Movie Wave Home | Reviews by Title | Reviews by Composer
DEMETRIUS AND THE GLADIATORS
Wonderful score for Robe sequel
A review by JAMES SOUTHALL
Music composed by
* * * *
Themes from The Robe
Album running time
Album cover copyright (c) 1954 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation; review copyright (c) 2006 James Southall
Twentieth Century Fox's enormous 1953 moneyspinner The Robe was one of the most talked-about films of its day, the biblical epic invigorating interest in cinema (thanks to CinemaScope, amongst other things) against the growing threat from television. One year later, its sequel, Demetrius and the Gladiators, was released, perhaps giving the impression that the studio had been so impressed with the grosses from The Robe that they had rushed a sequel into production, though in fact that wasn't the case - so confident was Daryl Zanuck about The Robe's performance that he actually had the sequel shot at the same time!
Of course, Alfred Newman had scored The Robe, and in doing so he produced one of the finest film scores in history; unfortunately he couldn't fit Demetrius and the Gladiators into his schedule, so the studio hired some slouch called Franz Waxman instead. Actually, Waxman wasn't too much of a slouch, and he saw Demetrius as a good chance to work on a film which might get him a little more exposure, and indeed one that would offer him numerous opportunities to flex his considerable muscles. It was the first biblical epic he scored.
Waxman incorporated several of Newman's themes into his score, which seems natural enough, albeit one can't imagine a composer of Waxman's stature (if such a person exists) agreeing to such a thing today. He weaves them through his own original themes with great skill - it seems a bit facile to say that you'd never notice the joins, but it's true. I have to say that Newman's themes are so exceptional that it would be difficult for any composer to come up with new music that could sit alongside them and not sound inferior, but Waxman was as good a bet as anyone to do that.
Despite its exciting-sounding title, the film is actually considerably more considered and less action-packed than several of its contemporary biblical pieces, and the music reflects that. Of course, there's action music - and brilliant action music, too - but the score as a whole has a much more dignified, restrained air about it. Perhaps the finest track is the stunning "Messalina at Home", in which several of the film's themes (by both composers) are brought together in one very moving piece, conducted by Waxman (like the rest of the score) but with the legendary Newman string sound.
Another wonderful cue is "The Gladiators' Party", in which Waxman employs an Alex North-style device of using a piece of source music as dramatic underscore, with the slightly strange dance piece developing into a cue of ferocious intensity, all coming from within, never relying on the standard blast-them-with-a-big-orchestra routine. "Temple of Isis" melds orchestra and choir in an extremely modernistic style, Waxman proving within the space of thrree or four cues that not only did he have incredible range as a composer, he was able to utilise several different styles within a short space of time without every departing from a genuinely consistent style (and even managing to incorporate another composer's music along the way). Pick of the action music is perhaps "The Dungeon", with pizzicato strings backed with charging brass, culminating in a moment of almost frightening dissonance.
Demetrius and the Gladiators is a fine score. It's not quite up to the level of its illustrious predecessor - you could count on your fingers the number of film scores that are - but is a deliciously intelligent piece of music, from a deliciously intelligent film composer. About 45 minutes of the score are presented in sequence (the first 19 tracks), before a sequence of cues which are unfortunately damaged (though I suspect many listeners will choose to program them into their correct chronological locations, which is possible thanks to a list in the booklet). Sound quality is variable even on the cues not marked as damaged - this is a 1954 recording, after all - but never bad enough for the detail of the music to be kept from shining through. FSM's package also includes excellent liner notes from Waxman expert Christopher Husted.