Wednesday, September 23, 2020

G-d Week: For he who was a slave when he was called is the Lord's freedman, while he who was free when he was called is Christ's slave.


Directed by Delmer Daves
Written by Philip Dunne

Spoiler alert: moderate

1953's The Robe was an enormous hit, and, somehow, 20th Century Fox's Darryl F. Zanuck knew it would be; maybe he prayed on it.  Certainly, that's not something I would've bet the farm on myself, for despite the burgeoning fad for Bible cinema that The Robe rode in on, and despite the fact that I obviously love The Robe far more than I really ought to (hell, I might be the thing's single biggest living fan), its worst elements seem like they could have just as easily backfired on everyone involved, even leaving the whole genre a laughingstock—you know, basically just accelerating the process that was bound to happen when the fad did finally fade.  I'm just saying, if I had seen virtually any part of Richard Burton's performance in that film, I would have started lining up my resume because I'd assume I'd be getting fired for my $4 million boondoggle.  Clearly, I'd have been wrong.  Just as clearly, Zanuck and The Robe's independent producer, Frank Ross, had their audience's number, and they bet wisely indeed when they decided, even before The Robe hit theaters, that their audience would want more of it.  You can guess where this is going, because it seems so obvious to us in 2020 that their answer would be "sequel!", but while sequels were by no means completely unknown in 1953, they were far rarer than today; and I believe that The Robe's sequel, the following year's Demetrius and the Gladiators, is only the fourth instance that a film nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture was thus exploited.  (And the other three were all fairly recent themselves.  Going backwards, there's 1950's The Miniver Story, which, being eight years removed from 1942's Best Picture winner, Mrs. Miniver, probably felt somewhat less like a naked cash grab.  Then there's 1948's sequel to 1941's The Little Foxes, Another Part of the Forest, though this was technically just an adaptation of the stageplay original's stageplay sequel.  The first case of a Best Picture nominee getting a sequel, however, is closer in spirit to Demetrius: this was 1945's The Bells of St. Mary, made hot on the heels of its Best Picture-winning predecessor, 1944's Going My Way.)  It's a mighty reminder, anyway, that it was an era not so very much unlike our own, where Hollywood had found itself on the backfoot in its battle against television, and, then as now, they made the exact same plays: going bigger while going narrower, spending ever more exorbitant amounts of money on what they believed were surer things.  Also like today, this worked until it didn't, though in our present case, it perhaps seems sadder, because this time it wasn't Hollywood's own fault when it stopped.

Ah, well: on the plus side, Zanuck had some sense of economy when it came to his sequel, and if Demetrius can't boast of being the very first cash-in to a prestige picture, I am fairly certain it was the first sequel at this kind of budgetary level to be given this kind of industrialized treatment, pushed into back-to-back production with its franchise-starter so that filming on Demetrius began mere days after filming on The Robe was through.  This was an exceedingly rare trick back in 1953 (maybe even a genuinely novel one), and it wasn't pulled off on such a scale again till the Salkinds got into the matinee adventure business in the 1970s (Superman/Superman II being the most famous example of their penchant for simultaneous production, though The Three/Four Musketeers remains the most important due to the legal issues inherent to not telling the cast and crew whom you paid for one movie that, ha ha, actually you were making two).  Anyway, the upshot is that—as an accounting construct—Demetrius cost, like, half of what The Robe did.  You would never, ever notice except maybe, oh, cinematographer Milton Krasner's lighting set-ups and camera moves aren't as artful as Leon Shamroy's, which doesn't hurt it too much, and probably wasn't strictly a budget thing regardless.

Frankly, I'd have clocked it as even more expensive: Demetrius had full access to its predecessor's Roman sets and costumes, and indeed seems to have been able to expand upon the former (the fanciful Domus Augusti set, already impressive in The Robe, is seen in even greater architectural fullness here), but since they were still given a not-inconsiderable sum to spend on stuff of their own (a cool two million bucks!), Demetrius also gets a bunch of huge new sets, and these are maybe even more impressive than the old ones.  (Impressive enough that The Robe stole a shot from Demetrius to begin its own opening montage of Rome!)  I'm not willing to say that Delmer Daves directs Demetrius better than Henry Koster did The Robe, because I do not think as a rule that this is true, but there's a shot of Caligula's (Jay Robinson's) imperial circus, that just keeps pulling back and back and back to show off the seemingly-endless expanse of it, and this right here is... I mean, you know I dig the spiritual striving and political allegory and unrestrained passions that these films can offer when they're at their best.  But this is the real shit, the spectacular build-a-Goddamn-stadium-and-hire-a-thousand-guys bigness that has always been the most rewarding thing about the sword-and-sandal genre, Bible-based or otherwise; and returning art directors Lyle Wheeler and George Davis do a fantastic job with the panoply of resources they had at their disposal.

