Films Romana: Demetrius & the Gladiators (1954)

Victor Mature – Demetrius
Susan Hayward – Messalina
Jay Robinson – Caligula
Barry Jones – Claudius
Ernest Borgnine – Strabo
Debra Paget – Lucia
Anne Bancroft – Paula
Michael Rennie – Peter

Summary: This sequel to Christian martyr film “The Robe” follows Demetrius, a minor character from the previous film, who is entrusted with an iconic red robe which was worn by Jesus of Nazareth on the cross. In protecting his girlfriend Lucia, and the secret of where the robe is hidden, Demetrius is arrested for assaulting a Roman soldier and sent to a gladiator school.

There, thanks to his rebellious attitude towards killing for the entertainment of others, Demetrius comes to the attention of Caligula and Claudius, who want the secret of the robe, and Messalina, wife of Claudius, who just plain wants Demetrius. She attempts to seduce him, but he holds to his Christian values, resisting all temptation… for a while.

[many spoilers follow, the whole film is discussed in great detail]

When Lucia visits Demetrius at the gladiator school, she is grabbed and assaulted by several of the men, while Demetrius is locked up. He prays to God to save Lucia from “a fate worse than death,” and she promptly dies in the arms of her main attacker. (Wikipedia says it appears her neck has been broken, I say she looks like she’s been hit on the head by an invisible brick)

Quite understandably, at this point, Demetrius starts having issues with his God.

Enraged by the fate of his sweetie, who has all but been placed in a refrigerator to challenge his faith, Demetrius goes on a killing spree through the arena, vanquishing all of Lucia’s attackers, and is promptly freed, made a tribune and a member of the Praetorian Guard. He leaps into Messalina’s bed with the enthusiasm of a man looking for an excuse to be a bad boy, and demands that she also reject her goddess. The Apostle Peter (looking like he has wandered in from an entirely different film which, in retrospect, is probably true) pops by for a chat and Demetrius is rude to him and insults Jesus, proving that he’s really far gone.

Caligula turns up after far too long off our screens, ranting about how much he wants the Robe, which goes to show that, like Peter, he’s starring in his own movie and is one of the few people playing attention to the actual plot. Caligula sends Demetrius to find the Robe among his old mates, threatening to go on a killing spree of his own if he doesn’t get it. Peter reluctantly reveals the Robe to Demetrius … who finds it clutched in the hands of a catatonic but undoubtedly alive Lucia! WHOA, PLOT TWIST!

Demetrius, stunned by this turn of events, prays Lucia back to life and then takes the Robe back to Caligula, who is furious beyond all measure that the random piece of cloth does not in fact turn out to be a magic zombie-making tool of necromancy (he kills a slave and is shocked that the Robe doesn’t instantly bring the poor sod back to life). Demetrius points out that no one ever SAID the Robe was magic, but that doesn’t stop Caligula sending him to be slaughtered in the arena.

The Praetorian Guard turn on Caligula and assassinate him in a riot when he refuses mercy to a fallen Demetrius. Claudius is hailed as Emperor, and Messalina decides pretty quickly that she quite likes being married to him after all and promises to be a good wife, starting now. Demetrius hooks up with his Christian mates again and they trot off arm in arm with the Robe, off on another adventure.

Chariot Scenes: sadly none, though the countless bare male shoulders almost makes up for it.

Women with speaking roles: 2 and a bit, the 3rd being Anne Bancroft in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it role as Girl Who Talks To Demetrius And Later Smuggles His Girlfriend In To See Him but there’s no Bechdel-friendly scenes in this film, the one time Lucia and Messalina share a scene it’s to talk about Demetrius.

