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 did not seem to notice in The Robe’s case; having been primed for more gargantuan thrills after the release of This is Cinerama (1952). Both Cinemascope and The Robe were immediate sensations and Darryl F. Zanuck, not about to let a good thing go to waste, invested everything 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, Zanuck having the foresight to see a new dawn creeping over the horizon; one where ‘bigger is better’ would serve as a lure to those who had since 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 during its infancy. But in these early days of Cinemascope there was something of a misunderstanding as to how best utilize its vast proportions. The purer of faith and truer still to their craft were nonetheless dragged kicking and screaming into Cinemascope’s foray; ordered to fill its vast mailbox-shaped screen with spectacle and a lot of sparkle to boot. The early Bausch and Lomb lenses tended to inwardly warp any vertical objects situated near either the right or left edges of the screen while panning too quickly in either direction created an unusual anomaly mimicking gate weave. Close-ups were virtually impossible, the so-called Cinemascope ‘mumps’ – a horizontal stretching grotesquely elongating actors’ faces, making them look pudgy in anything more intimate than the proverbial medium two-shot. And Cinemascope’s vast horizontal expanse needed to be filled, if not with star presence, then decidedly with action. Too little movement and the scene, however delicately framed and filled with bric-a-brac, tended to look flat and empty. Too much and it simply became chaotic and distracting; the audience not knowing where to concentrate their attention span. In retrospect, the Bible/fiction epic was 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 was not nearly as 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 built for its predecessor – including the absolutely spectacular throne room and amphitheater for key sequences, plus virtually all the beaded diaphanous gowns and Centurion guard breastplates already assembled for The Robe. 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 gladiatorial arena by fate; 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 stringency of Hollywood’s self-governing code of ethics willing to look the other way only so far - mostly with regards to costuming, per say (women in cleavage-revealing 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 – or rather, transformed into lavish house and garden parties where the wine nevertheless 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.
As for religion…while nobody in America at this time would have referred to their nation as ‘an empire’ in the classical Roman sense – America’s ‘e pluribus unum’ pride was firmly aligned to an even more fervent adherence to those Judeo-Christian principles; ‘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 Bible-fiction stories like Demetrius and the Gladiators were as educational – if slightly top-heavy in their moralization as parables, or rather, blueprints for how one should aspire to live his/her life. Movies like this were perhaps more readily worshiped by the audiences for their scope and spectacle than their sermonized storytelling. But at their core, each remained the self-appointed custodian of America’s collective ideology 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 illustrated pageantry and implied debaucheries in glorious color by DeLuxe.
Looking back, one has to sincerely admire the machinery behind the exercise; the mammoth undertaking alone – mostly done on studio back lots and full scale, with an army of extras cheering, raising the bar very high in historical accuracy. When we reflect upon movies like Demetrius and the Gladiators today, they tend to take on a quaintly intelligent/quasi-historical methodology for critiquing humanity in the present; the ancient world’s woes strangely running parallel to our own. Have we really moved so little beyond this struggling Pagan ancestry that it could continue to ring so true? For this time, the conquering of society’s worst vices through a stringent adherence to one’s faith was seen as a noble pursuit vastly promoted in America’s houses of both religion and politics. If only it were so today! But Bible/fiction epics serve another purpose too; to promote a unified, unquestioning devotion to a singularly higher authority, 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. In case you haven’t noticed, it is not ‘fashionable’ (and in some places, even permissible) to take a sense of personal pride in Christianity any more.
