Demetrius and the Gladiators (Blu-ray)
Directed by Delmer Daves
Studio: Twilight Time (Fox)
Aspect Ratio: 2.55:1 1080p AVC codec Running Time: 102 minutes
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 4.0 English
MSRP: $ 29.95
Release Date: March 13, 2012
Review Date: March 23, 2012
When freed slave Demetrius (Victor Mature) fights to protect the hiding place of Christ’s robe now desired by Emperor Caligula (Jay Robinson) for its supposed restorative powers, he’s thrown into gladiatorial school and sent out to meet his end in the arena since he’s made it clear as a Christian he won’t kill another man. He’s such a surprising success in the ring, however, that Messalina (Susan Hayward), the wife of Caligula’s uncle Claudius (Barry Jones), manages to have him installed as one of her guards, and later, after his love Lucia (Debra Paget) appears to be killed, he finds himself on a murderous rampage that allows him to slaughter a host of gladiators and three tigers all in a single afternoon. Having lost his faith after the demise of Lucia, he’s more than happy to accompany Messalina to her seaside villa and be freed there of any association with his former life.
Philip Dunne’s screenplay takes only the Demetrius character from Lloyd Douglas’ book The Robe and has fashioned a completely new tale for him as his faith is continually tested, lost, and regained during the course of the movie. Delmer Daves stages quite well three outings in the arena sometimes taking the camera way up to emphasize the epic quality of the coliseum set with the scene of Demetrius’ going berserk and becoming an unstoppable killing machine perhaps being the most memorable. No, in terms of bloody carnage or acrobatic fight choreography, the tussles can’t hold a candle to something like is seen in television’s Spartacus series of today, but it likely thrilled audiences mightily in its day. With filming commencing only three weeks after the wrap on The Robe, many sets were obviously reused, and they’re splendidly grand in scope. Director Daves continually uses his widescreen frame to emphasize the epic size of the picture, not only in its impressive décor but in the hundreds of extras as guards, citizens, and gladiators while similarly narrowing its focus to about five principal characters whose capricious desires and actions continually keep the audience intrigued.
Victor Mature repeats his characterization of Demetrius from The Robe only now as the center of attention, and he forcefully holds the screen with ease. He can go effortlessly from a passionate embrace to seething rage to eyes brimming with tears in a role that really gives him great range as an actor. Susan Hayward’s Messalina is vixenish and alluring, and while not requiring anything like the extremes of emotion that Mature must generate, she inhabits her role expertly (even if screenwriter Dunne gives her a last reel psychological makeover that is anything but true to history). Jay Robinson’s highly theatrical performance as Caligula is perhaps a bit too plumy, rather monotonously braying his lines too often but certainly a performance that stands out from the pack. Michael Rennie is a quietly powerful Peter and Barry Jones an effective, understated Claudius. Ernest Borgnine as Strabo, the head of the gladiatorial school, was still about a year away from real stardom, but as he was doing quite a bit at this point in the 1950s, he makes his few moments count (though he does disappear quite surprisingly from the second half of the picture). Debra Paget, Anne Bancroft (who plays a girl who “entertains” gladiators), and Richard Egan (as a surly, bullying combatant boasting a very impressive physique) have less to do than their talents warrant. William Marshall lends his beautifully resonant voice as gladiator Glycon who finds his faith during the movie. Look closely and you’ll see Julie Newmar as one of the dancing girls in a couple of scenes.
The transfer is presented in its theatrical aspect ratio of 2.55:1 and is offered in 1080p using the AVC codec. Sharpness is above average for the movie but only in close-ups could it be called exemplary. (And long shots are sometimes quite soft but likely not the fault of the transfer.) Likewise, color though richly saturated seems bit drab in the early going though the second half of the film seems to find the color more lustrous and impressive. Flesh tones are sometimes a bit on the brown side but again this is not always the case. Black levels are good, but you may find the entire image is a little darker than it needed to be. The film has been divided into 12 chapters.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 4.0 sound mix features very extensive use of directionalized dialogue, all of it well recorded and easily discernible throughout. For the most part, Franz Waxman’s score has been spread across the front soundstage channels and only rarely wanders into the rear. There are infrequent ambient sounds in the rear soundstage, but when they happen (a crack of thunder will raise your blood pressure accordingly and the arena crowds are noticeably present), they’re quite impressive.
The isolated score track is offered in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo, and it sounds marvelous.
The film’s theatrical trailer is not in scope and is offered in 480i running 3 ¼ minutes.
The enclosed 6-page booklet contains numerous stills from the film (in very burnished washes), film historian Julie Kirgo’s always interesting analysis of the movie at hand, and the film’s poster art on the back cover.
3.5/5 (not an average)
Demetrius and the Gladiators is the very definition of a 1950s popcorn movie: lots of love scenes, action, and spectacle. While the Blu-ray transfer here is merely fine rather than exemplary, the release offers us another 1950s classic in high definition. As part of Twilight Time’s limited availability program, only 3,000 copies of the movie are available. Those interested in experiencing this Cinemascope melodrama should hop to www.screenarchives.com to see if copies are still available. They're also available via Facebook at www.facebook.com/twilighttimemovies .