Saturday, January 12, 2013

Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954): Bad Movies I Love

20th Century Fox's Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954) is not a bad movie I love.

It is a bad movie that is a triumph of entertainment over history. Aired on TCM the other evening, I had not seen it in a few decades, though this movie seemed to be one of those flicks that the NYC area's Million Dollar Movie unspooled five times a week regularly when I was a kid. The movie has some of the following:

Sacred vs Profane Love! Lions vs. Christians, The Debauched vs. The Virginal, An Invisible Heaven vs. An Earthly Garden of Delights, Good Actors vs. Movie Stars! Actually, it has it all--including a sweaty, crowd-pleasing desperation and gargantuan cinematic case of Acromegaly that overcame the studio system as their grip on the American imagination began to slip thanks to television and myriad other distractions.

The tale of Demetrius and friends is ostensibly a sequel to the solemn (if subversively amusing) introductory CinemaScopic chariot ride through The New Testament known as The Robe (1953). Suggested by the popular novel by the Rev. Lloyd Douglas (Magnificent Obsession, White Banners, Green Light) that inspired The Robe, Demetrius and the Gladiators is more fun than the straitlaced, starchy herd scenes of MGM's Quo Vadis? (1951), and not nearly as classy as Spartacus (1960)--though the latter film seems to have used Demetrius and pals as a template for that tale of liberation spun without the inclusion of an off-screen divine Messiah.

In The Robe,  the searing effect of the cloak acquired by that brooding--if undeniably dishy--Roman centurion Richard Burton at the base of The Cross drove the narrative, leading the Welsh actor and lovely Jean Simmons toward a martyrs' epiphany. Along the way, they met some pretty interesting heathens, including craggy Richard Boone as Pontius Pilate (who had marital trouble), that ol' fossil Ernest Thesiger as Emperor Tiberius (with just a touch of the weirdness he brought to The Bride of Dracula), and that malevolent fresh face to film, Jay Robinson as Caligula--all under the guiding hand of Henry Koster, a good director whose best work usually featured Deanna Durbin or told gentle stories with a strong streak of whimsy (Harvey, Come to the Stable, The Luck of the Irish).

However, under the burly guidance of the underrated director, Delmer Daves, this sequel picks up real steam, telling the jam-packed, fast-paced story centered around one of my favorite alleged non-actors, Victor Mature, who had been a relatively minor character in the pre-quel, though he was the one character a viewer could identify with in the supporting cast. Vic had previously played Richard Burton's former Corinthian-born slave turned convert in The Robe. His plebeian roots gave him an instinctive understanding of the message of Christ that was lost on those more patrician cast members--allowing the audience to get an eyeful of '50s style decadence in some scenes. Moving to Rome, Demetrius bills himself as a potter, though he is regarded with some awe by others since he is the unofficial "keeper of the robe," a red cloth once worn by J.C. and now regarded with reverence by the persecuted early Christians. The community of true believers, living in a kind of suspiciously communistic subsistence community (I suppose this was a daring feature for a film made in '53), share their meager worldly goods but the legend of their founder's life and miracles soon draws the attention of the increasingly mad Emperor Caligula and his guards, who are seeking the robe and ensnare the still hot-headed Demetrius in one of their raids.

Newly converted to Christianity, Mature, who once famously claimed "I'm no actor, and I've got 64 pictures to prove it," struggles to convey the internal spiritual anguish of one newly minted, toga-wearing boy scout trying to survive in a racily hedonistic world. Given the fact that Mature's disarming frankness of his acting chops ignored the quality of his work with good directors in Kiss of Death, Cry of the City, Easy Living, and My Darling Clementine, I found his performance in this movie very endearing and highly entertaining, if lacking in nuanced subtlety. Even though he must look a bit prissy and superior at times, and asked to deliver some impossibly overripe dialogue (i.e. "We need no gods, you and I--we have each other", he sighs as he and Messalina embrace passionately), the actor still makes Demetrius a likable if misguided fellow. Even Ernie Borgnine as head of the gladiator school seems puzzled by his reluctance to defend himself. A frustrated fellow warrior and captive king forced into the arena, the Pre-Blacula William Marshall, whose magnificent presence and rich speaking voice give his noble Nubian gladiator a resonance that is not in the script, finds Demetrius a likable, instant pal as well.

Above: Victor Mature as Demetrius between a rock (Ernest Borgnine as Strabo, the Gladiator Drill Instructor) and a soft place (Susan Hayward as Messalina the Lustful).
As Christians have learned repeatedly for the last two thousand years, Demetrius finds that emulating Christ and turning that other cheek is heavy sledding in this world, though the struggle to follow this ideal may be more important than the destination, as this movie implies several times. The flawed hero's noble impulses toward chastity and a desire for eternal peace are undone--for a time--by Demetrius' capture and introduction to the world of gladiatorial hijinks, which include witnessing the soiling of the virtue and the demise of Demetrius' pure gal pal (Debra Paget) at the hands of [s]mumbles[/s] Richard Egan (that boy was working out in those days--though his diction still needed help).

