Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
This gaudy sequel starts where
The Robe left off, inventing new
adventures for the freed slave played by the inexpressive Victor Mature. The original's
shallow sermonizing is almost completely jettisoned here in favor of sex, action, and intrigue
in Caligula's court. The picture even has a sense of humor - perhaps. Probably taken dead
seriously when it came out, Demetrius and the Gladiators plays now like high camp.
Marcellus (Richard Burton) and Diana (Jean Simmons) are martyred by the deranged Emperor
Caligula (Jay Robinson), leaving Demetrius (Victor Mature) in custody of Christ's robe. The Christian
faith is still outlawed in Rome, and rumors abound that the robe is possessed of godlike powers.
When Demetrius resists soldiers sent by Caligula to retrieve it, he's hauled
away to the gladiator school owned by Caligula's Uncle Claudius (Barry Jones). Claudius'
unfaithful wife Messalina (Susan Hayward) is a schemer who's already attempted
to kill the emperor.
Demetrius clings to his faith and refuses to fight other men in the arena, despite the attempts of
Strabo (Ernest Borgnine) and Glydon (William Marshall) to train him. But he attracts the attention
of Messalina, whose jealousy results in the apparent death of Demetrius' sweeheart Lucia (Debra
Paget). Demetrius renounces Jesus, turns violent, and slays 5 gladiators in combat, including star
performer Dardanius (Richard Egan). When Peter (Michael Rennie) returns from the North, Caligula
finally gets his hands on the robe, forcing Demetrius to make some final choices.
Fox didn't scrimp on the budget for Demetrius and the Gladiators. The sets may be recycled,
but there's less reliance on cheesy matte paintings. True, the earlier film looks more lavish in
the two flashbacks, but Demetrius' action scenes are much more developed. Best of all,
producer Frank Ross put together a great cast, whose spirited seriousness helps the screenplay
through its more convoluted passages.
Michael Rennie again lends sobriety to the twisted concept
of Christianity shown here, 1
and the great Jay Robinson also returns to chew up the scenery as no one's done before or since.
Caligula's an extreme character, and Robinson's whining, nasal squeal does him justice. Robinson
practically foams at the mouth while mocking Susan Hayward for her infidelity. His overacted
leering suggests all kinds of obscenities that the film can't show. They've even put what look like
devilish horns on his little golden crown.
Susan Hayward is good in the movie but has the most difficult role, as most every scene requires
her Messalina to break a new commandment. She feigns decent feelings one moment and then does another
dirty deed the next. The picture seems campy now (that's the fun) but Savant's of the opinion that
Hayward was having a high old time playing it as depraved as the censors would allow. In one shot
she coyly asks Demetrius if he loves women in the same way he does his Christian brothers, and it
looks as if she's about to break out in hysterics. The dialogue is all pretty good for the genre, even
if it plays like a hoot now. When a sober, pre- Marty Ernest Borgnine (Gladiator instructor Strabo) tries to tell an obviously
unshockable Hayward that she might be shocked by a gladiator orgy, is just priceless.
Demetrius and the Gladiators has a large, fun cast. Barry Jones' Claudius gives his cuckold
character a needed sense of dignity, and otherwise stays out of the way. William Marshall
(Blacula, Pee Wee's The King of Cartoons) uses his rich baritone voice well, playing the
story's one real convert.
Fox contract hopefuls Anne Bancroft and Richard Egan, soon to be tossed to the winds of freelance
work, aren't given much of a chance to make an impression. A very young Debra Paget is
given the chance, but only comes off as gorgeous and a good screamer ("Dah mEEEE treeyusss!"). Buried
somewhere in the dancing girls is Julie Newmar; Woody Strode is said to be one of the gladiators, but
I didn't see anyone with the incredible build he worked up for the later
I don't have a strong opinion on Victor Mature, as he's always seemed a great guy who just didn't fit in
most of his movies, with perhaps the exception of One Million, B.C.. It's just too easy to
dismiss him as a bozo, as do many critics, and he certainly hasn't weathered well. He's good in
his early noir pictures, but doesn't help awful shows like Samson and Delilah. Most
reviews of Demetrius and the Gladiators declare open season on his performance,
but considering the context, he always seemed fine to me. How's that for being indecisive?
Actually, you have to hand it to the screenwriter for scripting such a coherent and entertaining film.
