The trend is Hollywood to make sequels to successful pictures isn't a recent invention, no matter how much the press (and this reviewer) may complain about it. The eminently sensible practice dates back to the silent era and to books before that. So it should come as no surprise that after 20th Century Fox's CinemaScope Biblical epic The Robe, which did well at the box office and was nominated for seven Academy Awards (it would win three), has a sequel. Also filmed in CinemaScope, Demetrius and the Gladiators offers more action (both in the arena and in the bedroom) than its inspiration did, and is an exciting film for its time. Now the epic gets the Blu-ray treatment from Twilight Time and it's sure to please fans.
Picking up where The Robe (a film about the Roman Centurion who won Jesus' robe as he was being crucified) ended, this movie follows freed slave Demetrius (Victor Mature) who is entrusted with giving holy robe to the disciple Peter. Unfortunately the Emperor Caligula (Jay Robinson) has heard that the relic has miraculous powers and wants it for himself. When Demetrius refuses to reveal the robe's location he's shipped off to gladiator school.
Being a Christian, Demetrius refuses to fight other men in the arena but has a crisis of faith when his love, Lucia (Debra Paget), is killed even though he prayed to God to keep her safe. Then it's all-out carnage in the coliseum as Demetrius takes on lions, gladiators, and anything else that they can throw at him. He also manages to catch the eye of Senator Claudius' wife, Messalina (Susan Hayward), who takes shine to the buff slave. Demetrius is soon climbing the ranks and eventually becomes noticed by the emperor himself, who asks him to renounce Christ, which he readily does and is freed. Will the fighter win his freedom only to lose his eternal soul? The movie was made in 1950's America, what do you think?
One of the striking things about this sequel is that it's quite different in tone than the original. This story, while still religious, jettisons a lot of the preaching and replaces it with sex and violence, almost as if they were daring censors to complain about it, since it is about the virtues of being a Christian (or so the producers would have argued). While this movie is tame compared to what you can see on television today, in its day the arena fights were undoubtedly violent and the bedroom sequences racy.
Victor Mature does a good job in the lead role. He's attractive and fit, but more importantly he brings a sense of dignity to the role. If anything he's a bit too restrained in some of his scenes, but that hat works well in context. The same can't be said for Jay Robinson who takes every chance he gets to chew the scenery playing the mad emperor. I actually enjoyed the over-the-top performance; things were always interesting when he was on the screen.
The best way to think of this film is to imagine an Italian swords-and-sandals flick but without the goofiness, a decent budget, and a cast of A-list characters. It's a serious film, but one that has a lot of fun.
The movie comes with a DTS-HD Master Audio 4.0 English audio track that sounds superb. It's easy to tell that this was one of the first films to be released with multi-channel audio (to compete with that new threat to theaters: television) as the sound engineers were having a great time playing with their new toy. There is a lot of directionality in the soundtrack with voices and audio effects coming from one side of the room or even from one discrete channel. Even with the age of the production the disc sounds very good with a nice amount of range and no background hiss or noise that can plague the audio from movies this old.
Twilight Time's transfer looks very good. The movie was filmed in CinemaScope and the 2.55:1 ratio is preserved and the 1080p AVC encoded disc brings the movie to life. That's not to say the picture is perfect. The movie was made in 1954 and the print does have some dirt here and there. The colors aren't as vibrant as they could be and they have a slightly brown tint throughout. The level of detail isn't as great as on some HD discs, though it is leaps and bounds better than the DVD that was released around a decade ago. Overall it's a nice looking disc with some minor problems.
The disc includes only the barest of extras: an isolated music score and the original theatrical trailer.
While Demetrius and the Gladiators doesn't have the gravitas of its prequel, The Robe, but it makes up for it with more sex and violence. It's an enjoyable and exciting film that's well worth checking out. Recommended.