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Savant Review:

Demetrius and the Gladiators

Demetrius and the Gladiators
Fox Home Video
1954 / Color / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 102m.
Starring Victor Mature, Susan Hayward, Michael Rennie, Debra Paget, Anne Bancroft, Jay Robinson, Barry Jones, William Marshall, Richard Egan, Ernest Borgnine
Cinematography Milton R. Krasner
Art Direction George W. Davis, Lyle R. Wheeler
Film Editors Robert Fritch, Dorothy Spencer
Original Music Alfred Newman, Franz Waxman
Writing credits Philip Dunne based on characters from "The Robe" by Lloyd C. Douglas
Produced by Frank Ross
Directed by Delmer Daves

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.  2 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 Spartacus.

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 to skewer. 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 Below, etc.

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 condition, in 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 students.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Demetrius and the Gladiators rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Good
Sound: Good
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.

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