Above: Debra Paget struggling to keep her virtue at the hands of Richard Egan's Gladiator
he reluctant gladiator learns the nuts, bolts and killing techniques of the bread and circuses game from a hulking but affable, earring-wearing Ernest Borgnine (two years before Marty). Demetrius even finds himself very close to some very nubile near occasions of sin, including an unrecognizable, chicken-munching Anne Bancroft, as a gladiator good-time girl who seems to hail from that Roman suburb, The Bronx. I had the impression that Annie came to the orgies preceding the gladiator matches because she had a yen for the chicken wings and dip, not necessarily the wholesale canoodling. The loss of his pure sweetheart at the hands of his taunting fellow gladiator, after he prays to his God for her deliverance plunges Demetrius into despair and rage. Bitter and angry, Demetrius' sorrow does wonders for his performance skills in the Circus Maximus, where he becomes a killing machine taking on men and beasts. [FYI: The man vs. tiger scenes in the coliseum are much better than the scenes in Cecil B. DeMille's Samson and Delilah, when sharp-eyed viewers could practically see the sawdust seeping out of the stuffed lion that Victor Mature wrassled in that 1949 epic.]

Above: Jay Robinson (center), spreading the joy as Caligula, and demonstrating the after-effects from sipping from those lead-lined chalices with Barry Jones as Claudius and Susan Hayward's dubious looking Messalina.
The erosion of the pacifism Demetrius espouses energizes the Roman hordes, especially those debauched and enervated Romans in the court of the Emperor Caligula, played once again by Jay Robinson, whose sibilant-spraying speeches really lay it on with a trowel this go-round. One of the leaders of the pack of sybaritic pagans this go-round is Susan Hayward as the notorious Messalina, who never met a fella she didn't like. Believing that sex equals power, her extracurricular activities include testing the mettle of each season's crop of [s]boy toys[/s] gladiators, despite being the wife of the seemingly dim but highly civilized Roman Senator Claudius (played by Barry Jones). Jones appears to have been imported from the UK to play a series of slightly befuddled, conscience-stricken darlings in a series of American pics (Plymouth Adventure, Prince Valiant) after his fine performance in 1950's Seven Days to Noon), a career peak that deserves to be better known. Claudius, as portrayed by Jones, is the Roman equivalent of "the good German" who crops up in movies of this same period. Educated, perhaps ham-strung by a degree of refinement, but able to strike a small (ineffectual) blow for the human race on occasion, Claudius represents the best of our Greco-Roman heritage, which I suspect the filmmakers wanted to highlight to counterbalance the psalm-singing aspects of the story. As screenwriter Philip Dunne described it to film historian Patrick McGilligan in Backstory 1: Interviews with Screenwriters of Hollywood's Golden Age (Univ of CA Press, 1986), one of 20th Century Fox head Darryl F. Zanuck's flaws was that "he thought all kings, emperors, and nobility should be played by English actors. That was class, you see..."

Above: Victor Mature, expressing anxiety and guilt (or is it indigestion?), while Michael Rennie as Saint Peter tweaks his conscience further.
That observation explains the presence of Michael Rennie as Peter the Fisherman, whose preternatural calm and ascetic face is just made for a holy card--though his character here is mostly a combo of wet blanket, spiritual traffic cop, and guardian angel on earth to the wayward Demetrius. Peter's arrival at the seaside villa of Messalina marks the sudden end of Demetrius' summer of love. After sinking into an abyss of self-indulgence during a summer by the sea with La Hayward, even Demetrius seems a bit weary of Messalina-Susan's patented shtick: the flaring of her nostrils, the tossing of her red mane, and her expression of a throaty lust for life, especially if that life is coursing through the muscular bod of the former slave turned reluctant gladiator. All Rennie's Peter has to do is show up for five minutes, get wine splashed in his face, and listen to Demetrius' frenzied denial of shared faith passively.

Presto-chango, Messalina loses her playmate, Demetrius returns to Rome as a centurion appointed by Caligula (who is going off the deep end, believing the Christian-held robe has magical powers of life and death). Long story short, the robe turns up in an unexpected way that renews Demetrius' faith, though the movie stops short of investing a physical object with spiritual significance at this point, making the message of this film interestingly ambivalent. With the demise of the leading baddie in the cast, it even seems to indicate that the world might be big enough to hold both pagans and believers in some kind of wary harmony...though if anyone believes that jazz that Messalina spouts near The End, I have some swamp land in the Okefenokee where you could build your dream house.

Above: Barry Jones, as the newly minted Emperor Claudius apparently wondering if the paycheck has cleared yet, appears as the spouse of Susan Hayward, playing Messalina for all she's worth.
In an effort to share the wealth of enjoyment to be found in this bad movie, Demetrius and the Gladiators is posted below:

1 comment :

Anonymous said...

Victor Mature's looks were kind of over the top and combined with his sometimes over the top acting made him appear especially over the top. But he's not a bad actor at all. And when he pulls out all the ham stops, he's still enjoyable. I just love him "After the Fox" where he plays a satire of himself with great enthusiasm. He should have done more comedy.

Also glad you mentioned "Seven Days to Noon" That movie deserves its own blog post. Well orchestrated, suspenseful, great ensemble, and low budget masterpiece!


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