This month marks the 20 year anniversary of Gladiator, the last historical epic to gain true mainstream recognition during the annual film awards season. In the film, directed by Ridley Scott, enslaved Roman general Maximus seeks to avenge the murder of his family at the hands of Emperor Commodus through gladiatorial combat.
Historical epics, specifically those set in the classical period, had traditionally been incredibly successful in the industry from its earliest days. Films such as Giovanni Pastrone’s Cabiria, Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, William Wyler’s Ben-Hur and Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus all serve as examples of the genre’s continued popularity with audiences.
However, the mystique eventually broke, starting with Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra, released in 1963, which cost more than six times its initial budget and almost bankrupted 20th Century Fox. When Anthony Mann’s The Fall of the Roman Empire bombed at the box office just a year later, it was all but over for films of its kind. With the world moving firmly into the Space and Information Age, there was much more success to be found with movies such as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and George Lucas’s Star Wars.
Between 1964 and 2000, the only similar, although much smaller scale, films were Tinto Brass’s infamously erotic Caligula, Martin Scorsese’s highly controversial Last Temptation of Christ and some animation like Disney’s Hercules. So when Gladiator finally hit theaters in May of 2000, it was a first-in-a-generation blockbuster experience for many moviegoers. With a career-making performance from relatively unknown Russell Crowe and groundbreaking visual effects, it rode a wave to five Academy Awards, including the coveted Best Picture.
Its success reset the playing field, contributing to the creation of films such as Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy, Oliver Stone’s Alexander, Zack Snyder’s 300 and Robert Zemeckis’ Beowulf, among many others. However, despite the numerous films that drew influence from it, Gladiator remains the best of its kind in the modern era, particularly due to its strong storytelling, action, memorable characters and incredible visuals.
To begin, the script provides a strong foundation for the rest of the movie to stand on. The structure bears a striking resemblance to Joseph’s Campbell’s theory about the hero’s journey, as Maximus begins in a “normal” state which is upended, leading him to venture into the unknown world of the gladiator, undergo a series of trials and succeed in defeating his villain before finally “returning” to his family in the afterlife. Using such a tested formula provides a familiar, uncomplicated path for the audience to follow, while also paying homage to classical storytelling and the myths Gladiator and Campbell’s theory are based on.
As for the characters, Maximus is almost wholly noble and good while Commodus is particularly loathsome and evil, creating a clear black and white morality for audiences, which makes it easier to cheer for the narrative’s heroes. Combined with a brilliant portrayal from Joaquin Phoenix, Commodus is still one of the most memorable villains of the century, while Crowe’s frustrated “are you not entertained?” has been quoted and memed endlessly.
Beyond the plot, the film doesn’t pull any punches and opens with a fantastically effective battle scene set in Germania, followed by several engaging and well choreographed pit fights. One particular scene, in which Maximus must defeat both his opponent and several tigers, is notable for its deft pacing, vicious action and shots that are evocative of Renaissance paintings. These conflicts are exciting and keep viewers from complacency by putting the heroes at risk, but they also serve to heighten Maximus’s heroism as he defeats the cowardly villain’s hordes.
Despite these accomplishments, no film is perfect, and Gladiator does feature several anachronisms. Commodus, for one, was in no way hated by his father, and by all accounts was the preferred successor. Gladiators also rarely, if ever, actually fought to the death. The time spent training them and their entertainment value for audiences made them much too expensive to replace often. There is also the story issue of Maximus being a well-known general presumed to be dead and exalted by Commodus, who thinks Maximus has been killed by his men. Why Maximus isn’t freed as soon as he reveals his identity in the Colosseum is never truly explained.
However, these issues can be overlooked when the rest of the movie – the direction, performances, sets and costuming – is so committed to excellence. There have been many who have tried to imitate the success of this fantastic film over the last twenty years, even Ridley Scott himself with Exodus: Gods and Kings, but nothing has been able to measure up to its ambitious heights. Gladiator entertains like a true gladiatorial contest, and it deserves a place in the pantheon of great swords and sandals films and historical epics.
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In recent years, no swords and sandals epics have lived up to the modern day standards of Gladiator.