dir. Delmer Daves
1954 / 20th Century Fox / 102′
written by Philip Dunne
director of photography Milton R. Krasner
origianl music by Franz Waxman
starring Victor Mature, Susan Hayward, Michael Rennie, Debra Paget, Anne Bancroft, Jay Robinson, Barry Jones, and William Marshall
reviewed from a screener provided by Twilight Time
Demetrius and the Gladiators is available on Blu-ray from Twilight Time in a limited edition of 3000, and is offered exclusively through Screen Archives Entertainment and their Amazon storefront.
Pushed into production before The Robe had even wrapped by producers content with the likelihood of that film’s success but not with the thought of wasting its expensive dressings, the 1954 sequel Demetrius and the Gladiators is understandably a bit smaller and less refined than its epic progenitor, but that doesn’t keep it from being gobs more fun. Ostensibly a religious drama about the ebb and flow of one (very) early Christian’s faith in Caligula’s Rome, Demetrius punctuates its piety with hearty helpings of good old-fashioned violent spectacle – ‘gladiators’ isn’t in the title for nothing.
Demetrius and the Gladiators finds The Robe‘s eponymous artifact – the robe worn by Christ to Calvary - in the protective custody of that titular Demetrius (Victor Mature reprising his role from the previous film) while its chief protector, the apostle Peter (Michael Rennie in another carry-over role), is away on urgent church business. Unfortunately for Demetrius the increasingly mad Roman emperor Caligula (returning player Jay Robinson in a delightfully outrageous turn) wants the robe for himself, convinced that it possesses a power that will render him literally divine. It isn’t long before the Praetorian guard are knocking at Demetrius’ door, and when a scuffle with them turns violent the devout ex-slave finds himself involuntarily inducted into Strabo’s (Ernest Borgnine!) gladiatorial academy and destined for combat in the Emperor’s private arena. There he captures the fertile imagination of Messalina (Susan Hayward as a Code-friendly variation on the nymphomaniacal third wife of future Roman emperor Claudius), who finds perverse gratification in forcing the good Christian to fight against man and beast.
Demetrius’ devotion to peace and good will doesn’t last long, however. The presumed death of his potter girlfriend Lucia (Debra Paget, The Ten Commandments) at the hand of a fellow gladiator soon has the pectoral hunk renouncing his faith and slaughtering his co-combatants wholesale, much to the delight of Caligula and his Praetorian guard, who appoint him to their ranks as a tribune, as well as Messalina, with whom Demetrius begins an affair. Meanwhile Caligula goes madder, hallucinating that the gods are walking his palace’s halls and becoming increasingly paranoid of plots (both real and imagined) against him…
Limited to just a handful of admittedly gargantuan sets and over and done with in a sight less than two hours Demetrius and the Gladiators really can’t help but feel on the small side compared to its mega-produced big brother The Robe, but it’s a distinction that ultimately works in the film’s favor. Focusing on just a few of that previous film’s surviving players and adding but a handful more, Philip Dunne’s capable screenplay works perfectly well as entertainment even as its ramshackle contrivance becomes increasingly obvious. The obligatory religious dramatics are more a means to an end than anything else, and leave poor Demetrius to seem more than a little the flake – one moment he’s ready to die for his beliefs, the next he’s tearing through Caligula’s private arena with a sword in each hand. The degree of Demetrius’ faith seems wholly dependent on the fate of his girlfriend here – an odd turn to be sure for a character whose Christianity was previously affirmed by no less than witnessing the crucifixion first hand, but it does get the action moving towards the arena, an essential development for a film whose credits spell out THE GLADIATORS at a scale considerably larger than that granted its eponymous hero.
The Hays Code may have put the kibosh on any possibility of overt blood and gore, but Demetrius and the Gladiators still offers audiences plenty of lavish arena-bound action. The show-stopper, despite the obviousness of its artifice, may be Demetrius’ first go in the arena when, after surviving a round with the King of Cartoons (a young William Marshall as Glycon), Caligula orders that the tigers be loosed upon him. A skillful blend of composite effects and stunts with trained animals make the sequence a real thrill, even when the tigers inevitably end up appearing more friendly than threatening. With skilled stuntmen and fencing instructor Jean Heramans (Scaramouche) at his disposal, all-purpose director Delmer Daves (Dark Passage, 3:10 to Yuma) proves himself more than adept in delivering Demetrius‘ big-screen action set pieces. Though essentially bloodless (Demetrius typically finishes off his opponents by bopping them on the helmet, complete with a sanitized, meatless sound effect) the choreography and set-ups are quite good, particularly when Demetrius is in his revenge-fueled dual-bladed frenzy.
