When it comes to Caligula, Judge Russell Engebretson suggests not to do as the Romans do, even when in Rome.
Our review of Demetrius And The Gladiators, published March 30th, 2001, is also available.
It begins where The Robe left off!
Demetrius and the Gladiators is usually compared unfavorably to The Robe, but having thrilled to the adventures of Demetrius as a kid, I have to differ. The puffed up self-importance and Hollywood holiness of its predecessor is easily bested by gladiatorial combat and Susan Hayward's smoldering, seductive glances.
Facts of the Case
Peter (Michael Rennie, The Devil's Brigade) delivers Christ's robe to Demetrius (Victor Mature, After the Fox) for safekeeping, but the demented emperor Caligula (Jay Robinson, Big Top Pee-Wee) wastes no time sending out legionnaires to find the robe left beneath the cross on which Jesus was crucified. Caligula, ever the demented optimist, is convinced the robe will elevate him to godhood and immortality. Demetrius hides the robe and refuses to reveal its whereabouts. For his crime of concealing the robe, he is condemned to fight in the Roman arena as a gladiator, a tough call since his newfound religion prohibits killing. However, a terrible event causes Demetrius to turn his back on Christianity to avenge his lover, and he soon finds himself first in the arena and later in the arms of Messalina (Susan Hayward, I Want to Live!), the evil seductress and wife of Claudius (Barry Jones, A Study in Terror). The backsliding Demetrius will eventually renounce his wicked ways and regain his lost religion, but not until justice is served and a few sweet kisses are stolen.
Demetrius and the Gladiators picks up where The Robe leaves off, immediately after the martyred Tribune Marcellus and his sweetheart Diana (Richard Burton and Jean Simmons) climb straight to paradise through a blue screen filled with clouds. With the triumphant halleluiahs of Alfred Newman's heroic score accompanying the pair of leads as they ascend to their heavenly reward, only minor players and those expensive Roman sets are left behind for the sequel (which, according to the brochure that comes with Demetrius and the Gladiators (Blu-ray), began production even before The Robe was wrapped).
Perhaps to atone for its lack of gravitas, the sequel strives to deliver a juicy slice of violence in the form of gladiatorial combat, along with a couple of scenes that at least hint at wanton sexuality. For a Hays Code-era picture, with censors peering down every blouse and up every skirt for nasty or subversive material, the film does manage to sneak a few illicit thrills past the bluenoses. In one scene, Demetrius watches helplessly behind a prison gate as his beloved Lucia (Debra Paget, The Haunted Palace) is tossed mosh pit style from one drunken gladiator to another in a symbolic gang rape, and continues to stare in horror as she delicately expires. In a later scene, Demetrius scores one particularly hot, wine-soaked lip-lock with Messalina. As for violence, the arena fights contain a startling amount of mayhem for a movie from the mid-1950s. Several gladiators and a few tigers are savagely dispatched, with a minute bit of blood spilled here and there. As a bonus, the tigers are real, and Mature's stand-in really does wrestle with the magnificent felines ("killing" them gently with careful, fake stabs from his prop knife.)
As for the thespians, Victor Mature—in his own words—much preferred playing golf to acting. Nonetheless, his performance here, though slightly hammy, is varied and sensitive. It's easy to poke fun at Jay Robinson's jumped-up, spittle-flecked Caligula, but the real emperor was indeed a depraved bastard. Read The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius for the real lowdown. Even the 1979 portrayal of Caligula by Malcolm McDowell does not begin to encompass the monstrosity of the real historical figure. Robinson does a good job considering the restraints he had to work within due to censorship, and his wild-man act is simply fun to watch. The female actors—with their anachronistic arched eyebrows, blood-red lipstick, and hot-ironed wavy hair—come across as lush, 1950s vamps rather than Roman patricians, plebeians, or slave girls. If one can roll with the unintended camp factor, they aren't too bad. Paget, offstage most of the movie, is okay in small doses, and Hayward's slinky, winking performance is amusing (she almost breaks the fourth wall without so much as a glance at the camera). Besides the major players, we get to see a young Ernest Borgnine as the leader and trainer of the gladiators (who mysteriously vanishes halfway through the picture only to reappear near the end) and a brief cameo from Anne Bancroft.
Concerning the transfer, the picture, particularly the first half, is slightly dark with rather low contrast. Flesh tones are often brownish, and the expected sharpness of a high-def release is missing much of the time. Distant shots are soft. Close-ups look the most detailed (the side head shots of Demetrius and Diana during their exchange in the gladiator quarters, for instance, are crisp and colorful.) In short, the 1080p/2.55:1 CinemaScope transfer for Demetrius and the Gladiators (Blu-ray) is not quite up to Screen Archive's usual high standard. As reported elsewhere, Twilight Time's Nick Redman said the camera negative was severely deteriorated, necessitating Fox to search out intermediary elements for the high-definition restoration. I still found it to be a decent encode with much better colors and detail than an up-converted DVD.
The audio transfer fares much better. Thanks to the CinemaScope film, the sound is derived from a magnetic four-track rather than the more common optical mono of that time. The 4.0 DTS-HD Master Audio renders clear and hiss-free dialogue, and the music and sound effects are nicely reproduced. I've read some complaints about out-of-sync audio. Very occasionally looped dialogue might have looked a tiny bit off, but I did not hear any sync problems that would indicate a technical gaffe in the transfer. The dialogue does seem odd at times as it moves almost entirely to the right or left speaker, rather than staying predominantly anchored in the center. Still, it's very fine sound for this nearly sixty-year-old film.
The only extras are an eight-page, full-color booklet containing an informative essay by Julie Kirgo, a 1.33:1 trailer, and Franz Waxman's isolated musical score in 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio. The isolated score will be the major extra for soundtrack buffs, and it does indeed sound quite nice.
Unless a pristine 35mm print is discovered in a vault or some film collector's stash, this is probably the best transfer Demetrius and the Gladiators will ever receive. If this second-tier biblical epic is on your must-have list, you'll want to purchase one of the 3,000 limited-run Blu-ray copies before supplies dry up.
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