Demetrius and the Gladiators

Add Demetrius and the Gladiators to that shortlist of Hollywood sequels that are actually better than their predecessor. This is a continuation of the story of The Robe–that most turgid of Biblical epics, known to film students the world over (and for this reason only) as the first Cinemascope release. The title of the earlier film refers to a red garment worn by Jesus as he was taken to his crucifixion. The discarded robe catalyzes the conversion to Christianity of Roman soldier Marcellus Gallio (played in the earlier film by Richard Burton), who was last seen being frog-marched to martyrdom on the orders of nutty Roman emperor Caligula (Jay Robinson). The sequel picks up the story of Marcellus’s former slave, Demetrius, again played by Victor Mature, as he becomes the robe’s caretaker.

With the happy exception of young Robinson’s entertaining embodiment of a preening, petulant Caligula, The Robe was a pretty solemn religious melodrama. Demetrius and the Gladiators, on the other hand, is a straightforward, quasi-historical potboiler that uses true believer Demetrius’s loss of faith as an excuse for sex and violence aplenty–or at least as much as the notoriously conservative Hollywood censors of the day would allow. Caligula, obsessed with the stories of Jesus’s deeds, assumes the robe imbues its holder with magical powers, including the ability to bring the dead back to life. Hiding the sacred garment from Roman soldiers, Demetrius gets himself captured again, and, bam!, we’ve got us a gladiator movie.

Delmer Daves was never a first-tier director, but his resume is impressive (by the time of Demetrius, it already included the Jimmy Stewart western Broken Arrow and Bogart and Bacall in Dark Passage), and he has a muscular, unpretentious approach that adds a little flavour to the movie’s religious themes. Demetrius is sent to learn how to fight and die in the arena under the tutelage of champion fighter Strabo (Ernest Borgnine). Still a devout Christian, our hero refuses to fight and assumes he will be killed in short order. But then he captures the roving eye of Messalina (Susan Hayward), the scheming, unfaithful wife of Claudius (Barry Jones), and that’s when his troubles really begin.

Hayward’s portrayal of a sexual sadist dominates the movie’s second act, which culminates in a weirdly suggestive near-rape scene as Messalina throws Demetrius’s Christian girlfriend, Lucia (Debra Paget), to the figurative lions. That nasty bit of business awakens a very un-Christian rage inside Demetrius, who suddenly becomes the baddest gladiator on the block, dropping all comers on the killing floor. His virility on the battleground is matched in the bedroom as he shacks up with Messalina. “We need no gods, you and I–we have each other,” Demetrius declares, gasping for breath during a full-on makeout session with his new gal.

It takes not just a visit from Peter himself (Michael Rennie), but also a gosh-darned resurrection to nudge our man back to the straight and narrow. Once the fun and games come to an end, the film tilts again towards Sunday School tedium, positing Demetrius as the quintessential wayward Christian. His status as robe-bearer makes him somehow important in the eyes of God, and the New Testament’s bent towards tolerance means the murders he commits in the gladiatorial arena (not to mention his boner-induced transgressions) will be forgiven when he rejoins the flock. The formerly ambitious Messalina, alas, will not be so lucky; ironically, her final-reel decision to stand by her Caesar presumably relegates her to an eternity of hellfire. And thus endeth the lesson.

The first half of Demetrius pays such careful attention to the persecution of Christians under Roman rule that the surge of sex and violence in the second comes as a catharsis. It’s a development in which the film revels, freed temporarily from the piousness of its milieu, even as it tut-tuts about Demetrius’s violation of Biblical strictures forbidding killing and adultery. The characters–and, by extension, the audience–are allowed to have fun as long as lip-service is paid to the idea that what feels so right is very, very wrong in the eyes of the Lord. You can call this hypocrisy, you can call it high camp, or you can just enjoy the improbable sin-and-sandals spectacle.