So: Demetrius begins exactly where The Robe left off, and, in point of fact, about a minute before where it left off, as we see Marcellus (Burton) and Diana (Jean Simmons) marched off to their Christian martyrs' deaths (and the abysmal quality of the footage taken from The Robe is downright bizarre, given that its negative was about a minute old when Daves put his movie together).  It's intercut with new footage, however, that splices a new face into the scene: that of Valeria Messalina (Susan Hayward), wife of Caligula's uncle Claudius (Barry Jones), who takes special note of Diana's vouchsafing of a certain robe to a slave.  When Caligula ponders why Marcellus and Diana seemed so unafraid to die, and Claudius patiently explains a Christian theology that didn't exist yet and he wouldn't know about if it did, it's Messalina who mentions the robe.  Caligula determines that he shall have this relic of a god for himself, to be imbued with its power; and its former owner oughtn't mind too much since, after all, is our emperor not also a god?  That's where Demetrius of Corinth (Victor Mature) comes in.  Rescued at the end of The Robe by his old master Marcellus, who died so that he could live, Demetrius has made a new life for himself in Rome as a part of Peter's (Michael Rennie's) small but faithful community of Christian laborers and artisans.  He's even scrupulously refusing to notice that the potter's daughter Lucia (Debra Paget) is falling in love with him.  But when Caligula's Praetorians bash around looking for the robe, Demetrius reacts protectively, busting up his Roman opponents pretty good before they subdue him.  (We get out of here dissatisfyingly quickly, but I'll give Daves this: in both this brawl amongst a storeroom full of identical clay pots and a later scene involving Demetrius's acclamation above a screen-filling throng of armored soldiers, he finds a formidable amount of pleasurable visual abstraction in his direction, or at least Wheeler and Davis do on his behalf.)

Hence it's right back into slavery for the Greek, this time to a gladiatorial school owned by Claudius, but, for reasons you've already guessed if you know your Roman history, much more closely managed by his wife.  There, the great gladiator Strabo (Ernest Borgnine, an imposing wall of a man here in 1954) teaches the new recruits the ways of the arena.  Unsurprisingly, Demetrius has little interest, as it seems that the Christian would rather die than kill, and it's only through Messalina's clever intervention that he survives his attempt to fake a gladiatorial bout with his new friend Glycon (William Marshall).  But Demetrius's temperament changes, very drastically, when Lucia sneaks into the school along with the groupies and prostitutes, whereupon one of Demetrius's rivals (Richard Egan) roughly seizes the tiny, bird-boned girl and, before Demetrius's very eyes, snaps her neck.  The next time he's called to fight in the arena, Demetrius kills four of them at once; by the end, he's earned the reverence of the Praetorian Guard's palace cohort, and, with a furious renunciation of the Lord Christ he'd prayed to keep Lucia safe, he earns not just his freedom but a commission in Caligula's bodyguard—a tribune, no less! which is fucking absurd, but, hey, it is Caligula, at least they're not answering to a horse.  Of course, almost all of Demetrius's duties involve guarding Messalina's body, if you know what I mean, and you definitely do.  The question, then, is whether Demetrius can ever find his way back to the softer, gentler, faithful man he once was.

Not to keep you in suspense: yes, he obviously does, and it wasn't terribly likely that this 1954 Bible movie was going to end any other way.  The issue is how it gets there, though for a long stretch of time I was genuinely digging Demetrius and the Gladiators, which was never going to be able to replicate the mythic Pauline irony of The Robe (the killer of Christ becoming his most ardent disciple), but did repudiate nearly all of The Robe's weaknesses (starchiness, sexlessness, and its leading man's belligerently bad performance) while emphasizing its strengths (shiny production design, sword fights, and its surprisingly great supporting performances), and even bringing in new strengths of its own (these being mainly Hayward-related).  In fact, it even replaces The Robe's myth with something more philosophically challenging, confronting its complacent hero with the cold truth that his almighty God, nevertheless, does still let bad things happen to good people.  In other words, Demetrius stares straight into the eyes of the Problem of Evil and decides there's no answer to be found in Heaven, and while giving Mature's performance a broader canvas means, amongst other things, that he is much more aimless and unfocused than he was when he was just Marcellus's conscience in The Robe, he absolutely rises to the occasion when the scene calls for it, playing the big, splashy, sometimes-nasty emotions just as capably as he did the first time.  Indeed, I think he enjoyed playing militant atheism more than he did piety.  There's a striking scene in the temple of Isis, a goddess of a more acceptable mystery cult for a Roman in good standing, and to whom Demetrius has agreed to dedicate his loyalties: upon beginning the rites, he laughs in Messalina's face, and asks why if he'd be willing to renounce his God, whom he saw in the flesh, he'd follow something even more obviously bullshit than Jesus was.

