DEMETRIUS AND THE GLADIATORS followed in the box-office wake of The Robe, in fact shooting started just three weeks after the earlier Biblical epic wrapped. Victor Mature’s anguished slave character was brought over, along with Jay Robinson’s wildly demented Emperor Caligula and Michael Rennie’s calm gospel-spreading Peter. When Susan Hayward was added as the Roman temptress Messalina, with a slew of rising talent in supporting roles and an arena-load of man-to-man and Vic v. tiger combat shouldering aside the savior blab, audiences lined up in droves. If you went to the movies in 1954, chances are you saw this: it made a suitably spectacular $26,000,000. *
“Listen to me. The worst sort of life is better than the best kind of death. Forget your religion for just one day. Kill him. He is no good. Your god will thank you for it.”
The pesky Christian cult was not erased by Emperor Tiberius, but when 25-year-old bat-boy Caligula took on the job he upped the ante (and went full-on bonkers in general). In this sequel (something rare in the old days, kids) to The Robe, Demetrius (Mature) is consigned to the gladiator’s life. Though the selection process is murder, the career has its rewards, including the wanton wife of Claudius, Caligula’s cousin Messalina (Susan H, in spades). Yet giving up his faith tears at him. Will the tormented hunk see the light? More to the point, how many coolly-outfitted gladiators and ferocious big felines will he perforate before he calms down? **
The script from Philip Dunne is a mix of good and not-so, but things move briskly at 102 minutes and direction from Delmer Daves does a good job keeping the talky stuff from slowing things down. The “We who are about to die” (and do) action is pretty decent, if tame by today’s blood-drenched standards (some standard). The $4,500,000 production looks keen in CinemaScope, using sets, props and costuming already in place from The Robe. There is a properly Big score from Franz Waxman. His music isn’t as rich in themes as Alfred Newman’s superb soundtrack for the earlier film, but Newman was busy sharing duty on The Egyptian with Bernard Herrmann as well as composing, supervising or conducting eight other films that year, so Waxman handled this turn at the pomp. He was so upset by the Oscar’s snubbing Newman’s The Robe score that he resigned from the Academy. Newman hired him for this, and in a further twerk Waxman was nominated for one of his five other 1954 scores, also an ancient opus, The Silver Chalice. Bible gossip…
Hayward’s arrogant Messalina confronts Rennie’s quiet preacher: “You’ll never get him back. What can you offer him? The company of slaves and beggars? The refuse of Rome? Poverty and self-denial? Prayers? Tears? Death? You see, I’ve studied your teachings, and I, Fisherman, I can give him the world. If he has to choose between us, do you think he’d hesitate for one minute ? Of course not. And that’s why you hate me. I can see it in your eyes.” He quietly replies “What you see in my eyes is pity“, which is Hayward’s cue to royally fling a goblet of wine in his face.
Supporting players include Debra Paget, Ernest Borgnine (effective), William Marshall (basso profundo), Anne Bancroft and Richard Egan (later to lead The 300 Spartans). Mature and Hayward are acceptable, given the about-face dramatic hoops they have to navigate, but the crazypants award goes to the 23-year old Jay Robinson, reprising his debut turn as Caligula. Jay’s a hoot playing insanity unleashed: striding his bony frame around the palace halls with nervous energy, always seeming ready to strike, eyes cruel slits, sarcasm-soaked voice pitched to hysteria. ***
Also spotted in the mob: Barry Jones (the cuckold Claudius), Julie Newmar (undulating for the requisite debauched dance scene), and—as paraded and summarily dispatched gladiators—Woody Strode (planning for Spartacus), Russell Johnson, Michael Conrad, Ed Fury (aka Edmund Holovchik, later to star three times as ‘Ursus’) and 26-year old perennial henchman Roy Jenson.
* Hail Caligula! Darryl F. Zanuck pronounced “Hollywood will rise or fall on the success of The Robe.” Launching the wide-screen process to combat television 20th-Century Fox had gambled on that picture, which hadn’t yet proved its success (which was phenomenal) when this sequel commenced filming, so perhaps the rushes from the earlier film so impressed the canny Zanuck and company president Spyros Skouras that they gave thumbs up for this investment. Whichever Holly Roman Caesar made the call, it paid off. Wikipedia has it the 4th most popular film of the year, while Cogerson drops it to 18th: more sources back the first claim.
At any rate, popcorn profits went through the roof of the Circus Maximus–which did not have a roof, but this is Movie History… Mature, who’d muscled the way for the resurgence of B.C. blockbusters with Samson And Delilah, also featured (and did a better job) in another of the year’s ancient epics, The Egyptian, which joined 54’s cracked columns with The Silver Chalice, Princess Of The Nile and Attila. Hard on those antiquity heels and storming into the drive-in’s of the masses came the medieval clanking of The Black Knight, Crossed Swords, The Black Shield of Falworth, Prince Valiant, King Richard and the Crusaders and—grunting and flashing swords from afar—Seven Samurai. Hayward had warmed up for the fiery Messalina by playing the co-lead in 1951’s David and Bathsheba, and would later go full frontal “Tartar woman” in the 1956 Opus Moronus known as The Conqueror.
** Keeping your riotous rich related Romans straight would tax a Carthaginian. Messalina, along with being related to Caligula, was also a cousin to her hubby Claudius. When Caligula went to his rewards after a three-year spree and Claudius assumed the throne, she became Empress. According to Pliny the Elder, Messalina once engaged in an all-night f-marathon with a (presumably worried) prostitute, a 24-hour she-bang (if one will) with the royal mistress coming out on top, satisfying 25 partners. Juvenal insisted she worked ‘undercover’ in a brothel under the nom de boink ‘She Wolf’. In her early 20s during the time this movie is set (Hayward was 36), she was only 30 when she was murdered.
*** Provided by history’s apparently inexhaustible lineup of power-crazed maniacs, the movies have bequeathed us a number of wackjob Roman rulers (and a few ‘good’ ones): Charles Laughton’s and Peter Ustinov’s scenery-devouring delights as the unhinged Nero of The Sign Of The Cross and Quo Vadis; the warped Commodus served by Christopher Plummer and Joaquin Phoenix in The Fall Of The Roman Empire and Gladiator. Jay Robinson’s two-fer as Caligula stands in a depraved category of its own (forget Malcolm McDowell in the atrocious junk with that title). Robinson’s burgeoning career went off the rails for nearly a decade in 1958 following a drug bust and a stint in prison. Recovered, he hung in there and gradually returned to work, first on TV, then in film (most memorably as the ready-to-burst priest in Everything You’ve Always Wanted To Know About Sex). Jay Robinson passed away in 2013, at 83, outliving old Caligula by 55 years and leaving the modern world with fonder memories than his deity-dingbat Roman left his own. History met Irony once again as the actor, famed for playing a nemesis of Christians, helped salvage his own self-persecution—by becoming Born Again.