Historical Truths and Liberties Taken:
The Claudius of the film is a perfectly sensible chap, strategically cowardly but otherwise not the stuttering, limping fool he is made out to be in many classical sources. Caligula is older than he should be, but otherwise plays the part as appropriately batshit crazy. Their relationship, with Claudius playing chancellor to Caligula’s mad emperor, is a joy. (historical note: Caligula was Claudius’ nephew, but was still emperor before he was, thanks to a direct line of succession)

Spot the anachronistic statue of David! Only a thousand or so years early. It dominates the background of one scene pretty noticeably.

The biggie of course is the conceit (shared with The Robe and I imagine other sword and sandals of this Hollywood era) that Caligula devoted much attention to persecuting Christians. In fact, while Caligula was perfectly capable of persecuting all manner of victims, the Christians were not of particular interest to the Romans of this time. The Roman state of the first half century CE rarely worried about foreign religions being introduced, except where (as with the Isis cult in the time of Cleopatra) there were political implications. They preferred to be religiously inclusive, so as not to run the risk of offending any god. The persecutions of Christians by the Roman state are not known to have started until the later reign of Nero, and that was… well, more of a NERO thing than a Roman emperor trend.

Which means, of course, that the entire story is pretty much made up. Also, while Caligula was historically killed by his own guard, and Claudius did succeed him, it happened in the palace rather than the arena. The real Messalina was… just not as cool and smart as she is in this movie, frankly, even allowing for the anti-wife slant of Tacitus and the other historical sources. But who’s going to complain about that particular liberty? Not me!

Behind the Scenes:
The production of Demetrius began only three weeks after the principal photography of The Robe ended. It utilised many of the assets of The Robe, including much of the music and several of the cast members playing the same characters (well okay, three – Demetrius, Caligula, Peter).

Mature & Borgnine tell an anecdote about how they startled a woman in a sandwich shop by heading out for lunch off the film lot, without first removing their armour. Mature supposedly said: “”What’s the matter, don’t you serve members of the armed forces?”

Caligula was actor Jay Robinson’s first screen role – in The Robe, shortly followed by Demetrius and the Gladiators. Michael Rennie, who plays Peter the Apostle, is best known (heh well to my f-list anyway, I expect) as Klaatu from classic SF film The Day the Earth Stood Still.

Best Bits:
“You do not sleep with your husband?” An early scene shows Caligula, disturbed by the events of The Robe, interrupting first Messalina and then Claudius, in order to bend his uncle’s ear about his concerns. It’s a powerful, interesting and intriguing scene between these characters, all of whom are more compelling than Demetrius and his long stares into camera. Among other things, this is where we see Caligula decide that this new Christian cult might offer him a shortcut to eternal life.

“Release the tigers!” Long before Russell Crowe’s Gladiator (2000), Victor Mature faced real tigers in the arena, with no hope of CGI to keep him safe. They’re scary critters, too! I am assuming that it’s a stuntman, as most of the shots of him fighting the tiger don’t reveal his face beneath the helmet (which in close ups is very visible behind wide mesh). Also there are some amusing pratfalls as Stunt!Demetrius is savaged (or possibly licked into submission) by one tiger, indispersed by elegant shots of the other tiger giving them disdainful looks from a distance.

Yep, that was what the Romans were into: Bread, Circuses and Disdainful Looks From Unexpected Tigers.

The big set pieces are the strength of this film, particularly the arena scenes which actually look bigger and more impressive than the more technically accurate Gladiator (2000). There are also some excellent small quiet scenes, usually involving one, both or all of the Claudius-Caligula-Messalina triumvirate. Claudius’ quiet speech at the end of the film about how he has pretended to be a fool all these years and will now act the part of Caesar was pretty awesome.

Just about any scene involving Demetrius or Lucia talking made me want to hit things. Unless there was a pretty Messalina frock to distract me. Victor Mature is slightly more interesting than Stephen “Livius” Boyd, but only just. What was it with leading men and staring in those days? Give me a good character actor any day of the week.

