged to a nearby holding cell to observe as Dardarius and several of the other gladiators molest Lucia; her violent screams quelled by Demetrius’ prayer to God to spare his beloved. Instead, Lucia appears to die in Dardanius’ arms and Demetrius vows revenge on all his fellow gladiators in the arena the next afternoon. True to his shattered faith, Demetrius slaughters all whom he believes are responsible for Lucia’s death; his brutalities impress Caligula and the people. Caligula makes Demetrius a bargain. Swear an allegiance to Rome and forsake Christ and Caligula will grant Demetrius his freedom and even honor him with the exalted rank in the Pretorian guard. Believing God has betrayed his prayer to save Lucia, Demetrius renounces his faith and is set free from the arena, taking with him Glycon to be his loyal servant.
A short while later, Demetrius indulges his earthly desires with Messalina at the summer retreat she once shared with Claudius (actually the same set used as Marcellus’ house in The Robe). Caligula is amused by their affair. He delights in taunting his uncle with rumors that his wife is being unfaithful with Demetrius. But before long Peter arrives to confront Demetrius, not with words of admonishment, but love. The next afternoon, Caligula – insane with fits of anger over his guards’ inability to reclaim the robe, orders that unless it is located immediately and brought to him he will have ever tenth man in the Pretorian guard crucified as a warning to others not to fail their Emperor.
Claudius suggests instead that Caligula appoint Demetrius to the task of recovering the robe. If Demetrius is successful, Caligula promises no more bloodshed. However, if he fails the Emperor threatens that the streets of Rome will run red with the blood of his enemies. To spare Peter and the rest from certain death, Demetrius demands of Peter that he give him the sacred cloth, only to discover that it is currently being clutched in Lucia’s hands – the girl having not died, but rather fallen into a catatonic state ever since the night of the orgy, yet somehow caught in peaceful repose so long as she clings to the robe.
In attempting to dislodge the robe from Lucia’s hands, Demetrius is reminded of the fateful moment at the crucifixion (a flashback from The Robe) when Christ bowed his head, saying “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do.” His faith restored, Demetrius rises to see Lucia shaken from her paralytic slumber, giving Demetrius the robe to bring to the Emperor. But Caligula is unimpressed by the modest garment, more over disillusioned after he deliberately has a Christian prisoner slaughtered to see if the robe will work its spell and restore the man to life. There is no magic, however, and Caligula blames Demetrius, who attempts to strike Caligula down before a crowd in the throne room. Caligula condemns Demetrius to death in the arena. But Demetrius’ life is spared when the Pretorian Guards rebel against their Emperor, who is speared to death as he sits on his throne.
Claudius is declared the new Emperor and Messalina – who previously wept genuine tears at the thought of losing Demetrius – now rises to take her place by her elder husband’s side; confessing her sins to the court “now at an end too”. Claudius declares that from this day forward Christians shall have nothing to fear from Rome’s imperial seat of authority and Messalina quietly expresses to Demetrius “my husband and I wish you good fortune”; Demetrius, Peter and Glycon departing the throne room with freedom for all seemingly at hand.
Demetrius and the Gladiators is often a powerful and moving spectacle; swayed, as we are by the enormity of its sets and the cleverness and scope in its storytelling. In the late 1970’s, it became something of a sport amongst the rather chichi sect of popular film critics from their day to condemn and poke fun at these lavish exhibitions; just another religious potboiler prone to nonsensically quaint notions imbued with faux piety and fraught with oodles of historical inaccuracies.
Even so, Demetrius and the Gladiators is an estimable effort to say the least; done with reverence and capturing at least the essence of Biblical storytelling without strictly adhering to any particular text from either the Old or New Testaments. Critics who write off films like this as mere hokey legend wrapped in the enigma of the Christ are perhaps missing the point: that once seen they continue to serve a fundamental purpose, stirring something reminiscent of our own genuine faith from within. Even if the tale is fictitious, the sentiments expressed rarely devolve into rank parody.
The tableau effect so often associated with these titanic entertainments – appearing almost as moving renditions of famous paintings depicting stories from the Bible, is refreshingly absent in Demetrius and the Gladiators, but is also, at once, greatly tempered by the fact that there is no Biblical equivalent to the story being told herein. Thus, there remains just enough of a framework to allow for the screenwriter’s formidable artistic license. It’s an enviable movie about Gods and men that can continue to resonate with an audience some seventy plus years after its initial release. But Demetrius and the Gladiators does just that. It remains one of Fox’s truly impressive Bible-fiction epics.
More’s the pity that no one at Fox considers this film worthy of as much. For Demetrius and the Gladiators, apart from being given limited release through Twilight Time, exhibits none of the meticulous restoration work performed on its predecessor, The Robe. Herein, it behooves the reader to reconsider that Twilight Time merely licenses pre-existing HD masters from Fox. It does none of its own restoration. So the onus is on Fox Home Video. But the studio has proven in the past to have a very spotty track record where their catalogue titles are concerned. Personally, I am of the opinion that if a movie is good enough to get a 1080p reissue – even as a limited edition – then it deserves the utmost consideration. We don’t get that on Demetrius and the Gladiators; instead, a hi-def transfer derived from 2K files made from intermediate elements mastered back in 2008 or thereabouts.
While the results are decidedly not awful, they are also not all that impressive. Color balancing is the big issue on this disc with tonality and density both off; the image suffering from some light to moderate fading; certain portions of the Eastman-color print looking very ruddy brown and/or orangey-red: flesh occasionally veering into that unnatural ‘piggy pink’. Fox has also made absolutely no attempt to clean up age-related dirt, damage, scratches and white blemishes throughout. They’re not heavy or distracting. But on HD monitors everything – especially the imperfections – tend to jump out. There’s also some built-in flicker. Setting aside one’s expectations for another classy restoration like the one afforded The Robe it is quite possible to enjoy Demetrius and the Gladiators for what it is. But it could have been a whole lot better.
There’s better news afoot with the audio; a 4.0 DTS-HD rendering that aptly recreates the original theatrical mix, complete with directionalized dialogue that follows the characters in the surround channels and exhibits remarkable robustness and clarity in Franx Waxman’s iconic underscore. One minor flub: dialogue occasionally seems ever so slightly out of sync with the lips moving on the screen. Whether this is a flaw inherent in the original dubbing process or something inadvertently tinkered with during the processing of this movie to disc is open for discussion. I suspect the latter but have no sound way of knowing for sure. Regrettably, the only extra herein is Twilight Time’s usual affinity for giving us an isolate score. Julie Kirgo’s liner notes are always a treat. More good stuff from her on this outing, but that’s about it. Bottom line: Demetrius and the Gladiators is a quality A-list production from Fox’s early Cinemascope craze. This hi-def transfer is a disappointment though, and no two ways of getting around it. I’m still going to recommend it for content, but with decided caveats.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)