Ancient and Modern Maturity
Even in repose, leading man Victor Mature (1913-1999), bore the surly expression of rough trade, which made him an ideal player in film noir (I Wake Up Screaming, Kiss of Death, Cry of the City) and outdoor adventures (My Darling Clementine, Chief Crazy Horse). When Cecil B. DeMille cast him as the strongman half of 1949’s Samson and Delilah, another genre opened up for him: Biblical epics. The DeMille opus was so huge that a return to swords and sandals was inevitable – and it too was a triumph. As 20th-Century Fox’s first Cinemascope release, director Henry Koster’s film of The Robe (1953) boasted a gripping story based on Lloyd C. Douglas’ best-seller and a top-flight cast including Richard Burton, Jean Simmons, Michael Rennie and Mature as the Greek servant to the Roman soldier (Burton) who wins the robe of Jesus in a dice game following the crucifixion and vows to carry on the Christian message, Mature. Indeed, it was such a hit that it became the rare Biblical epic to spawn a sequel, Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954), in which Mature’s Demetrius was promoted to first position among fellow stars Susan Hayward, Rennie (reprising his role as the apostle Peter), Debra Paget, Anne Bancroft, Ernest Borgnine and Richard Egan. Directed by Delmer Daves (who helmed TT’s December release of Kings Go Forth and next month’s Cowboy), the follow-up spectacular chronicled the fortunes of the converted Demetrius as he becomes caretaker of the robe and tries to keep it safe from the machinations of the Roman emperor Caligula. When he believes the woman he loves has been killed, he loses his faith and becomes a skilled, murderous gladiator. But then he learns – miraculously! – that his beloved has not died and that maybe his newfound God hasn’t abandoned him after all. Demetrius faces death at the hands of one emperor but fate (divine, perhaps?) intervenes and the next emperor allows him to live. As Mature survived two popular Cinemascope epics, he had the stamina for another, set “13 centuries before the birth of Jesus Christ.” Two months after Demetrius and the Gladiators came The Egyptian (1954), which reunited Mature with The Robe castmate Simmons in the lavish saga of the rising fortunes and ultimate corruption of a court physician (Edmund Purdom) to a progressive pharaoh (Michael Wilding) moving away from Egypt’s gods of old. Mature plays the doctor’s friend, who also ascends in status, first as a member of the Royal Guard and later as commander of the Egyptian Army. Adapted from the book by Mika Waltari and directed by Hollywood veteran Michael Curtiz (also busy that same year dreaming of a White Christmas), The Egyptian did not match the box-office success of Mature’s previous two Fox epics, so he would take a five-year break from the genre (returning as the conquering general Hannibal in 1959). Mature’s next Fox assignment would return him to a suspenseful blend of both film noir and outdoor adventure (also in Cinemascope), director Richard Fleischer’s hair-trigger heist thriller Violent Saturday (1955), with Mature quite effective as one of the townies of a sleepy Arizona burg (including Demetrius comrades Borgnine and Egan) whose lives are shattered by a brazen daylight bank heist. As the manager of a nearby mine, Mature has a lot on his plate, including a feckless boss who is letting the business go to seed and a much-bullied son who is disappointed that his dad wasn’t a war hero like the other kid’s fathers – but the desperate situation with the invading robbers may change all that. Never awarded high marks as an actor by critics, Mature nonetheless proved a solid, audience-pleasing screen presence for over 30 years and his Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray trio – Demetrius and the Gladiators, Violent Saturday and the sold-out The Egyptian – show one of Hollywood’s great “hunks” in his prime.