Daves’s direction is reasonably fluid for a stuffy costume drama, and he finds some effective ways to use the Cinemascope format. You sense him struggling a bit–shots where he tries to compose a scene vertically as well as horizontally feel cramped at the top or bottom of the frame–but you don’t have to be Sergio Leone to show two guys with swords and shields trying to beat the hell out of each other. It’s true that a surprising proportion of the shots here would work well even cropped to a TV aspect ratio, yet the appeal of ‘scope photography is no less apparent as the camera takes in the production’s sets and painted backdrops, populating the frame from edge to edge with the story’s dramatis personae and/or throngs of random extras in Roman garb. Cinematographer Milton Krasner (Fritz Lang’s DP on the classic noirs Scarlet Street and Woman in the Window) quickly became one of Fox’s go-to guys for the widescreen format, winning the Oscar for shooting Three Coins in the Fountain, released later in 1954.

It’s too bad the widescreen composition is too often the most interesting aspect of the whole piece. Hayward and Robinson give worthy, if undervalued performances (“If we never again see Mr. Robinson, we’ll be neither sorry nor surprised,” Bosley Crowther groused about the latter at the time), but Mature is barely performing at all. His body, of course, is made for the big screen, and he occasionally musters an engaging intensity, but too often he stands around with a blank look on his face, as though he’s wondering what’s for lunch. Still, the action scenes are all right, the preachy stuff never quite stops the movie dead, and there are dancing girls. Also, Ernest Borgnine. As Bible pics go, you could do a lot worse.

Demetrius and the Gladiators arrives on Blu-ray Disc under the auspices of Twilight Time, a boutique label that licenses movies from Fox and Sony for release in special limited runs of 3000 copies. The 1080p transfer is not too bad but not too good, either. While color saturation is decent enough that the film’s Technicolor origins are apparent, the image seems a little dark and consistently leans to the brown, like a faded print. Blacks are often a bit too flat, with no details visible in the shadows. Picture resolution overall does exceed what you would find on DVD, but it also exhibits what I take to be artifacts of the Technicolor process (occasional bright halos around high-contrast edges, too garish to be the result of mere edge-enhancement techniques) and of first-generation anamorphic lenses. To wit: You’ll notice characters in the centre of the frame have a case of the Cinemascope “mumps,” and the image warps noticeably as the camera pans from side to side. In addition, there’s a general lack of sharp focus around the edges of the frame and in background details, probably attributable to the limited resolving power of the optics on set–and maybe to the quality of the intermediate materials used for the transfer. I’d wager the picture has gotten a digital powerwash, too: The film grain is soft and mushy, while dust and scratches are essentially invisible unless you go looking for blemishes that haven’t been scrubbed all the way out.

Although this is likely a fine master for HD cablecast and streaming versions, the superior resolving power of Blu-ray clearly highlights its limitations. It’s hard to fault Twilight Time, which must have been tempted to save a few bucks by squeezing this movie onto a BD-25. Instead, the movie is allowed to run at a generous average bit rate of 40.7 Mbps. This is a very widescreen feature–the transfer measures exactly 2.55:1–and worth having in high-definition to get the most out of a flawed presentation. Despite its status as sequel to a prestige picture, Demetrius is clearly a B title–or worse–in the Fox library.

Sound, on the other hand, is excellent for a title of this vintage. Magnetic audio tracks were the other big innovation of Cinemascope, and this film’s original four-track audio–bright when it needs to be but never overly harsh, with a remarkably low noise floor for the era–is ably represented in solid 4.0 DTS-HD MA (48KHz/24-bit). Dialogue is utterly legible, sound FX come on strong, and ambient sounds (birds, walla-walla crowd noises) settle nicely into the effects channels without drawing undue attention to themselves. Franz Waxman’s score can get a little buried in the mix–which would be a bummer if Twilight Time didn’t include the whole thing on an isolated 2.0 DTS-HD MA (48KHz/16-bit) track with a surprisingly potent low end. Fantastic!

Unfortunately, that’s it for extras, save for the requisite 480i theatrical trailer and a quite-nice booklet featuring informative liner notes by Julie Kirgo and some original-release artwork on the back cover. As with Twilight Time’s licensed releases of other Fox titles, there are no subtitles and no additional language tracks.

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