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Twilight Time has expanded its licensing base to include Sony Pictures' Columbia library, but their contract with 20th Fox will continue as well. The newest Fox title is a key Roman gladiator picture, an early CinemaScope feature with all the trimmings -- an extra-wide screen ratio and original stereophonic sound. In the clarity of Blu-ray HD, this gaudy epic is a winner for lovers of vintage Biblical epics.
Demetrius and the Gladiators is an official sequel to the premiere CinemaScope attraction The Robe. It starts exactly where that blockbuster left off, inventing new adventures for the freed slave played by the earnest 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. Possibly taken dead seriously when new, this toga & peplum saga now plays like high camp.
When Marcellus (Richard Burton) and Diana (Jean Simmons) are martyred by the deranged Emperor Caligula (Jay Robinson), Demetrius (Victor Mature) is left 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 has already attempted to kill the emperor. Demetrius clings to his faith and refuses to fight other men in the arena despite the attempts of trainers 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' sweetheart Lucia (Debra Paget). Demetrius renounces Jesus, turns violent, and slays five 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. Demetrius is forced to make some traumatic 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 the new action scenes are much more developed. Best of all, the great cast assembled by producer Frank Ross plays everything spirited but straight, helping the screenplay through its more convoluted passages.
Michael Rennie again lends sobriety to the film's twisted concept of Christianity. 1 The great Jay Robinson returns to chew up the scenery as no one's done before or since. Caligula's an extreme character, and the actor'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 looks like devilish horns on his little golden crown. Frankly, Jay Robinson's performance is so original and striking, calling it 'bad' is just plain wrong. I can see a mad tyrant behaving a lot like this. Heck, I've worked for DVD producers who behaved almost like this.
Susan Hayward is good in the movie but has the most difficult role. Most every scene requires her Messalina to break a new commandment. She feigns decent feelings one moment and the next is doing another dirty deed. 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 now plays like a hoot. 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, her reaction is priceless.
The cast is packed with fun talent. Barry Jones' Claudius gives his cuckold character a needed sense of dignity and otherwise stays out of the way. William Marshall (Blacula, Pee Wee Herman's The King of Cartoons) makes good use of his rich baritone voice, playing the story's one real convert. 2 Fox contract hopefuls Anne Bancroft and Richard Egan aren't given much of a chance to make an impression. She would soon be tossed to the winds of freelance work; he would gain a Fox contract but do most of his work on loan-out. A very young Debra Paget is given the chance, but mainly comes off as gorgeous and a good screamer ("Dah mEEEE treeyusss!"). Buried somewhere amid the dancing girls is Julie Newmar. Woody Strode is one of the gladiators. He doesn't get a close-up but you can't help but recognize the incredible build that later became so iconic in Spartacus.
I don't have a strong opinion about Victor Mature, as he's always seemed a great guy who was never taken seriously as an actor. He's good in his early noir pictures, but his lasting image was formed in awful shows like Samson and Delilah. Most reviews of Demetrius declared open season on Mature's performance, but considering the context, he always seemed fine to me. How's that for being indecisive?
Actually, one must congratulate the screenwriter for sculpting such a coherent and entertaining film from such dubious material. It touches quite a few bases in its brief 102 minutes: a Cliffs' Notes version of I, Claudius; the cliché of the royal temptress calling her slave into the boudoir; 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: it made a pile of money.
Of course, we kids mainly wanted to glom 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. It delivers pre-combat pep talks and screens full of battling dudes with cool weapons and funny helmets. Demetrius' helmet looks like the hood ornament from a vintage Oldsmobile. You can bet that we '60s kids immediately ran out and fought our own games with wooden sticks and trashcan lids. The fighting here is nicely choreographed, though nowhere near as graphic as in Spartacus. Some really good action with a tiger is staged without benefit of digital enhancement. In a few shots the big cats do seem more affectionate than ferocious, but what the hey. All in all, the entertaining Demetrius and the Gladiators has nothing to be ashamed of.
Twilight Time's Blu-ray of Demetrius and the Gladiators comes to us ten years after Fox's original DVD release. Time has left its mark on the printing materials, as the entire show is dusted with a bit more grain than one would like. Although colors are strong, the range of hues suggests that some scenes required considerable work to yield a satisfactory image. That said, the resolution of HD gives us far more detail in those wide arena shots with four and five pairs of gladiators fighting at once. And we can now detect the careful mattes where the tigers have been inserted into scenes.
A few matte shots recycled from The Robe look fine, but two full sequences replayed from that movie (the sentencing of Marcellus and Diana, Demetrius on Calvary Hill) are very grainy, as they were of course duped from the earlier movie master. But the color close-ups of Susan Hayward look better than ever.
The old DVD has a couple of things this new disc does not. An original trailer is provided, but the 2002 disc carried four trailers in different language versions. And Fox apparently does not provide Twilight Time with subtitles, as does Sony. Hearing-impaired viewers are out of luck.
The Twilight Time disc is topped off with a colorful insert pamphlet. The informative essay by Julie Kirgo explains that this sequel was being filmed even before principal photography for The Robe had been completed; studio head Darryl Zanuck wanted to get the most out of his expensive exterior sets. The Isolated Music Score is a real treat this time. Franz Waxman's striking Roman marches and Imperial fanfares aren't as well known as those by Miklos Rozsa, but they don't overpower the film either. Frankly, I find Demetrius and the Gladiators to be a better film than The Robe simply because it isn't consumed by its own self-importance.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Demetrius and the Gladiators Blu-ray rates:
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 wavers between refusing to fight out of principle, and eagerly slaughtering men and animals right and left. Peter repeatedly uses the authority of his faith to passively shame or chastise 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 urges 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. To its credit the sequel's robe doesn't produce any outright miracles, as it does in the first film. That'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. The loss and restoration of our hero's Christian devotion seems to depend entirely 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 designated as a kind of holy valet?
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T'was Ever Thus.