Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Demetrius and the Gladiators

This year’s Easter viewing was “Demetrius and the Gladiators” (1954), a more than respectable sequel to “The Robe”, which had come out the year before.

It’s one of the better sequels, in fact, and offers more action and visual splendor than “The Robe.” Now, I’m a big fan of “The Robe”, but I won’t deny that’s it an exceedingly talky film, odd for a film that introduced the splendor of Cinemascope to audiences. As if to make up for the static quality of “The Robe,” the sequel is loaded with action.

“Demetrius and the Gladiators” opens with a recap of the last scene of “The Robe”, where Richard Burton and Jean Simmons are ordered to their deaths by Roman Emperor Caligula. Jean Simmons gives The Robe (the cloth Jesus was wearing when he was crucified) to an onlooker, saying, “For the Big Fisherman.”

Big Fisherman is Peter (Michael Rennie), who returns in this movie. So does Demetrius (Victor Mature), the freed Greek slave who witnessed the crucifixion and is one of Christianity’s first converts, and Caligula (Jay Robinson, even nuttier than in the first film).

Caligula thinks The Robe has magic powers, and has sent spies to look for it and bring it to him. He also becomes convinced he’s a god.

New characters include Caligula’s uncle Claudius (a non-stuttering Barry Jones), Claudius’ wife, the scheming temptress Messalina (Susan Hayward), and Lucia (Debra Paget), a young Christian woman who is in love with Demetrius.

All I can say is if more Christians looked like Debra Paget, the religion would have spread a lot faster than it did. (That will likely add some time in Purgatory for me, but I couldn’t help think it while watching the movie. But then I’ve always had a thing for Debra Paget.)

Demetrius undergoes a crisis of faith when he mistakenly believes Lucia is killed by mauling gladiator Richard Egan. Demetrius becomes not only a champion gladiator, killing his foes left and right in the arena, but the latest lover of Messalina, all before Peter again brings him back to the fold to spread the word of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire.

The production is handsome to look at and there’s all sorts of familiar faces on hand to keep us entertained. One year before winning a Best Actor Oscar for “Marty”, Ernest Borgnine wields the whip as Strabo, the head of the gladiator school. Fox contract players Richard Egan and Anne Bancroft are on hand for a couple of scenes. Future Catwoman Julie Newmar is easily identifiable as a dancer.

A pre-“Blacula” William Marshall is very impressive as Glycon, a king in his own country who is forced into the gladiator ring. Marshall had one of the greatest speaking voices ever and it’s just a pleasure to listen to him.

Censorship requirements of the time meant the fight scenes in the arena weren’t particularly bloody, but I would imagine audiences were still pretty impressed, and considered these scenes something of a novelty. We know them now thanks to “Spartacus” (1960), “Gladiator” (2000) and countless Italian-made spectacles of the 1960s.

But up to then, I don’t think audiences saw a lot of gladiator action. “Quo Vadis” (1951) had arena scenes, but they were mainly limited to Christians being fed to the lions. DeMille’s “The Sign of the Cross” (1932) boasts some of the most salacious and violent arena scenes ever filmed, but when the film was re-issued in the 1940s it was minus many of those scenes.

RKO’s “The Last Days of Pompeii” (1935) had Preston Foster as blacksmith turned gladiator in several exciting scenes, and because the film was constantly re-issued, usually on a double bill with “King Kong” (1933) or “She” (1935), its likely audiences got their gladiator thrills from it.

But “Demetrius and the Gladiators” gave audiences gladiator thrills in color and wide screen. Still, I couldn’t help but notice how small-scaled the arena was. It doesn’t look that big, and its audience seems to be Roman senators, Caligula’s court and members of the Praetorian Guard. I wonder if it was more of a personal arena for the Roman court, rather than one for the populace. Still, the combat sequences are very well done, and by golly, there’s real tigers taunting Demetrius in the arena, unlike those in “Gladiator” where they are obviously CGI.

(Aside: I think “Gladiator” is the worst Best Picture Oscar winners ever. “Cimarron” (1931) or “The Greatest Show on Earth” (1952) usually get the nod, but I’ll take either of those any day over Ridley Scott’s snooze fest, not only dramatically inert, but ugly and cheap looking to boot. End of aside).

The cast is all fine. Susan Hayward looks like she’s having a ball as Messalina, twisting the men in her life around her little finger, scheming and (unknowingly) letting them do all the dirty work for her. She’s a pleasure to watch.

