Sunday 13 May 2012

Demetrius and the Gladiators

Another Fine Messalina!

Demetrius and the Gladiators US 1954
Directed by Delmer Daves
20th Century Fox Region 2

This review is dedicated to @muttivon2 (Petra Cahill), one of my new twitter followers who has been patiently waiting for me to get on and watch and review this movie. Thanks for the prod! 

Warning: There are some spoilers in this one so tread cautiously. They do follow a standard Hollywood formula, though, so I suspect I’m not telling you anything you wouldn’t already guess.

Demetrius And The Gladiators, made in Cinemascope, carries on from The Robe (reviewed here) just a few minutes before it left off and uses the last scene in that movie as its prologue... with a quick insert shot of some new, important characters, such as Claudius and Messalina, who are spliced in to watch the two lovers from the previous film, Richard Burton and Jean Simmons, walk towards their death sentence. This is only fair, of course, because... since The Robe was already assumed to be a sure-fire succes when it was to be released, this sequel actually started shooting only three weeks after the previous film was shot and, as a result, some of the establishing shots of the gladiator school used in the earlier sequences here were borrowed to use as establishing shots in the opening sequence of The Robe... which was presumably still being edited while the daily rushes from this movie were coming in.

Question to my readers: Is this the only film in cinema history to have footage from its sequel already in it (prequels don’t count)? Please enlighten me.

Okay, so once again in this movie, The Robe of Christ is still a prominent artefact in that it holds power in the minds of both the Christians and Emporer Caligula, once again played by Jay Robinson. Most of the important, original cast of The Robe are back for this one, including Michael Rennie as Peter, who is mostly in this one at the start and at the end of the movie as a framing character who pretty much comes to the rescue of the title character, again played by Victor Mature, when Demetrius has renounced his faith and principles. But I’m getting ahead of myself...

Caligula is getting more and more outrageous in this movie and wants to find The Robe for himself, since he is convinced by the comments of Messalina , Claudius’ wife (and future lover of Demetrius) who wants Caligula dead, that he is a God on earth, and therefore could use the supernatural powers which he believes are to be found in The Robe. Meanwhile Demetrius is captured and put in gladiator school when he punches out a Roman for mistreating his “girlfirend”. Messalina is fascinated by him and wants to see if, as a Christian, he’ll fight to the death. He doesn’t, at first, kill any of his human combatants but proves his mettle by killing off a lot of tigers (presumably tigers are less important than men in the Christian faith) and after he sees his girlfriend die (or so he thinks) at the hands of some of the gladiators, he renounces his Christianity and takes bloody vengeance in the collisseum against those responsible. He then takes Messalina as a lover and rises in the ranks.

However, when Caligula’s madness forces Demetrius to confront his former fellow Christians, including Peter, to retrieve The Robe, he discovers that his girlfriend was just in a coma and has been seeking comfort in this inmportant piece of cloth. With Demetrius’ arrival, she is made well. So Demetrius takes up his Christianity again, as suddenly and as unconvincingly as he renounced it earlier in the film, but is sentenced to more carnage in Caligula’s collisseum when the Emporer of Rome cannot get his head around the idea that The Robe does not do him any good and is only any use as a symbol of a lifestyle, and not the supernatural magic wand he’d hoped for.

Things are at the worst possible situation? Will Demetrius have his throat cut in the arena? Will Caligula’s madness never cease? Well, if you’re familiar with the standard Hollywood 50s movie then you’ll probably have already figured out the answer to that one but, just remember, the last movie ended with the death of the two lead protagonists so... well you may yet be surprised. Probably not but, after the last movie, anything could happen.

This was a pretty good and entertaining flick. A good, work-a-day director keeping everything on track and to the predictable Hollywood formula but, you know, that’s no bad thing and not always so easy to do, either. You’ll be rooting for Demetrius and his chums all the way through and shaking your fist at the antics of Caligula... and one scene right near the end may even have you cheering with anticipated blood lust... but I’ll leave you to discover that for yourself.

The score for the former movie was handled by legendary 20th Century Fox studio composer Alfred Newman and it was considered at the time (and now too, I believe) to be one of the great, classic soundtracks. So it annoyed a lot of people that The Robe was one of the few Newman scored pictures to not receive an Academy Award nomination for that year (I believe Newman won another oscar that year anyway, for another film score, but his outstanding work on the score to The Robe was not officially recognised... although I understand the studio heads were well pleased with it).

One of the people who was particularly annoyed that Newman didn’t get an Oscar nod for The Robe was skilled composer Franz Waxman (The Bride Of Frankenstein, The Spirit Of St. Louis etc.) who was tapped to provide a score for Demetrius And The Gladiators. As a result, and since Waxman wanted to use some of Newman’s themes and work them into the lietmotif of this movie, Waxman insisted that Newman get a “themes” credit on his own credit card alongside him. Nice move and Waxman’s score certainly serves the film well, with Newman’s motiffs for The Robe worked in whenever the garment is being talked about or is seen on screen. In many ways, in fact, this is almost (but not quite) a better score than the original in that the music all works together more appropriately than it did a few times in the former picture where there were, at least in my opinion, some jarring musical choices during certain scenes which did not blend well in their juxtaposition to certain other scenes.

That being said, though, the music is more keyed into a more stable environment on this one because it’s not the globetrotting, Biblical road movie its predeccessor was... this one is pretty much all set in Rome (barring the odd reused footage flashback to the previous movie) and so, in some ways, perhaps the less cosmopolitan nature of the second movie informed the musical limitations to a less jarring result?

Demetrius And The Gladiators is a fine film. True, it’s 1950s Hollywood style Christian propoganda at best, but there’s really nothing wrong with enjoying that kind of movie and this one will certainly hold your interest while you’re waiting to see if Demetrius will let go of his passive nature long enough to take vengeance against those who would set themselves up as his enemies. It’s also got a very young, pre-Marty Ernest Borgnine in it as the tough, but kindly, head of the gladiator school. He doesn’t do much in this one but he’s always a comforting actor to watch on screen. A friendly face if ever there was one.

This one’s definitely worth a watch if you liked the first one and have never seen it before but, a word of caution. While it probably works just fine as a stand alone movie experience, you’ll get a much richer entertainment from it if you watch the The Robe first. Obviously, it’d make a heck of a good double bill.


  1. How kind my friend! XOX Thanks and I am glad you finally got your hands on this movie and where able to watch it.
    I read your review with great interest and think we may feel the same way about these movies. But first I have to watch Demetrius & the Gladiators! lol I will heed your recommendation and watch The Robe first. So thanks again & I will let you know what I think of the movie! ;-)

  2. Hi Petra,

    Thanks again for reading and commenting. You've no idea how much it means to me when someone comes on here and reads something... it's very much apppreciated.

    Ha! Yeah, like you've never seen The Robe before. ;-)

    Yes, please let me know what you think of Demetrius & Co... I look forward to hearing your views.

    Again, thanks for reading and for taking the time to comment.

    All the best to you.