It had to touch far too many bases in its brief 102 minutes: the Cliffs' Notes version of
I, Claudius; the cliché of the royal temptress calling her slave into the bedroom; pious
sermonizing; two or three good doses of mayhem. Add to that the requirement to mollycoddle
the dozens of censor groups of the time, and Phillip Dunne hasn't done a bad job at all. Fox was happy:
Demetrius and the Gladiators made a pile of money.
Of course, we kids mainly wanted to see all the gory arena combat.
Previous sex, sin and sandal epics had been fairly reticent about showing the action down on the
playing field, but this picture ain't called Demetrius and the Gladiators for nothing.
We get pre-combat pep talks and screenfuls of battling dudes with funny helmets and cool weapons -
you can bet that we '60s kids immediately ran out and fought our own games with wooden sticks and trash can lids.
The fighting here is nicely choreographed, though nowhere near as graphic as in
Spartacus. There's some really good Tiger action,
without the benefit of digital enhancement. In some shots the big cats do seem more affectionate than
ferocious, but, what the hey. All in all, Demetrius and the Gladiators is a must-see if,
as Peter Graves says, 'You like Gladiator movies.' 3
Fox Video's DVD of Demetrius and the Gladiators is a good plainwrap disc. The image is
colorful but rather grainy, which is no fault of the mastering; elements for many color
films in 1954, right when the industry changed from Technicolor to Eastman's system, tend to be
hard to work with. Original matrices or separations may exist, but working from original Technicolor
sources is an expensive process not likely to be afforded a less than classic title like this one.
Fox's cover art is drab and monchromatic. The word 'gladiators' is three times as big as the rest of
the title, clearly to encourage confusion with a
similar recent title Savant loves
As with every studio's library product, Savant wants this show to be popular, in this case to
encourage Fox to bring out discs of early 'Scope pix like Garden of Evil, Bigger than
Life, House of Bamboo, The Hunters, Hell and High Water, The Enemy
The 16:9 letterboxed image looks fine, but the original show was even wider, at CinemaScope's
initial 2:55 aspect ratio. Chances are the transfer element is an adapted 2:35 internegative used
for reissues; you'll notice during the fight scenes that some of the action goes right to the edge of
the frame, and sometimes further. The sound is Dolby Digital, but seems much less dynamic, with
less channel separation, than The Robe.
Owners of Fox Video's pricey laserdisc from about 1991 will be happy to know that this new transfer
corrects that edition's disastrous frame-repetition at cuts. Whoever transferred the big fight scene
for that laser did each of the brief shots one by one. The allocation of 24 film frames to 30 video
frames across all those cuts resulted in almost every shot ending with two or three repeated fields
(half-frames). This made the action freeze for a spit second at every cut, completely ruining the
scene. Repeat: that's all been fixed here, and the gory spectacle of Victor Mature chopping up his
unlucky opponents is unimpaired.
The DVD isn't quite plainwrap. One extra has four rather long international trailers in excellent
four languages and chock-full of big text titles. "Der Seig!" flies onscreen in the German
version. The basic trailers are almost identical, so comparing them makes a great treat for language
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Demetrius and the Gladiators rates:
Supplements: Four original trailers in English, French, Spanish and German
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: February 9, 2002
1. The curious ideas about the Christian faith are minor but interesting.
As in Shaw's Androcles and the Lion, but without its sarcasm, hunky gladiator Demetrius
constantly wavers between refusing to fight out of principle, and slaughtering men and animals
right and left. Peter's always using the authority of his faith to passively shame or chastize
Demetrius. At one moment, keeping the robe out of the hands of Caligula is worth
the deaths of all the Christians in Rome; the next, Peter's urging Demetrius to deliver it in
person. True, that's after the robe has rekindled Demetrius' rather capricious faith. The robe is
wisely shown reviving a comatose Lucia instead of resurrecting a dead one. When the robe doesn't
produce any outright miracles, as it does in the first film, there's a nice message about the
value of Ideas over Objects, which modern Church life doesn't always emphasize. But the center
of the show is Demetrius' see-saw faith, which in the first film he was willing to
die for. His loss of devotion and refinding it, seems to depend on how well God
takes care of his girlfriend.
2. Does anybody else detect a Civil Rights inflection to William Marshall's
becoming the ultimate keeper of the robe? Or is he being used as a kind of holy valet?
3. The very best Gladiator picture, Barabbas, is due out soon from
Columbia TriStar. Its gigantic recreation of the Roman Circus is truly spectacular.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson
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