“You mean those Christians thought they were going to live forever? Ridiculous!”
With The Robe — Fox’s first Cinemascope production — barely completed, Fox sensed they had a success on their hands and moved quickly to put a sequel in motion. Demetrius, the slave set free in the previous film, was the focus of the sequel and a tale of his banishment to the arena of the gladiators and subsequently faith lost and regained was fashioned. A number of the principals from The Robe reprised their parts in Demetrius and the Gladiators, most notably Victor Mature in the title role.
In somewhat of a surprise given that The Robe is not yet available on DVD, Fox has recently released Demetrius and the Gladiators in a reasonable-looking if spare DVD package. I guess in this era of Gladiator (2000), any other film with the word “gladiator” in it is a candidate for a DVD release.
Demetrius, the freed Greek slave from The Robe has been entrusted with Jesus’ red robe by Peter, one of Jesus’ disciples. Roman efforts to retrieve the robe lead to a skirmish after which Demetrius is arrested and banished to fight in the arena of the gladiators. While there, Messalini (the wife of Claudius who is the uncle of the present Roman emperor Caligula) takes an interest in him. At first, Demetrius’ Christian beliefs prevent him from fighting, but a fateful incident — a young woman whom Demetrius cares for dies at the hands of several of the gladiators — forces Demetrius to retaliate. His faith lost because of the young woman’s apparent death, Demetrius soon becomes Messalini’s protégé and then her lover.
Meanwhile, Caligula has become convinced that he must have the robe, for he believes that it will confer the power of the gods on him. Demetrius is sent to find the robe and he eventually does, in the embrace of the young girl he had thought killed. When Demetrius attempts to take the robe from her, she comes alive and Demetrius’ faith is restored to him. Nevertheless, he takes the robe to Caligula as he had been ordered to do, but Caligula soon finds that the robe gives him no extra power at all. As a result, Demetrius is ordered returned to the arena where it appears that life will be short, for he has returned to his pacifist ways.
Demetrius and the Gladiators actually begins with several scenes from the end of The Robe, specifically the ones in which Jesus’ robe is passed on with instructions to see that it gets to the big fisherman, Peter. Then the opening credits appear and with them, the thrilling strains of Franz Waxman’s score. This is one of the great scores among a number of notable ones for the various biblical epics of the 1950s and early 1960s. It is one of the main pleasures of the film.
Another is the acting of several players who reprise their roles from The Robe. Jay Robinson, not particularly a household name among actors, is great as Caligula — delivering a nice blend of menace and megalomania. Susan Hayward as Messalini is quite convincing as the faithless, self-centered wife of Claudius, Caligula’s uncle. She’s an extremely attractive woman and her seduction of Demetrius is believably handled in the film. The one false note that arises from her character is her declaration of faithfulness to Claudius at the end. Or maybe not. She has portrayed such self-interest during the film that maybe she realizes that being true to Claudius and thus ensuring her place as wife of the new emperor is the only way to assure herself of having her own desires always met in the future. Michael Rennie as Peter has the right look and timbre in his voice to give the character the solemnity and inspiration it needs.
Less successful is Victor Mature as Demetrius. Mature looks the part and is reasonably effective in the action sequences, but he’s as stiff as a board otherwise. His two expressions seem to be either a smile or a grimace. Whichever one is closest to the required reaction is what he uses. I could never quite see the attraction of Mature in these roles, but I suppose it was the capability in action sequences that won out for him. Certainly, he became the king of the historical epic with his two appearances as Demetrius and other roles in Samson and Delilah (1949, Paramount), Androcles and the Lion (1952, RKO), The Egyptian (1954, Fox), and Hannibal (1960, WB). [Editor’s Note: That’s about the guy with the elephants, not the guy who eats people’s livers with fava beans and a nice Chianti.]
The main thing that Demetrius and the Gladiators has going for it is the fact that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Thus it is a more entertaining and less pious effort than The Robe, although I sometimes think that the latter gets overly criticized in that regard. The cinematography generally takes advantage of the wide screen, rather than trying to pander to it, which is probably one reason for the greater entertainment value that Demetrius and the Gladiators projects. Still, it’s a film that doesn’t convey the scale and cast-of-thousands-feeling of the best of the biblical epics — ones such as Ben-Hur (1959, MGM), The Ten Commandments (1956, Paramount), Solomon and Sheba (1959, UA), Spartacus (1960, Universal), and The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964, Samuel Bronston). One sequence that is quite effective though is Demetrius’ fight with the three tigers. It’s reasonably realistic although you’d see a lot more blood and gore were it being filmed today.
Fox’s DVD of Demetrius and the Gladiators presents the film in 2.55:1 anamorphic widescreen with 20 scene selections. The image is certainly no equal of WB’s recent effort on Ben-Hur although it does manage a more accurate rendering of reds. Otherwise, it’s a somewhat tired-looking effort. Colours are not uniformly bright and clear and a fair bit of speckling and the odd scratch mar the image. Edge enhancement is quite obvious at times. This is a film that obviously needs some sprucing-up, although one can still enjoy the proceedings well enough on the current disc.
The Dolby Digital 4.0 track does a very nice job of directional speech and sound effects across the fronts and conveys Waxman’s great score with considerable majesty. The surrounds kick in occasionally in the large crowd scenes. The mix is more engaging than the original stereo track, which is also included, however.
It’s always nice to see an older title being made available by Fox, but when so many other much superior classic Fox films haven’t seen the light of day, I really wonder about the company’s priorities. This is such an obvious cash-in on the current Gladiator, made even more blatant by the lack of any effort to really clean the film up. Then there’s a meager package of supplementary material that lacks imagination in the extreme. We get four theatrical trailers — essentially identical except they’re in different languages — and five trailers for other more contemporary Fox titles. If you’re going to put in some additional trailers, why not at least make them ones for films with some obvious connection to the one on the DVD?
Despite Fox’s rather cavalier treatment of Demetrius and the Gladiators, I’m glad to have it in my collection. It’s a worthy entry in the biblical epics genre — entertaining without taking itself too seriously. Who knows? If I watch it often enough, maybe I’ll come to see what it is that some people see in Victor Mature.