By virtue of its plot, Demetrius also gets up to a lot more action than The Robe.  It's not necessarily better action (the centerpiece sword duel in The Robe is character-driven in ways that Demetrius never manages, as the target of Demetrius's vengeance here is a sneering cypher rather than the shadow of his past, and the choreography and fragmentary effect of the editing is significantly worse).  But there's definitely more frequent action.  More than that, Demetrius has a whole lot more of Robinson's Caligula—like five times as much, maybe—and he gets to evolve the character beyond the petty, campy tyrant of The Robe into a much more archetypal portrayal of the mad emperor, as he dashes around his palace having visions of Apollo, insinuating his aunt is a whore, and, at last, draping the robe over himself to enact an unwittingly perverse parody of the resurrection of Lazarus.  It is not, unfortunately, an especially complete picture that Demetrius offers of Caligula: bringing the Claudian family into this film as active characters, rather than just avatars of anti-Christian evil like they were in The Robe, inevitably means that returning screenwriter Philip Dunne, this time flying solo and having only 101 minutes to work with, can only get up to the most highly-abridged and frequently-mangled summary of Tacitus and Suetonius you'll ever see.  Jones's Claudius in particular suffers from being a frustratingly featureless rendition of the rich historical-literary figure: anybody would probably wither in the shadow of Derek Jacobi's all-time-great turn in I, Claudius—admittedly an anachronistic concern for us here—but when Jones's Claudius informs his court that he was never "the fool" he played for Caligula, you'll likely be perplexed.  It's only knowledge of Claudius's speech impediment, physical frailty, and anxiety disorder that makes this line remotely parsable, for Jones's Claudius doesn't "play" any of these things—not even nervous fear.  Jones isn't even as good as Charles Laughton was in his I, Claudius, and that movie's an abandoned production that exists only in small clips.

Hayward, on the other hand, does rather well with the famed imperial slut, and if Demetrius is yet another recycle of Samson of Delilah's fleshy temptation into sin, it seems to have benefited from the experience that its two leads had playing failed versions of those types, Hayward as the utterly dry adultress Bathsheba in David and Bathsheba, and Mature as the blockheadedly limp muscleman in Samson itself.  Both are inordinately better here, more overtly (even violently) passionate, and that's particularly the case for Hayward, who clearly has a blast with the sadistic pleasure she takes in reducing slaves like Demetrius into objects of lust—in truth, this makes her a whole hell of lot hotter than her indifferent acceptance of her role as David's mistress did in Bathsheba—and even these Bible flicks' curious penchant for casting women much older than their parts would suggest works out for the 36 year-old Hayward: you never really think of Messalina as 21, though that's how old she was when she became empress, and a younger woman wouldn't be as convincing as the predator Demetrius needs its Messalina to be.  Hayward's quite possibly just as much fun to watch work her villainy as Robinson is, then, at least before the whole movie starts falling apart, and her character alongside it.

Because Demetrius has acquitted itself extraordinarily well up into its third act—besides Claudius, literally my biggest complaint is probably just that it's really distracting to think that the Praetorian Guard watches gladitorial games in full armor on their day off, or maybe that the statues' dicks are covered with fig leaves, and these are pretty dumbassed "complaints"—and yet this film cannot deal with the themes it's unleashed on anything like an adult level, or even a human level.  The Robe alluded to Christian magic as a way to get at guilt and trauma; it didn't always do it well, and thanks to Burton it never did it with psychological acuity, but its foundation was impeccably solid—albeit, in a way, easy.  Demetrius throws its hero into the abyss of lost faith and asks him to regain it, and that's a much harder story to tell.  Demetrius therefore does not try, and Dunne (an agnostic who held these movies somewhat in contempt, which probably explains why he can't tell the difference) miracles up an answer to death that's utterly meaningless to anyone who's ever grieved or ever asked their god, "why?"  Which sucks, because Demetrius and the Gladiators is an enjoyable, robust piece of sword-and-sandalry that spends so much of its runtime at least acting like it had a brain in its head that it's disappointing to find out it didn't.

Score: 6/10

Reviews in this series:
The Bible: In the Beginning (1966) (בְּרֵאשִׁית/Genesis)
The Ten Commandments (1956) (שְׁמֹות/Exodus)
Samson and Delilah (1949) (שופטים/Judges)
The Story of Ruth (1960) (רות/Ruth)
David and Bathsheba (1951) (שְׁמוּאֵל/Samuel)
Solomon and Sheba (1959) (מלכים/Kings)
Esther and the King (1960) (אֶסְתֵּר/Esther)
The Prodigal (1955) (Λουκᾶν/Luke)
Salome (1953) (Ματθαῖον καί Μᾶρκον/Matthew and Mark)
The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) (Ἰωάννην/John)
The Robe (1953) (Ρωμαιους/Romans)
Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954) (Κορινθίους/Corinthians)
Barabbas (1962) (Ἑβραίους/Hebrews)
Quo Vadis (1951) (Αποκάλυψις/Revelation)! Ben-Hur (1959)

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