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Demetrius and the Gladiators (Blu-ray Review)

16 Apr, 2012 By: Mike Clark

Available at ScreenArchives.com
Twilight Time
$29.95 Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars Victor Mature, Susan Hayward, Michael Rennie, Ernest Borgnine.

I had just turned 7 when my father took me to see the original release of this sequel to CinemaScope launcher The Robe, and his comment about Susan Hayward (“she knows how to walk”) captured my imagination almost as much as the arena combat scenes and Jay Robinson’s very Jerry Lewis-like performance as this widescreen extravaganza’s arch-villain Caligula. Hayward and her red hair are something here: as Isis priestess Messalina, the actress is always sauntering down to Gladiator HQ to flirt with her beefcake fantasy of the week as husband Claudius (Barry Jones) is spending his time in intellectual pursuits (did they have bird-watching in the Caligula Administration?). No wonder I paid to see the movie a second time.

Some of what we get is lumbering in that early Scope religious-pic kind of way, but the cast is full of fun faces, and it seems pretty obvious that Stanley Kubrick must have given lead Victor Mature’s Demetrius and the rest of the gang a look before embarking on the undeniably superior Spartacus. As head of the gladiator school where Vic’s no longer freed Greek slave gets sent, Ernest Borgnine is cut from exactly the same cloth as the later picture’s Charles McGraw; they could almost be cousins. Though Ernie, at least, is spared being strangled as he’s drowning in a vat of scalding soup — which is McGraw’s memorable fate. 

According to Julie Kirgo’s liner notes for Twilight Time’s limited edition with an isolated Franz Waxman score, 20th Century-Fox chief Darryl Zanuck had this follow-up in the works while The Robe was in production — which goes a long way to explain how the first movie could come out in September 1953 with the sequel showing up by the following June. The Robe’s title red apparel, which Christ had worn at Calvary, is again a key plot point — and, in fact, its imagined supernatural powers make Caligula rabid to obtain it in his quest for personal immortality. But though the sequel isn’t bereft of spiritual ambitions, they have to share or even subordinate their screen time with arena combatants, who not only include fellow gladiators but p.o’d tigers as well. What’s more, this is also a movie in which Christian Demetrius abandons his faith (for awhile) in favor of pursuing whether or not Messalina is a natural redhead. According to Kirgo, and this is a scream, Fox actually billed the film as the story of “Christianity’s first back-slider” (an advertising campaign that didn’t make it to my town — or at least consciousness).

The physical shelf life of this movie has had a rough go. When I programmed it at the AFI Theater in either the ’70s or ’80s, the Fox studio print that we ran had been through the ringer, though the primitive four-track stereo was still fairly robust. VHS, of course, aesthetically ruined widescreen movies from the get-go because the outhouse moviegoer demographic wouldn’t support letterboxing in the hillbilly ’80s and ’90s; later, the standard Demetrius DVD had and has its problems with visual mud. For a Twilight Time release, this version also is a disappointment — though by default, it is still the best one I’ve seen since the ‘50s. The source material here just isn’t very good — and this is true even if you don’t compare it to Fox’s handsome Blu-ray of The Robe (which underwent a costly studio restoration) and Twilight Time’s own release of the same studio’s The Egyptian, which is one of the greatest-looking Blu-rays I’ve ever seen. What’s more (and starting around the time of the first gladiator school scene), my own copy has the same out-of-synch sound problems many online commentators say they’ve had as well — though more so on one of my Blu-ray players than on the other. This is very frustrating when offering consumer guidance because other viewers have said they haven’t noticed the problem.

For all the knocks he took as an actor throughout his career, the fact remains that Mature was one of the few who could read Biblical-hero dialogue convincingly — just as Errol Flynn (also underrated) had a privileged way of spouting Arthurian prose. But aside from Hayward’s sheer presence and Robinson’s unforgettably hammy but completely appropriate turn, this is not especially an actor’s picture aside from a general level of competence when it comes to putting across difficult screen material.

As Apostle Peter, a bearded Michael Rennie (returning from The Robe) is as reassuringly gentle as he is in The Day the Earth Stood Still, and, hey, look, there’s Anne Bancroft in a small role, longing to get back to the New York stage to escape the “non-stretching” roles Fox kept giving her. Also around is not-yet-a-star Richard Egan as a wayward gladiator who may or may not have committed manslaughter on a cute Christian (Debra Paget). And this was the beauty of the studio system. In 1954, Egan could be roughing up Paget in a toga-party kind of way — and then, just two years later, he could be fighting his own brother (Elvis Presley) for her hand in Love Me Tender. The only thing better might have been if Col. Tom Parker had given the OK for Fox to make Elvis and the Gladiators.

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