Movies that made going to the movies suck #26: GLADIATOR

Hi everyone!  Another blog event is upon us movie bloggers. Mike at You Talking To Me? Blog is compiling a list of influential movies that in its wake brings about other movies trying to capitalize on its success. So the list is basically about the great movies the were trailed by a bunch of pretty bad ones that did everything short of tarnishing the original’s legacy. It’s both a celebration of great films and a condemnation of Hollywood’s tendency to repeat trends until they are utterly and hopelessly dead. There are 27 movies on this list that’d be revealed one day at a time, starting with It Happened One Night. So, be sure to visit his blog daily to check out if one of your faves made the cut.

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For this blog event, I recently re-watched Gladiator again. I’ve only seen the extended dvd version twice and let me just say, this movie still blew me away as much as it did when I first saw it ten years ago. Yes, it has been over a decade since this movie was released and people are still talking about it. I’d be hard-pressed to find an article/review of a film of that genre since then without Gladiator being mentioned.

It’s hardly surprising as the famed director Ridley Scott single-handedly revived the long-dormant sword-and-sandal genre that’s been long absent for over 3 decades. This article mentioned that the flop of The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) – despite a stellar cast of Sophia Loren, Alec Guiness and Stephen Boyd (Messala in Ben Hur) – pretty much ended Hollywood’s golden age of historical epic. It’s quite interesting that the same historical characters of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, Commodus and Lucilla brought the genre back to life. The story of Maximus Decimus Meridius, the Roman general who becomes a slave who later defies an empire, is pure fiction of course, craftily intertwined with the history of Rome.

The good: It’s no hyperbole to call Gladiator a masterpiece. It’s a visceral spectacle that offers a thrilling blend of intellect and physical strength.  Massively entertaining and memorable, it lived up to the promise of Maximus himself: “I will give them something they have never seen before.“ Oh yes, we’re definitely entertained.

What Sir Scott did is filmmaking of epic proportion, just reading the trivia on what it took to film this movie is awe-inspiring, i.e. building one third of Rome’s Collosseum in Malta to a height of 52 feet, the 2000+ extras used for the crowd scenes, and how the Germania battle scene in Bourne Woods took 20 days to complete. The result is an uncompromisingly gritty sequences as well as a convincing look that evoke the grandeur of Rome. The scene when the city of Rome greets their new emperor Commodus is breathtakingly majestic even a decade later. It’s not just the set that’s epic, the revenge-fantasy story is equally complex, combined with grand action and grand acting from everyone involved (from Crowe’s heroic portrayal, Joaquin’s deliciously sinister villainous role, to Derek Jacobi’s theatrical-tinged performance) that results in entertainment in a grand scale.

Yet, on top of being a feast for the eyes, Gladiator has plenty of heart. Even with all the pulse-racing action stuff, the movie never forgets to make the audience connect with the central character. We weep when Maximus finds his home is burned down, and we rejoice when he comes out triumphant one gladiatorial race after another. On top of that, the movie also immerses us in the complex political web brewing underneath the revenge story. All that makes for a movie that warrants repeated viewing because it’s so satisfying every single time.

Now, the bad: As with the success of any particular ‘trend,’ it no doubt launched scores of imitators wanting to capitalize on the now-embraced genre.  Alexander, King Arthur and Troy are all released in 2004, Kingdom of Heaven in 2005, the CGI-laden 300 in 2007 and the recently released Centurion, all carry the Greco-Roman mythology theme of which comparison to Gladiator is inevitable. There are also the B-movie versions: The Last Legion and In the Name of the King, as well as TV series: HBO TV miniseries Rome and the one currently playing on Starz cable network called Spartacus, Blood & Sand I’m sure there are countless others that escape me. The point is, Hollywood since realized that there is money to be made in this genre, and there’s no stopping them.

Unfortunately, none of those movies quite capture the ‘magic’ of the 2000 Oscar Best Picture winner, nor did it match its critical and box office success (Gladiator grossed nearly half a billion dollars worldwide). It’d take this entire blog to list the problems with each one, but suffice to say there is still nothing quite like the story of Maximus.

The thing with a lot of the swords & sandals movies is that they tend to be more sensational to make up for a subpar script. With the exception of the critically acclaimed Rome series (which had great characters to go with its magnificent sets), a lot of the characters in these movies are one-dimensional and lack an affecting/gripping storyline. Some of them even opt for more sensationalism and provocative scenes instead of character development, as is clearly the case in the Spartacus TV series. Think about it, there is zero sex scenes in Gladiator (we have Crowe to thank for that) and even the amount of violence isn’t overblown, it’s just enough to serve the story. The most alluring thing about Gladiator is in the script and the acting.