Demetrius and the Gladiators is perhaps an easier epic to swallow than The Robe precisely because it leaves Jesus Christ and the crucifixion in the not so distant past. Apart from the movie’s 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 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 Demetrius and the Gladiators as a triumph of the human spirit over seemingly insurmountable odds and the mad Emperor, Caligula (played again with demonic clarity by Jay Robinson). Sin itself is deliciously reincarnated herein as 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 nobleman, granting mercy and pledging tolerance to an unfaithful spouse with outstretched hands – professing, at least in the final moments – to 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 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 placed in Demetrius’ care, 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 is well-known at court. Afterward, the thoroughly mad Caligula places 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. Unable to bring himself to accept their deaths Demetrius offers 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 for him until Peter’s arrival. Unhappy chance for all 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 gladiatorial school, presided over by Strabo (Ernest Borgnine); a one-time warrior given his freedom by Caligula. Later, Messalina sneaks into the school to see Demetrius. Once again, his attempts to flee are thwarted by the Pretorian Guard. Demetrius vows never to fight in the arena, telling Strabo that according 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 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. 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 he incurs 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 damaged by these attacks and Messalina quickly sees to his wounds. Restored to health, Demetrius is brought to Claudius’ home by Messalina. She attempts to break him of his Christian beliefs. Alas, her wily 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 their 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 it now appears these senators have been malicious 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 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, Messalina orders Demetrius’ to be returned to the gladiatorial 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 of his wife’s infidelities. But before long Peter arrives to confront Demetrius, not with words of admonishment, but love. The next afternoon, Caligula , fitfully enraged 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 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 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 he return the sacred cloth, only to discover it is currently clutched in Lucia’s hands. She has not died but fallen into a catatonic trance ever since the night of the orgy, caught in peaceful repose so long as she clings to Christ’s garment. 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 hand-woven cloth, disillusioned after he deliberately has a Christian prisoner slaughtered to see if the robe will work its spell and restore the corpse with life. There is no magic and Caligula now blames Demetrius, who attempts to strike him 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. Caligula 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 “now at an end too”. Claudius declares 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 humanity’s liberation seemingly at hand.
Demetrius and the Gladiators is often powerful; an unexpectedly moving spectacle - swayed, as we are, by the enormity of its sets and the cleverness and scope in its storytelling. Alas, in the late 1970’s, it became something of a blood sport with film critics to condemn and poke fun at these lavish exhibitions; just another religious potboiler prone to nonsensically quaint notions of Christianity at large, herein imbued with faux piety and fraught with oodles of historical inaccuracies. Fair enough: one cannot in good conscience deny certain artistic liberties have been taken. Even so, Demetrius and the Gladiators is an estimable effort: entertainment achieved with reverence and capturing at least the essence of a Biblical parable without strictly adhering to any particular text from either the Old or New Testaments. Critics who write off films like this as 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 from within something, if not quite pure, than distinctly reminiscent of our own genuine faith. Even if the tale is fictitious, the sentiments expressed never devolve into rank parody. The tableau effect so often associated with these titanic entertainments – appearing almost as animated renditions of famous Biblical paintings, is refreshingly absent from Demetrius and the Gladiators, but is also, at once, greatly tempered by the fact 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. In hindsight, this is an enviable movie about God and the men who continue to fight for the resonance in a truer faith, even when shown to an audience some seventy plus years after its initial release. And Demetrius and the Gladiators does just that; exquisitely so.
More’s the pity 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 this out of print disc fetching big bucks on Amazon is worthy of a lot more consideration. Personally, I am of the opinion if a movie is good enough to get a 1080p release – even as a limited edition – then it deserves the proper remastering and restoration to achieve the best possible results. We don’t get that on Demetrius and the Gladiators; a hi-def transfer derived from intermediate elements mastered back in 2008 or thereabouts. While the results are decidedly not awful, they are also not impressive. Color balancing is the big issue on this disc: tonality and density both off; the image suffering from some light to moderate fading too; certain portions of the Eastman-color looking very ruddy brown and/or orange-red: flesh occasionally veering into unnatural ‘piggy pink’. Fox has also made absolutely no attempt to clean up age-related dirt, damage, scratches and white blemishes throughout. While not heavy they are occasionally distracting. Ditto for the built-in flicker.
There is better news 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 porting over to disc is open for discussion. I suspect the latter, but have no real evidence to suggest as much. Regrettably, the only extra herein is Twilight Time’s usual affinity for 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: although made for roughly 1/3 the cost of its predecessor, Demetrius and the Gladiators is a quality A-list production. This hi-def transfer is a disappointment, and no two ways of getting around it. With Easter just around the corner I am still going to recommend it for content, but with decided caveats.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)