Rome, soon after the death of Christ. The depraved and mad Caligula is on the throne, obsessed with two things: the Robe, the garment that fell from Jesus' shoulders on the cross, and brutal gladiatorial displays. Victor Mature is the devout Christian entrusted with the Robe by Peter (Michael Rennie). But he turns his back on God, enters the arena, and becomes the most famous gladiator in Rome. Sharing the bed of the powerful and diabolical Messalina (Susan Hayward), he may even betray the Robe - and any hope he has for redemption!
Amid a cast of all-stars in 1953's The Robe, Victor Mature made the strongest impression as the Greek slave, Demetrius. It was only natural, then, that Mature should star in this 1954 sequel, in which the newly liberated Demetrius forges an alliance with his Christian brethren to hide the sacred robe of Christ, coveted for its "magic" by the vile emperor Caligula (Jay Robinson, also reprising his role in The Robe). Captured and manipulated into believing his beloved Lucia (Debra Paget) has been killed, Demetrius rejects his pacifist faith, plots vengeance while becoming a rising star in the bloody arena, and falls prey to the scheming senator's wife Messalina (Susan Hayward), who craves his... affection. It all leads to a crisis of faith that will determine Demetrius's fate as a noble Christian or downfallen hedonist.
Inheriting The Robe's CinemaScope production values, Demetrius and the Gladiators has everything you'd want in a Biblical epic, riding the wave that would crest two years later with Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments. It's campy, of course--Robinson is outrageously over-the-top; Mature is too contemporary (preceding the absurdity of Richard Gere's King David by 30 years); and Hayward seems closer to Rodeo Drive than ancient Rome. Still, there are abundant pleasures here, from the lavish arena battles (a bit cheesy, but still impressive) to a straightforward morality tale that doesn't compromise its themes of religious loyalty. You don't watch movies like this for historical accuracy, but for the combination of thrills, passion, and glory that were Hollywood trademarks of 1950s epics, long before the more secular ambition of Gladiator. --Jeff Shannon