Women in “Demetrius & the Gladiators.”
Messalina, the main female character, is portrayed as a glamorous femme fatale, far more sophisticated than other interpretations I have seen of her. She is not the thoughtless, shrieking brat of I, Claudius, for example. Susan Hayward’s Messalina is powerful, graceful and very intelligent. Her relationship with her husband Claudius is intriguing – they have a partnership based on the fact that he never gets in the way of her doing anything (or anyone) she wants, while she supports he and Caligula in their public roles. She is the only imperial woman we see depicted, despite the fact that Caligula was married at the end of his reign (he had three wives throughout it), but that pretty much reflects history, as Caligula never did much to publicly promote any of his wives, and the one imperial woman he did allow to have PR, his sister Drusilla, was dead by this point, with their other two sisters in exile.

We are shown Messalina’s ability to think quickly, as in when Caligula brings an accusation that she was speaking behind his back of him acting as though he was a god, and she replies that no, actually he IS a god, Isis told her so. She turns the situation around, deftly handling Caligula and coming out looking good. While her husband and Caligula both refer fairly neutrally to the fact that everyone knows Messalina sleeps around, they don’t necessarily disapprove – it is Demetrius the Christian who turns it into something filthy, rejecting her romantic advances and all but calling her a slut. Having read about this film as an example of the ‘Roman women are all decadent whores as opposed to good Christian women, which is a METAPHOR FOR LIFE’ trope, I was actually surprised about how dignified Hayward’s Messalina is allowed to be, and how positive her sexuality actually comes across. While she sets out to use Demetrius, she appears to fall genuinely in love with him, and is never actually punished for her promiscuity. Hooray!

Messalina is also portrayed as a priestess of Isis, which I liked – I don’t think there’s any historical verification for this, but as a religious choice it makes a lot of sense, being exotic, foreign and associated with Cleopatra, the poster girl of Roman seductresses. Having a religious role to an obscure goddess was very common for an imperial woman, so it was a nice touch. Demetrius did tell her to renounce Isis when he had lost faith in his own God, but there is no sign that she actually did so (she pretty much treats the request with silent contempt) though she does randomly promise to become a Christian when she thinks he is about to die.

Lucia is basically the sweet, ordinary and loyal girlfriend – the good girl to Messalina’s bad girl. Which means, of course, that by the laws of Hollywood she’s pretty much destined to get raped and/or killed. The scene in which Lucia is being grabbed and manhandled by the men in the gladiator school is quite awful, but I have to say the resolution – Demetrius crying “Please save her, God” thirty seconds before she falls limp and dies from being picked up and swung around by the head by an attempted rapist – is appalling. Demetrius and your God, you both FAIL utterly. Did she get a choice as to whether death was a better option than rape? No? Then shut up, both of you.

(yes, I know she’s not actually dead, that is beside the point. This part made me very cranky and her being miraculously alive did not de-crank me in the least)

Back to Messalina. Susan Hayward is pretty damn glorious. I am assuming that this performance with its stately frocks, long lingering looks and measured tones was the inspiration for Sophia Loren’s far less interesting Lucilla in Fall of the Roman Empire, but it’s the intelligence and craftiness as well as sexual independence that makes Messalina stand out here. Her turnaround at the end to be the good Imperial wife instead of an adulterous wench was disappointing, especially her speech of regret about previously mocking her marriage vows, which seems to backpedal on her character as established but Claudius was far more awesome than Demetrius anyway, so I have to approve of her choice.

Either she was lying through her teeth, or this is the start of a very cool alternate history. I can’t see Susan Hayward’s Messalina being dumb enough to accidentally marry someone else while her imperial husband was out of town, and get herself beheaded…

Previous Films Romana:
The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964)

Films Romana is an ongoing blogging project for me to review Hollywood depictions of Ancient Rome, and in particular the famous and infamous women of Ancient Roman history. I have a long list of movies to watch for this (and a hefty stack of DVDs waiting) but please feel free to recommend ones to bump up to the top of my queue! I may later extend this to include TV depictions, including shows like I Claudius, Xena, etc. If you can think of a good one, let me know!