Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954)

Demetrius and the Gladiators PosterNine months after Richard Burton was harassed into becoming a Christian by a red beach towel in The Robe, Hollywood decided it was time for a sequel. Since this whole Christian thing worked out so well for Burton and co-star Jean Simmons (you might recall they ended up on the wrong end of the archery field at the end of The Robe), it was left to Victor Mature to run around squawking about this robe and how it can just butt out of his life when things get rough.

Everyone’s favorite character in this movie (well, aside from the robe – it’s kind of hard to be a real Christian and not pick the robe) is Strabo, the tough but lovable guy that runs the gladiator school and played by Ernest Borgnine.

I was hoping that at the gladiator school Demetrius would overcome his Christian wimpiness against killing and violence that he exhibited (except against the entire Roman army whenever they came to shakedown his village for the robe), make some friends, and encounter an evil gladiator who was undefeated, but probably was without the honor a real gladiator’s gladiator would have.

The movie kind of gave us this masculine dynamic, but not as pronounced as I was hoping. Demetrius does somehow end up befriending William “Blacula” Marshall though which was probably a first for one of these all-male grapple academies.

Once at the gladiator school, we first see Demetrius’ faith put to the test. There’s this gladiator bully who slaps him upside the head just to see if Christians really do turn the other cheek. It turns out that they do, but unfortunately for the bully, Blacula isn’t Christian and doesn’t mind helping out Demetrius in a pinch.

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The day before a big match, as is the tradition at most gladiator schools, a bunch of hookers are bussed in for the warriors to practice their groping with and among those is Demetrius’ girlfriend Lucia who is being snuck in so that she and Demetrius can have a little quality time together.

Messalina finds out (she had a thing for Demetrius) and has Demetrius taken away and Lucia is left with the other gladiators and the bully decides he is going to have his way with her. Demetrius sees this and implores his God to help her and he does by apparently killing her.

As soon as this happens, Demetrius shows us what he is made off by immediately renouncing his religion and demanding that he be given a match with every guy in the school the next day. He ends up killing pretty much everyone but Borgnine and Blacula and becomes a star!

Just to make sure that Demetrius has turned to the dark side, he promptly moves in with Messalina and throws coins at her harem and is really crabby when the Big Fisherman (Peter) shows up to try and guilt him into going back to church.

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Messalina treats Peter to a drink by throwing it on him and then Demetrius tells him that he don’t need no crappy god that’s going to kill his girlfriend. If I was the Big Fisherman I would’ve said that God don’t need no sweaty, ungrateful gladiator, especially since he already had Jean Simmons and Richard Burton, but beggars can’t be choosers, right?

As surprising as this will be to you, the movie then sends us off to find the robe again. Demetrius gets the assignment and this is where he meets up with Big Fisherman again and B.F. shows him that the robe is with Lucia.

Lucia isn’t dead, but is just in a really deep sleep, but she is clutching the robe and won’t let go. After figuring out that he isn’t going to get the robe from her unless he pries it from her cold dead hands, he gets his faith back! It’s a miracle! Hallelujah! I believe in you again now that it turns out you didn’t kill my girlfriend!

A final fight in the arena ensues somehow and Caligula gets killed thus putting Claudius into power. The final scenes are even more laughable here than the ones we saw at the end of The Robe. Claudius tells us that he was just pretending to be a cuckolded boob and that he’ll be a really tolerant emperor. Messalina promises that she’ll be a good wife to Claudius (yeah – now that he has a really sweet job). Demetrius has his faith and woman back and Blacula is left holding the robe.

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Clearly, the story is the loss and regaining of faith during trying circumstances, but it’s about as subtle as you would expect from a film that has the word “gladiators” in the title. Demetrius turns out to be a shallow dolt who buckles as soon as something bad happens in his life and only returns to his faith once he sees that something bad really didn’t happen.

What doesn’t really make sense is that while Demetrius got to live the high life for awhile, killing folks, eating well, and pumping Roman broads, he doesn’t ever suffer any real consequences for his renunciation of his god or from the life of excess and sin that he engaged in.

Since this was the crux of the movie, the failure of this part of the story to actually be believable is a critical one.

Its predecessor suffered from abrupt switches in faith and unbelievably broad antics from its characters, but you had Richard Burton doing his damnedest to make it work. Asking Victor Mature to do the same with even weaker material is something even Job wouldn’t be able to handle.

This one did have better action than the first one, but once we leave the gladiator school and chase after that robe things begin to unravel. No further sequels followed and the robe was finally put back into mothballs for good.

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