Demetrius and the Gladiators is the sequel to The Robe (1953). It was planned even before The Robe was released, which is the only classic sword and sandal epic to have a sequel.
The reason I chose this for the blogathon is two-fold: it has all the elements I associate with sword and sandal epics: ancient history (which is surprisingly accurate at times), big action scenes in and out of the arena, and Biblical miracles. Not to mention a good amount of sensuality that somehow made it past the Hays Office.
The other reason is I have a clear memory of renting it from my neighborhood Blockbuster when they first created a “sword and sandal” section in the store. I had never heard the term before, though of course I had seen these kinds of movies on TV. (Unfortunately, in the “pan and scan” form because there was no letterboxing on TV in those days.) So it was the first sword and sandal epic I ever viewed in its correct wide-screen format.
The story opens literally with the last scene of The Robe, featuring main characters Marcellus and Diana’s (Richard Burton and Jean Simmons) final moments before their characters are executed by the Emperor Caligula (Jay Robinson) for refusing to renounce their faith. Caligula’s Uncle Claudius (Barry Jones) and Claudius’ wife Messalina (Susan Hayward) witness the trial.
After the execution, Jesus’ apostle Peter (Michael Rennie) entrusts Marcellus’ former servant Demetrius (Victor Mature) with the robe Jesus wore the day of his crucifixion. Now a Christian, Demetrius hides the robe among a community of other Christians that includes his friend Lucia (Debra Paget).
When Caligula decides he wants the robe for its magical powers, soldiers are sent to find it. Demetrius assaults one and is sent to Claudius’ gladiator school as punishment. When Claudius and his wife visit the school Messalina is immediately taken with Demetrius, who claims he cannot kill because of his religion.
Demetrius befriends fellow gladiator Glycon (William Marshall), who advises him to give a good fight in the ring so the audience will insist they both be spared. The fight doesn’t go quite as planned and Glycon falls. When Demetrius refuses to kill Glycon, he pleads with Caligula to spare his friend. Caligula agrees, but orders his henchman Macro (Karl “Killer” Davis) to cut Demetrius’ throat instead. Messalina intervenes, and suggests Demetrius fight tigers instead. Caligula agrees. Demetrius manages to kill all three tigers, making the spectators go wild with admiration.
Messalina comes on to Demetrius, who rebuffs her advances. His friend Lucia is smuggled into the gladiator school pretending to be a prostitute. She is attacked by some of the men. Demetrius begs God to save her. Instead, she appears to die suddenly. Her death disillusions him and turns him away from his faith in Jesus. In the arena the next day, he fights to kill. His performance is so well received by the crowd, Caligula frees him and makes him a tribune.
This time when Messalina throws herself at him, he accepts her advances. They go away to a villa and live together for several months. Peter seeks him out and tries to bring him back to the fold, but Demetrius rejects him. Caligula commands he find the robe. When he returns to Lucia’s home, he finds out that she is alive but in a catatonic state. She never lets go of the robe. When Demetrius breaks down and prays to God, Lucia wakes up.
Caligula is madder than ever and is quickly turning the Praetorian guard against himself. He insists on being given the robe. Demetrius complies, but the robe does not give Caligula the power he craves. He sends Demetrius back to the arena, but his guards have turned against him completely. They assassinate him and Macro and proclaim Claudius emperor. Messalina, realizing she belongs at her husband’s side, takes her place as empress. They allow Demetrius and Glycon to leave with the robe and promise not to bother Christians as long as they are loyal to Rome.
I’ve written about John Hurt’s superb portrayal of Caligula in the TV series I, Claudius. Jay Robinson’s performance is different but still quite memorable, and it’s one of the highlights of the movie. (I especially love the way he calls Demetrius “Christian” and elongates the word into three distinct syllables.)
Susan Hayward really goes for it with Messalina, and the scenes of her watching Demetrius fighting in the ring are also very memorable. It would be decades before popular culture would allow Messalina to be totally Messalina, but she does a great job of conveying her sensuality and ruthlessnes. Demetrius is the kind of role Victor Mature was perfectly suited for, a man who is physically strong but deep down is also kind and caring.
The rest of the supporting cast is also quite good (if you look sharp you will notice Anne Bancroft playing a prostitute at the gladiator school) and the action scenes, particularly the arena scenes, are extremely well done.
It has its cheesy moments (the choreography performed by some dancers for Demetrius and Messalina while they canoodle can only be described as bizarre) but overall, I really like this movie and enjoyed it as much this viewing as I did the first time I watched it.
It’s hardly in the same class as Spartacus, but it checks off most of the sword and sandal elements that make up the genre, and does them very well.