I like Victor Mature as Demetrius, though I think he’s better in “The Robe.” I think he gives the best performance in “The Robe”, even better than Jean Simmons and Best Actor nominee Richard Burton. He’s very sincere in that role and brings a working man’s honesty to the film that helps ground it.

He’s not so subtle in the sequel, but he gives it his all and he’s always fun to watch. He never took himself seriously, but he should have, as he never gave a bad performance, and was, from what I’ve read about him, a pretty good guy off camera.

In the 1950s, my mom worked for a man who served on a submarine with Mature during World War II. He said Mature had no airs or pretensions about him. He thought Mature was one of the greatest guys he ever knew.

We have a family friend who is a huge movie buff and has been collecting autographs for decades. He would obtain the star’s address and send him or her a photo with a stamped, self-addressed envelope, so all the person would have to do is read the letter, sign the picture and return it in the envelope at no expense.

Occasionally, he would not get a response but usually the picture would be returned signed, sometimes with a nice note. He did this with Victor Mature and waited and waited but never got a response.

About a year later an envelope arrived in the mail. Inside was an autographed picture with this inscription: “Dick, Sorry about the delay. Had a fire. Best wishes, Vic Mature.”

Now THAT’s an autograph.

Director of Demetrius was Delmer Daves, who is a great favorite of mine, and who rarely made a film I didn’t like. Even when some are clunkers, like “Parrish” (1961) or “Youngblood Hawk” (1964) they are always watchable.

In “Demetrius and the Gladiators” he and screen writer Philip Dunne nicely balance all of the films themes and situations: violence and piety, court intrigue and torrid romance scenes.

No mention of the film can’t be made without mentioning Franz Waxman’s majestic score. He incorporated themes from Alfred Newman’s score for “The Robe” because he thought so highly of it. Waxman actually resigned from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences when the Music Branch neglected to honor Newman’s score for “The Robe” with a Best Score nomination. (If he thought the Academy was tin-eared then, what would he make of today’s scoring nominees? He would probably flee the country.)

One last thing, and I don’t think I’m giving anything away here with the ending. The Christians have been promised protection by new emperor Claudius as long as they don’t ferment any discord. The film concludes with Peter, Demetrius and new convert Glycon walking through the Roman palace, backed by Waxman’s truly gorgeous choral finale. But Glycon is holding The Robe, and I’ve always thought it interesting that the black character holds The Robe, rather than Peter or Demetrius. A pretty bold statement in that pre-Civil Rights era.


ClassicBecky said...

Kevin, I have to start out by saying how thrilled I am to find somebody else who thought Gladiator was kind of a stinker. Russell Crowe deserved the Oscar for A Beautiful Mind the next year, but in Gladiator he spent most of the movie with the same look on his face, and mostly said "I am Maximus" LOL!!

Demetrius was fun, and I don't think I loved it as much as you, but it did have really good parts. Jay made a career out of Caligula, and he's over-the-top wonderful! Mature is so masculine it's almost scary -- I do agree that his acting was better in The Robe, but then The Robe was better written in character portrayal.

I never could get used to Debra Paget's hair in Demetrius. Really? However, your point is made, and I don't think anybody would be sent to Purgatory for having such thoughts! Hayward was her usual gorgeous self, but boy did they clean up the character of Messalina!

Loved your review, Kevin. You had wonderful pictures, too!

Kevin Deany said...

Thanks for commenting Becky. I think Fox had to not only clean up Messalina's character, but the arena scenes too and even the "entertainment" the gladiators are provided before the next day's bouts is pretty tame. Censorship requirements, I bet.

I love Debra Paget! She is the only major cast member alive from "The Ten Commandments."

I harbor hopes that Fox will one day release "Stars and Stripes Forever" on DVD. My VHS copy is badly faded. She's enchanting in that one.

ClassicBecky said...

Kevin, I LOVE Stars and Stripes Forever! I too have it on tape, and it's getting old and giving out. It's just a wonderful movie. Of course Clifton Webb is one of my very favorite actors. Debra Paget and Robert Wagner were both really excellent, and just as cute as anything I've ever seen! The music is always thrilling, especially when the Stone Mountain Choir sings The Battle Hymn of the Republic, and Sousa's band plays Dixie for the downtrodden South.

I don't care if my tape is getting bad or not, I'm getting it out tonight to watch it!

Aussie Senior said...

Kevin, I found that viewing "Demetrius and the Gladiators" to be an enjoyable experience, and the film to be a very respectible sequel to "The Robe".

