The Robe’s successors: Demetrius and the Gladiators and the Egyptian

Dr Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow

La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia.

The Robe and its politics was used extensively by evangelist Billy Graham.  Before a tour of a new country such as New Zealand or Australia, he would send out tightly organised advance parties.  These highly efficient men would tell ministers and church groups to screen The Robe as it was a ‘tract for our times’.[1]  It appeared that The Robe was used as an inducement to see Billy Graham documentaries such as Battleground Europe, The Mighty Fortress and Eastward to Asia.  Graham often discussed communism in his sermons and he saw the world as divided into two camps: communist and the west.  He believed only a revival of faith would avert a nuclear holocaust which he saw as a biblical judgement for the United States’ sins.[2]

The film’s sequel Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954) continued the theme of doomed empire by documenting the downfall of Caligula.  The film focused on Demetrius who was torn between Roman decadence as represented by the seductive Messalina, wife to the Emperor’s nephew Claudius, and the austerity of the Christian faith.  Caligula was shaken by the way the Christians met their death in The Robe and demanded that Christ’s robe be found.  Soldiers searching for the robe started a fight with Demetrius who was captured and condemned to become a gladiator.  His Christian ethics prevented him from killing and Caligula ordered that tigers tear him apart.  Demetrius defeated the tigers and earned the respect of the Roman crowd.

The film’s sequel Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954) continued the theme of doomed empire by documenting the downfall of Caligula. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

After his victory, Demetrius turned away from Christianity after he prayed to God that a Christian girl be saved form being raped by his fellow gladiators.  When she was apparently killed, he rejected the Christian faith and embarked on a career of gladiator by killing several men in one session.  For his efforts, Demetrius was freed by Caligula provided that he rejected his Christian vows.  Caligula says ‘to join the Romans, he must revile and reject Jesus’.[3]  Demetrius replied:

There is no other God but Caesar.  There is no other power greater than his, in this world or any other.[4]

The lines were a reflection of Kennan’s belief that communism was religion.  Throughout these films, it was either Christianity or Caesar, there was no middle ground.  Just as in the cold war, there was only good and evil, right and wrong, the United States and the USSR.  And just as Kennan saw communism as religion for communists, the tyrant Caligula saw himself as a God.

But Demetrius retained some hidden strengths despite his fall from grace.  Claudius observed about him that:

He has something that Rome has lacked since the early days of the republic.  Something to believe in.  Faith … In my family, we Caesars have killed and buried it, strange if the memory of a dead Jew should continue it.[5]

Demetrius was brought back into line by St. Peter who returned him to the proper path with news that the Christian girl was still alive.  Demetrius prayed for her recovery and regained his faith.  The empire of Caligula then began to crumble against the spiritual armour of Demetrius.  Caligula was killed when he tried to have Demetrius executed and the saner rule of Claudius began.  The film reflected the view of the conservatives that Christianity would overcome tyranny.  The ‘memory of a dead Jew’ could defeat an empire.

The Egyptian (1954) had the same these of a doomed empire.  The film opened with contemporary shots of the ruins of the Egyptian empire on the Nile.  The narrator said: ‘Today, the glory of ancient Egypt is ruins and dust.’  The film was about the rise, fall and redemption of a physician who wanted to know the meaning of life and to treat the poor.  After studying as a doctor, he tried to save the life of a man praying in the desert to the ‘one god’.  The man was the Pharaoh and he was made his personal physician.  After seeing the cruelty of the powerful, he abandoned Egypt for many years.  He returned to warn Pharaoh about the dangers of the Hittites and their new iron sword.  The military want to strike against the Hittites before they grew too strong, while the Pharaoh refused to condone violence.  The physician was talked into poisoning the Pharaoh to save Egypt.  While dying, the Pharaoh talked about a man coming later who would tell the truth about God and bring right to the world.

The Egyptian (1954) had the same these of a doomed empire. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The physician realised he had made a mistake in murdering the Pharaoh which allowed a military tyrant to take the throne.  The Hittites were quickly destroyed and the physician was put on trial where he told the Pharaoh:

You will go to war and win a battle.  You will conquer and not know it is defeat.  You will raise Egypt to glory and watch her die.  We live in the twilight of our world, … and you will be its sunset.  Nations rise only to fall.  Kings build mighty monuments to only have them crumble into dust.  Glory flees like a shadow, all these things have the seeds of death in them.  Only a thought can live.  Only a great truth can grow and flourish and a truth cannot be killed.

… A good man is better than a bad man.  Justice is better than injustice.  The man who uses mercy is superior to those who uses violence.  Though the later call himself Pharaoh and master of the earth.  We have but one master the God that made us all.  Only his truth is immortal.  And in his truth all men are equal and no man is alone.[6]

The film’s conclusion had virtually the same conclusion as Demetrius and the Gladiators with the religiously strong individual deriding the all-powerful tyrant before being sentenced.  The tyrant’s empire was condemned to destruction.  The true kingdom was based on a religion yet to be unveiled.  The final credit blazed across the screen ‘THESE THINGS HAPPENED THIRTEEN CENTURIES BEFORE THE BIRTH OF CHRIST’ ensuring that the audience got the message about who was the true figure of religious salvation.

[1] Remark by Professor John Salmond on 22 March 1991.  Professor Salmond was a journalist with a New Zealand newspaper and he covered the Billy Graham tour in 1959.  For more details on the detailed and extensive preparations for Billy Graham’s tours read S. Baggage, & Ian Siggins, Light Beneath the Cross: The Story of Billy Graham’s Crusade in Australia, The World’s Work, Kingswood & Melbourne, 1960.

[2] Mark Silk, Spiritual Politics, p. 65.  Grahams’ outlook was discussed in the section on When Worlds Collide.  After Graham’s highly successful Los Angeles revival in 1949, Cecil B. DeMille was rumoured to have offered Graham a screen test.  See Stephen, J. Whitfield, The Culture of the Cold War, John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1991, p. 78. Graham returned the compliment by calling DeMille ‘A prophet in celluloid’, USA, Box 14, Folder 1, Cecil B. DeMille Archives.

[3] Demetrius and the Gladiators, (d) Delmer Daves, (w) Phillip Dunne.

[4] Ibid.

[5] ibid.

[6] The Egyptian (d) Michael Curtiz, (w) Philli Dunne.

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