Easter Objects of Desire
The 2016 Easter Triduum starts tomorrow and the stories recounted and the religious rituals that unfold therein have held a fascination for moviemakers throughout the years. Two artifacts of that time figured heavily in a pair of epic, much-ballyhooed Cinemascope movies from 1954 taken from works by Lloyd C. Douglas and scored by the masterful Franz Waxman. The cup utilized by Jesus and his disciples at the Last Supper figured heavily in the intrigues of The Silver Chalice, showcasing Paul Newman in his first Hollywood movie as an artisan commissioned to cast the vessel into the title goblet. The quest to possess this object drives the story, and results in death and destruction, particularly that of a power-mad magician (Jack Palance) who envisions himself as a god among men. Months earlier, moviegoers witnessed a similar scenario in the sequel the previous year’s blockbuster hit The Robe. Set in 1st century Rome following the events of Christ’s crucifixion, directed by the versatile Delmer Daves and scripted by the prolific Philip Dunne, Demetrius and the Gladiators fixates on what becomes of the robe Jesus wore on the way to the cross. Ex-Roman tribune-now-Christian covert Demetrius (Victor Mature) becomes one of the robe’s many protectors, and strives to remain true to his Messiah’s calling of nonviolence, but naturally the Roman authorities, particularly the mad Emperor Caligula (fellow The Robe alumnus Jay Robinson), won’t let him and he is consigned to becoming a gladiator. Temptations to fight, both crushingly physical ones from burly gladiator instructor Strabo (Ernest Borgnine) and sensuously amorous ones from the ravishingly beautiful Messalina (Susan Hayward), lead him astray for a time, but faith ultimately wins out. Divinely deluded Caligula obsesses with securing the robe and wielding its supposed magical powers for himself, but there will be no heavenly intervention for him when he finally acquires it – and subsequently overplays his bloodthirsty hand, opening the door for Messalina’s reasonable, quietly unassuming husband Claudius (Barry Jones) to rise to the fore. Demetrius and the Gladiators, a summertime box-office hit as opposed to the less successful Christmas release of The Silver Chalice, proves that absolute power is no match for deeply embedded faith, that megalomaniacs who want more of everything will more likely end up with nothing, and that when it comes to somewhat parallel plots about persecutory madmen and religious objects, it pays to get your movie into the marketplace first. It’s an absolutely powerful treat for fans of star-encrusted Biblical spectaculars (and an indelible Waxman score accessible on an Isolated Audio Track) available here for your widescreen pleasure on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray: http://screenarchives.com/title_detail.cfm/ID/17352/DEMETRIUS-AND-THE-GLADIATORS-1954/.