Demetrius and the Gladiators is rarely great film making, but it is never less than good enough. The wonderfully erratic work of Jay Robinson, whose Caligula slithers about his palace with cool, reptilian menace, and the bosom-heaving performance of Susan Hayward, tempting enough despite being but a shadow of the notorious historical Messalina, help to elevate the show beyond the cash-in ambitions of its producers, while the much maligned Wtf-Film favorite Victor Mature seems well at home in yet another religious epic (following his turns in Samson and Delilah, Androcles and the Lion, and The Robe). This is good stuff, provided you don’t take it too seriously, and essential viewing for sword and sandal buffs.
Whether due to deficiencies in the available source materials, the age of the HD transfer, or both, Demetrius and the Gladiators looks substantially weaker in its Blu-ray debut than either its predecessor The Robe or the impossibly vibrant The Egyptian - Fox’s other lavish CinemaScope religious epic from 1954. The presence of a variety of damage, ranging from minor dust and debris to larger blemishes and even a few nasty vertical scratches, indicates that at the very least Demetrius hasn’t been treated to the same level of restoration Fox has bestowed upon those other films. As such Demetrius offers perhaps the weakest HD video presentation yet for niche label Twilight Time, but I still found it an imminently watchable disc and easily the superior of past editions.
Presented at the appropriate extra-wide 2.55:1 aspect ratio, the 1080p transfer has a lower level of detail than even the limitations of early CinemaScope lenses can explain – a factor compounded by an especially course, unrefined grain structure (just compare the grain in the screenshots here to that of the DeLuxe CinemaScope The Egyptian or the Technicolor CinemaScope Picnic). While contrast is strong color saturation rarely follows suit, falling short of the sort of lushness Demetrius‘ original Technicolor prints would have exported and often lending the film a dusty, subdued appearance – the image also appears unnaturally dark and overly red to these eyes. Even with all that in mind the presentation still thoroughly trounces that of the older DVD edition (released a decade ago), and the imperfect image is free of any undue digital manipulations. Twilight Time provide their typically strong technical backing as well. The video is Mpeg-4 AVC-encoded at a healthy average bitrate of 33.2 Mbps, and the relatively short feature (at least by epic standards) stretches comfortably into dual layer territory.
Blu-ray screenshots were captured as full resolution .png in Totem Movie Player, and compressed to .jpg at a quality setting of 97% using the ImageMagick command line tool.
Far less troublesome is the audio, which presents Demetrius and the Gladiators‘ original 4-track surround mix in lossless DTS-HD MA. The separation here is notable, and obviously intended for BIG theatrical projection – even the dialogue makes full use of the track’s right, left, and center channels. While the dialogue and sound effect sound as strong as can be expected from the vintage mix it’s Franz Waxman’s exhilarating score (which also incorporates themes adapted from Alfred Newman’s score for The Robe) that really wows. Waxman’s compositions are as essential Demetrius‘s epic style as its enormous sets and color CinemaScope photography, and I found his heroic opening melody bouncing about in my brain long after the imagery had faded. The only drawback on the audio front is, again, a lack of optional English subtitles. Fox’s own editions always come with a mix of them, and that they aren’t even providing Twilight Time with an SDH track is a crying shame.
Supplements are light, as expected (and advertised), with an original trailer (in SD) providing the only video extra. The only other supplement is of excellent stuff, however – Franz Waxman’s score, included as an isolated DTS-HD MA 2.0 track. The Film Score Monthly CD issue of the same is long out of print, and the importance of its addition here should not be understated. Twilight Time’s typically excellent packaging (which amusingly reverses the trend of giving the word “GLADIATORS” dominance over the name of the film’s hero) is again highlighted by a liner essay from the esteemed Julie Kirgo, who clearly has a ball discussing the film even screenwriter Philip Dunne labelled a “harebrained adventure”.
Demetrius and the Gladiators may be a harebrained adventure, but it wouldn’t have retained a quarter of its substantial appeal if it were anything else. Though loaded with compulsory attempts at evoking the pious gravitas of its predecessor Demetrius is ultimately all about seeing its eponymous hero break as many commandments as his test-of-faith (and the Code) will allow, and while the final product may never reach the dizzying heights of vintage DeMille-ian excess (Sign of the Cross this isn’t) it still offers plenty of that indelible old-Hollywood spectacle. For their part Twilight Time have offered another solid Blu-ray treatment, even if the HD materials leave something to be desired. Recommended, if for the keen lossless audio options alone.