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TCM Spotlight: Sword and Sandal
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,Demetrius and the Gladiators

Demetrius and the Gladiators

It may seem hard to believe now, but legitimate movie sequels were a rare commodity at one point in Hollywood. It was common to spin off a series around a popular comedy or crime-solving character, of course, but a genuine continuation of a film's story was reserved for rare occasions, such as Going My Way (1944) and The Bells of St. Mary's (1945).

However, Twentieth Century Fox decided to take a lavish but logical stab at the idea in 1954 with Demetrius and the Gladiators, which features three actors reprising their roles from the previous year's surprise hit, The Robe, the first film in the studio's widescreen process, CinemaScope. However, box office receipts really weren't a factor, as this film was rushed into production mere weeks after filming had wrapped. The fact that the sets, costumes, and props could be used again for what studio heads thought would be a crowd-pleasing hit was enough to spur the follow-up feature into production, with Victor Mature as Demetrius taking the spotlight with previous leads Richard Burton and Jean Simmons out of the picture (for obvious reasons to anyone who's seen the first film).

Christian slave Demetrius decides to intervene when the Roman emperor Caligula (Jay Robinson) sets his eye on retrieving Christ's robe for his own use, while Caligula's regal aunt, Messalina (Susan Hayward), becomes more than a little interested in Demetrius as he's forced into gladiator training under Strabo (Ernest Borgnine) and Glycon (William Marshall). Of course, his faith is put to the ultimate test as he's pressured into violent combat and carnal temptation.

Taking a cue from some of Cecil B. DeMille's canny Pre-Code religious tales like The Sign of the Cross (1932), Demetrius and the Gladiators jettisons much of the somber, devout content of The Robe in favor of an emphasis on action and as much licentious behavior as the Production Code would allow. The presence of a hero struggling with his faith proved enough of a distraction to pass it relatively unscathed through the script approval process during the final two years of Joseph Breen's tenure with the Motion Picture Production Code, which continued to loosen up for the duration of the decade as it transitioned to leadership under Geoffrey Shurlock.

One of Hollywood's most physical actors at the time, Victor Mature had been a star for less than a decade at this point since his notable turns as Doc Holliday in My Darling Clementine (1946) and ex-con Nick Bianco in Kiss of Death (1947). Primarily due to the success of his beefcake leading role in DeMille's Samson and Delilah (1949), Mature was transitioning more and more into biblical and "exotic" fare like The Veils of Bagdad (1953) and these two Fox epics. Not surprisingly, he also starred in another 1954 film for Fox, The Egyptian, which reunited him with The Robe costar Jean Simmons, though its theological departure from the safe confines of Christianity made it far less accessible for many audiences than his two Demetrius sagas. Though he spent the remainder of the '50s appearing in at least two action or crime films per year, he largely dropped out of film acting but occasionally turned up in highly unexpected comedic roles for films like After the Fox (1966) and Head (1968).

Far less associated with sword and sandal films was the film's leading lady, Susan Hayward, who still had four years to go until her Oscar®-winning role in I Want to Live! (1958). However, she had successfully anchored the 1951 biblical Fox film David and Bathsheba opposite Gregory Peck as the famous adulterous lover, which made her a logical choice here as the jaded Messalina. One of the busiest and most popular actresses of the 1950s, Hayward was also one of the few who could get away with playing women of compromised virtue in one project after another without tarnishing her own image. Fox certainly seemed to approve of her indomitable presence as this was just one of six films she made for them in a row in less than three years (along with White Witch Doctor [1953], The President's Lady [1953], Garden of Evil [1954], Untamed [1955] and Soldier of Fortune [1955]).

Though Hayward had the most visible role, she was far from the only notable actress in the film. Still a relative newcomer, Debra Paget stepped into the secondary actress role and was also something of a familiar face in Fox films (with this appearing in between her roles in a pair of Jeffrey Hunter vehicles, Princess of the Nile [1954] and White Feather [1955]). However, her most famous biblical role was still to come when she detoured over to Paramount two years later to play Lilia in the mammoth 1956 version of < I>The Ten Commandments.

Also appearing here as Paula is a very young Anne Bancroft, who was mostly known at the time for television work and her appearances in Fox's Don't Bother to Knock (1952). This film marked a significant step up, though amusingly her other 1954 film released by Fox was the 3-D perennial Gorilla at Large. Of course she went on to become a respected actress on both the big and small screens as well as the Broadway stage, earning both an Oscar® and a Tony in The Miracle Worker (filmed in 1962) as well as an Emmy for Deep in My Heart (1999). Eagle-eyed viewers can also spot a few other familiar faces throughout the film as well among the gladiators and dancing girls including Julie Newmar, Woody Strode, and Gilligan's Island's future Professor, Russell Johnson.

Interestingly, the bookending of the production schedules of The Robe and this film meant that almost none of the crew behind the camera worked on both productions. Directorial duties switched from Henry Koster to Delmer Daves, for example, and the triple screenwriters from the first film were consolidated down here to just one of the writers, Philip Dunne (who also penned The Egyptian). Perhaps the greatest contrast can be felt in the music score, with veteran composer Franz Waxman taking over for Fox's busiest musical name, Alfred Newman. Still fresh from two consecutive Oscar® wins and in demand from almost every major studio, Waxman composed no less than six films in 1954, with others including Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window for Paramount and a considerably less respected biblical outing for Warner, the early Paul Newman film < I>The Silver Chalice. In Demetrius and the Gladiators, his distinctively different approach underscores what could be summed up as the philosophy behind the entire film and the reason it remains popular today: Less of the same, and very, very different.

by Nathaniel Thompson


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