Perhaps long before film editors has snipped together a rough cut of Gallio (Richard Burton) and Diana’s (Jean Simmons) happy walk to death in The Robe [M] (1953), Fox greenlit a sequel where Demetrius (Victor Mature), Peter (Michael Rennie) and Caligula (Jay Robinson) duke it out in ancient Rome.
It’s a really savvy move, considering The Robe hadn’t even been released to the few theatres equipped to exhibit CinemaScope and Perspecta surround sound. Robe co-screenwriter Philip Dunne was brought back to hammer out a new story where freed slave and newbie Christian convert Demetrius is thrown into Caligula’s gladiator school when he refuses to divulge the location of Jesus’ humble (and oft-sniffed) robe, and tried to defend his girlfriend Lucia (Debra Paget, once again pouty & victimized by men) from authoritarian Roman scum.
Demetrius initially refuses to fight as a gladiator – he’s a Jesus boy! – but a wretched event causes him to lose faith, and with a black heart he fills it with multiple kills, gilded material possessions, indulges in a hunger for Claudius’ wife Messalina (bitch!) until he once again he sees the Holy Light and shames Caligula’s empire for its wicked, bloodthirsty ways… just as the emperor’s own generals are posed to hack him to pieces, setting the stage for a more pragmatic rule by Claudius. With Claudius’ benevolent mind now leading Rome, Christians could sleep better, knowing the next few years will yield a more moderate, enlightened period.
Demetrius is a classic feel-good Biblical epic that reinforces pride in faith, fidelity, good morals, and good governance for a film-going public which, as detailed in The Robe BR extras, were largely Christian and avid church attendees. Religion perhaps maintained its prominence in films so potently because it also acted as a colourful, affecting film diorama when the psychological horrors of WWII combat, poverty, and the potential Red Menace were making the postwar life more challenging than the wondrous world depicted in washing machine, sports car, and breakfast cereal ads on the idiot box.
The need to make audiences feel good after 100 minutes (using a tried & true Biblical epic formula pioneered with gusto by Cecil B. DeMille) also ensured a lot of contrived plot twists, many of which are a little rich.
When girlfriend Lucia is killed by alpha gladiator Dardanius (buffed Richard Egan), it’s a major shocker, because it happens brutally fast, and the subtext of the scene – better to be dead than gang-raped by sex-starved, bloodthirsty gladiators – is really shocking for the time. (Then again, had there been any objections, Dunne, Robe producer Frank Ross, and director Delmer Daves could’ve used the DeMille Clause: ‘These things happened in evil Rome, and given the film is a faithful recreation of the era, we must be accurate!’)
However, when Lucia emerges alive, it is a twist steeped in pure scriptorial bullshit: apparently a vision of Jesus convinced her it ‘twasn’t her time, a lo she doth returned to the world of the living, waiting for the right time to reveal herself to boyfriend Demetrius when he was at his most cold-hearted, and un-Christian. (The trailer included on Twilight Time’s Blu-ray contains additional dialogue that was snipped from the release version. It’s an alternate scene that went too far in the faith verbiage, hence the scene’s current and less bathetic state.)
END OF SPOILERS
Even with its obvious goofiness, Demetrius is great fun: Mature fights more men than he can physically handle and fights & kills Caligula’s lions in a steeped homage to Mature’s lion fight in DeMille’s Samson and Delilah (1948); it’s a moment of hyperbolic ego that would reach ludicrous proportions when Mature would ‘fight’ frayed power lines like some giant nest of rattlesnakes in the 3D puffball thriller Dangerous Mission [M] (1954).
Susan Hayward is great as assertive, sleazy bitch Messalina, and it’s fun to see her outsmart & upstage all the men, and in a great vase-knocking scene emasculate Demetrius with a self-satisfying grin.
The film’s real stars, however, are the up-and-coming contract actors who distinguish themselves in small supporting roles and bit parts, including Egan, soon to star in a string of big Fox productions (not to mention Howard Hughes’ / RKO’s breast-centric Underwater!); Paget, slowly making her way up from ingénue roles to her patented screen persona of the timeless brutalized waif; Anne Bancroft as a hooker (filmed the same year as her own 3D thriller, Gorilla at Large); British character actor Barry Jones (Prince Valiant) as a very convincing, less nuanced Claudius; William Marshall (Blacula) as moral gladiator Glycon; and Ernest Borgnine as the head of Caligula’s gladiator school. (Reportedly within the extras are Julie Newmar as a dancer, and both Russell Johnson and Woody Strode as gladiators.)
Milton Krasner’s cinematography makes use of the same elaborate sets erected with scope and style for The Robe, but he sort of goofed in an early shot when the camera tracks out into the gladiator forum and behind the Roman pillars are Los Angeles telephone poles. Oops.
Franz Waxman’s score balances Alfred Newman’s gorgeous Robe theme with new material (the opening scene is still one of the best title sequences Waxman ever scored), and the gladiator combat sequences are really engaging, perhaps because director Daves had already done a spate of westerns and seemed to figure there was no reason to change his filming style because of a wider ratio.
Twilight Time’s BR includes a theatrical trailer as well as another concise essay by film historian Julie Kirgo. The HD transfer is very nice, and is perhaps more natural than the glitzier Fox BR of The Robe due to less digital noise scrubbing; it’s an un-restored print, but still looks and sounds far better than prior DVD incarnations.
Pity there aren’t any ephemeral extras beyond the trailer – perhaps Fox chose to save just The Robe publicity pap and buried the rest in deep storage – but TT’s BR does feature Waxman’s score, isolated in booming, uncompressed stereo.
Delmer Daves may be one of Fox’s least remembered directors except by the fans who recognized his skills as writer & director in genres kind of foisted onto him by the studio. He directed beautiful, mopey Paget several times – Broken Arrow (1950), the richly exotic Bird of Paradise (1951) – and years later directed Egan as the frustrated yet reasonable dad in the teen weepy A Summer Place (1959), after which he settled into a string of clichéd romantic mush pictures.
Fox liked to move their stars and fresh talent like chess pieces, so it was only a matter of time (like, one year) before Egan, Mature, and Borgnine would play a rich snot, a decent sheriff, and a Amish pacifist farmer, respectively, in the underrated Violent Saturday [M] (1955) – another film that proved both Egan and Mature could hold their own with stage and live TV actors such as veteran Borgnine.
© 2012 Mark R. Hasan