Your fondness for the film entitled "Stars and Stripes Forever!" puzzled me at first, but when Clifton Webb was mentioned as a cast member, I recognised it.

Here in Australia it was originally released as "It Beats The Band".

Changing the title of films occurred on a number of occasions, e.g MGM's "Million Dollar Mermaid" with Esther Williams was released here as "The Two-Piece Bathing Suit"; although now, when shown on TCM it is known under its original American title.

The most amusing "change of film title", in my opinion, was the Warner Bros film "Young Man With a Horn". Because, in Australia, at that point in time, this title had certain sexual connotations, the title was amended to "Young Man of Music". Times have changed and the film, when shown on TV and the DVD release, has now reverted to its original title.

Kevin, please keep up the good work

Classic Film and TV Cafe said...

Another great review of a neglected film, Kevin! I agree, though, that some scenes do boast a small-scale look (though I prefer that to the CGI crowds in GLADIATOR). Loved the story about your friend getting Vic Mature's autograph. My old college roommate is an autograph hound with an amazing collection. Speaking of college, there's a photo of Victor Mature and his mother in the Indiana Memorial Union on the Bloomington, IN, campus. Vic looks very stoic! Anyway, loved the review. I like DEMTRIUS--my only complaint is that it lacked the emotion of THE ROBE.

Kevin Deany said...

Aussie Senior, thanks for writing. That's very interesting, and amusing, about the title changes for overseas. The one I'm familiar with is M-G-M's "Take Me Out to the Ball Game." Because baseball is not popular in England, the title was changed to "Everybody's Cheering."

I too think "The Robe" is the more emotionally engaging film, but it is also a most enjoyable sequel. I think its one of the better ones.

Moira Finnie said...

Thanks for taking me on a return visit to a favorite childhood movie. This used to be shown on NYC television about once a month, or so it seems. I smiled all the way through while reading your comments on this movie. I am always delighted to read that someone else appreciates Delmer Daves. I love his movies, even when I am so sad to see him making strange (but highly entertaining) films like Parrish.

If you like Debra Paget, have you seen Bird of Paradise (1951), one of the less well known Daves' films--and for my money, one of Paget's best?

Your review was delightful.

Kevin Deany said...

Moira, Glad you liked the review. I've seen "Bird of Paradise" and think its pretty swell. Ms. Paget looks so fetching in her sarong.

Another particular favorite is "Prince Valiant", where she makes one of the loveliest medieval princesses imaginable.

Jim Lane said...

It's been decades since I saw Demetrius and the Gladiators but my memory confirms your opinion that it's an entirely respectable movie in its own right, and especially as sequels go. "Hear, hear," too, to your appraisal of Vic Mature in The Robe; I always cite that as the movie where Victor Mature out-acted Richard Burton (a point which, if memory serves, Burton himself once conceded).

And BTW, when you get a chance, please check back at Cinedrome for my response to your comment on Night Has a Thousand Eyes.

Kevin Deany said...

Jim, very interesting about Richard Burton. Didn't know that.

Page said...

Like CFB you give very honest and well informed reviews that put them on another level!
This one didn't disappoint and I'll agree on Gladiator being overrated. I thought Crowe deserved an Oscar nod for L.A Confidential which is one of my favorite films of late but Gladiator on the other hand. Pftt

This film was well, "The Robe" lite. And Becks, I'm glad I'm not the only one who was bothered by Paget's hair. (Now that Kevin has forgiven me over Rita I can say that) : )


Kevin Deany said...

Page: I too think "LA Confidential" is a masterpiece and agree about Crowe's performance.

I really need to "Demetrius and the Gladiators" again to check out Debra Paget's hair. There's a sentence I never thought I'd type.

Grand Old Movies said...

I love Demetrius & the Gladiators; I've always been a sucker for Biblical spectacles, and Demetrius has the virtue of having no dead spots (unlike, say, Solomon & Sheba, or David & Bathsheba - cld it be because Demetrius' pairing is not w/a lady but w/the gladiators?) -I've only seen Jay Robinson in this film and The Robe, but his performances are, shall we say, unforgettable - I also like Mature's work in this film; he was a good, solid actor who brings a great deal of sincerity to his role; but I thought Susan Hayward was a bit over the top. The gladiatorial scenes are great; I think that the reason the arena looks small is that it is supposed to be Caligula's private arena space and not the Coliseum. Thanks for your terrific write-up.