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"The Robe" is one of the classic movies from yesteryear. It's one of those lavish, sermonising, somewhat naive biblical epics which simply wouldn't work in modern cinema but makes for highly entertaining Sunday afternoon viewing whatever your religious persuasion in modern times. I saw The Robe recently for the first time and aside from the odd chuckle and frequent eye-rolling(because I am a cynical heathen) thoroughly enjoyed it as many have before me. Somewhat lesser known however(to me anyway :P) is its sequel, "Demetrius And The Gladiators", which follows on directly from the events which conclude "The Robe" but this time focuses entirely on the Greek slave Demetrius(Victor Mature). In a nutshell, we pick up with roman emperor Caligula's(Jay Robinson) continuing searching for the robe(as worn by Jesus when he was crucified) which he now sees as being the source of Christian insurrection and as having the power to raise the dead. The robe is now in the possession of the Christians, under the protection of the freed Greek slave Demetrius who would lay down his life for its protection. We follow Demetrius as this desire to keep the robe safe leads to his capture and to his enforced gladiator duties (an unfortunate position as a Christian who refuses to fight) after he catches the eye of labidinous senator's wife Messalina(Susan Hayward) and later to his position as her concubine(or whatever the word is!) as he struggles with his Christian faith under the pressure of circumstance in ancient Rome. Where to start... I enjoyed The Robe. Some of the more 'religious moments' (as I'm too lazy to think of a better term) were somewhat clumsy and grating to a confirmed cynic such as myself but it was an entertaining movie with lots of good ideas. In much the same way Demetrius and the Gladiators is entertaining in parts as well but also feels very much like a bid to cash in on the success of
its fore-runner without much thought going into its own plot which somewhat spoils things. The idea of following Demetrius throughout the sequel is a sound one and the idea of him being forced into gladiatorial duties is again an interesting one, especially since we are told Christians won't fight. It should have been intruiging to watch how a gladiator would manage to survive without fighting(or at least without killing...and yes I know most gladiators weren't killed anyway before anyone points that out) and it should have been even more interesting to see how a Christian resolved the issue of his faith through the events that unfold. I can feel ideas flowing already, I'm sure anyone reading this can put 5 minutes thought into it and see the possibilities are endless. This movie however explores two paths. Boy has girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back again - and - boy has faith, boy loses faith, boy gets faith back again. It's not an awful lot more complicated than that but it's still handled with the utmost naivety. Perhaps it's more to do with the times but just when you think the movie may actually explore an interesting path it is snatched back again almost as if the idea of touching upon anything remotely controversial might be too much for the viewer to stand...or, as is more likely, too much for the censorship boards of the time to stand. In many ways I was and still am highly confused by the message the movie was actually trying to portray. The Robe is undeniably an extended sermon, Demetrius And The Gladiators plays more like a giggle at the stupidity and hypocracy of all involved...which I can't help thinking is an entirely accidental consequence of a slapped together plot and the utter naivity of all involved. Christians won't fight we are told, yet Christians as portrayed by Demetrius do nothing BUT fight and exact bloody revenge wherever and whenever possible and as soon as something hap
pens Demetrius doesn't like then he's off killing, renouncing God and shacking up with a Senator's wife and more! Having seen Demetrius drop his God in the blink of an eye, other gladiators decide being Christian is a great thing because his faith is so strong(huh?). People are willing to die and watch others die for a robe which is nothing more than a worthless symbol one moment and in the next are being told to hand it over without a fight. Peter in fact uses the robe as little more than a tool to con Demetrius back into Christianity and is willing to watch others die to achieve these ends! And so it goes on. The whole movie hinges upon Demetrius' somewhat pendulous faith which in turn seems wholly reliant upon whether God looks after those he loves and how often Peter can pop up and play games involving smoke and mirrors. Anyway, jumbled messages or not you still get the desired garish spectacle of ancient Rome and the blood, sweat and ceremony of the arena which is pretty much all I personally wanted from any movie of this type. Gimme blood, sex and steel and I'm a happy bunny lol. Naturally this isn't up there with the likes of Gladiator or Spartacus, Ben Hur or Barabbas to at least give the movie a chance with its contemporaries but there are the odd moments when you do feel you are getting the required bang for your buck. The moments in the actual arena are quite few and far between and the combat very lacklustre and highly orchestrated for the most part but there are a few saving graces including Demetrius facing down 5 tigers in one scene...even if they do seem to be five very friendly tigers lol. These moments and the fautless sets are most of what sells the movie. You rent or buy something like this and you expect large, garishly decorous backdrops and sumptuous costumery that's exactly what you get. I have no complaints there and neither will you. As a spectacle it's faultless as most of the time were and
indeed is a step up from its predecessor with much more in the way of real backdrops and far less calling in the painters...if you know what I mean. Demetrius & The Gladiators also presents an extremely fun cast including Victor Mature as Demetrius who I always find amusing on screen if only because his expression seems to change even less than Arnie's and because that one expression is more than a little reminiscent of a constipated camel. It would be easy to rip his performance apart as it erm, always is so I won't bother, seen him once, seen him a thousand times if you ask me. Jay Robinson, on the other hand, steals the show once more as a truly repugnant Caligula; complete with squealing, nasal whine he really does come across as quite depraved and it's a shame he's not on screen more often. So to with Susan Hayward as the morally bankrupt senator's wife Messalina who is at the centre of the movie's most (unintentionally perhaps) amusing moments as her overt sexuality bubbles over in a role she obviously relishes. I don't doubt the censors at the time hated every last labidinous word she drawls and some of the thinly veiled exchanges of words between her and the likes of Caligula must have tried their patience no end lol. Of course in todays more in-yer-face times it all comes across as very camp and highly amusing but it adds enormous entertainment value. Also along for the ride is Ernest Borgnine as the head of the gladiator school, Barry Jones as Claudius(Messalina's husband), William Marshall, Anne Bancroft, Debra Paget(who squarks alot) and Michael Rennie as Peter so you can see the strength in depth the cast has. Fox certainly spared no expense with this production and despite my never having heard of it aside from the trailer at the begining of The Robe on DVD, it appears it raked in the big bucks at the time and it's fair to say, still looks good today. Does it still cut the mustard...yes
and no. It certainly lives up to its promise as being a gladiator movie seeing as much of it takes place 'behind the scenes' of the arena as it were as opposed to just showing the battles themselves but the action does feel muted. You can't fault the cast and the production(as a time piece), nor will you fail to be entertained by the campy nature of the censor-dodging innuendo, leering and drooling from some of the more depraved characters. However, in terms of the central religious themes it comes across as somewhat twisted and confused and in many ways I can't help but feeling it would have been a far better movie without trying to pull in these concepts as well. Overall, good Sunday afternoon viewing, much like its predecessor but nothing to shout about. Oh yes, the DVD...nothing exciting, just trailers and the picture is pretty grainy...but then, the film is almost 50 years old so whaddya expect? Flippin' miserable cover though and you'd be forgiven for thinking it's a B&W flick if you were just browsing the shelves and saw it...which it isn't.