Additionally, the look and sound of Gladiator also spawn movies with similar visual style and music. It seems like I see a lot of movies in the past decade that use the overly muted color palettes. Then there’s the much-copied Hans Zimmer score with Lisa Gerrard’s emotive, tribal-sounding chant that felt so fresh the first time I heard it in Gladiator. The ‘Battle’ score also seems to have been imitated verbatim in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. My husband was playing POTC the other day and I swore I thought it was from Gladiator (you can listen both of them here) But since Zimmer himself produced the soundtrack, it’s possible he simply recycled it.

Interestingly enough, even Ridley Scott himself has been trying to capture the magic of his own epic movie. He had tried – but failed – with Kingdom of Heaven just four years after Gladiator, but then again who in the right mind ever think that Orlando Bloom could match the intensity and credibility of Russell Crowe??! And if you were going to hire someone like Edward Norton, why the heck would you cover him up from head-to-toe playing a king suffering from leprosy??

In any case, now ten years later, the dynamic duo Scott and Crowe are at it again with Robin Hood, which a lot of people have been calling the Gladiator sequel. Even the producer of the movie himself admits it, Brian Grazer is quoted in Telegraph UK calling Robin Hood “the Gladiator version of Robin Hood.”

It remains to be seen if he can even lives up to his own work.

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36 thoughts on “Movies that made going to the movies suck #26: GLADIATOR

  1. Outstanding piece Ruth! I agree that no similar movie ever came close to Gladiator so far. I never realized the leper king in Kingdom of Heaven was Ed Norton. What a waste!

    Time to turn on the soundtrack mauhaahaha

    1. Thank you Castor, it was quite challenging to write this but hey, an opportunity to get me to re-watch Gladiator is always welcome! 🙂

      I know, I can’t fathom why Norton would agree to do it, I mean anyone could’ve played that role! And yes, the soundtrack is quite timeless as well, definitely one of Zimmer’s best piece, no wonder he recycled it!

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  4. I usually avoid long posts (lazy reader:-)), but read this one from head to toe.
    I am a bit baffled as to why Ridley Scott is making Robin Hood which as you mentioned, looks pretty much like Gladiator 2. Having said that, there is no harm playing to your strengths. It’s inevitable when you make a good movie, everything similar will be compared to it, especially the ones you make yourself.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to read it Ronan. Yeah I realized it was a long one, but I guess I had a lot to say about it.

      Yeah, the comparison seems warranted, but we’ll see if it can actually echoes the glory of Gladiator. I think Robin Hood is trickier as the character’s been done many times over, where there’s only one Maximus. I’ll definitely still see it for myself though.

  5. PrairieGirl

    Not really a swords and sandals fan, but you are so right about Gladiator – I’m glad you influenced me to watch it recently. And I’m guessing 300 was the most successful “wanna be” on your list. It can maybe stand alone more than the others since it was based on actual history.

    1. Glad you give Gladiator a chance, Becky. Despite the name, it’s not all about the fights and blood, as it’s got so much heart in the story that we can all empathize with. Yes, 300 is successful because it looks quite different from the pack so there’s at least the visual novelty factor there. As for history, well they took a lot of liberty with it. But to me, a movie is a movie, if you want accurate history, just watch the history channel 🙂

        1. Thanks Mike, it’s really a great idea for a post!

          I’m going to take a wild guess that the ‘300’ mention won’t be in a favorable light.

  6. Corinne

    I actually am a swords and sandals fan. I’ve always been fascinated with the history of Pompeii, Rome and Greece. Even though I loved Gladiator, I had a hard time trying to watch the HBO series Rome. It was just too depressing or violent for me. Well, anyway, great post!

    1. Me too, Corinne, that’s why I’m psyched that they’re working on a Pompeii miniseries right now. I think Ridley Scott is producing it? Yeah, ROME is definitely risque and cable shows usually pulls all the stops on the sex/violence, but then again debauchery’s the norm in their glory days. I’ve only seen the first season, it is a well-written and well-acted show.

  7. rockerdad

    Nice post RTM. In the 80s I used to get into those 3 episode miniseries’ like Quo Vadis and A.D. But they always left you underwhelmed – the trailers always implied this great emotional thrill with the pageantry that is the Roman spectacle. But it all comes down to money with most of it going to the fine actors like James Mason and Ava Gardner – but barely none to the production itself. You can’t make a great series with just togas and scenes by the Mediterreanean. Gladiator set a standard and fulfilled expectations (without the Roman orgies). It’s almost a sure thing another knock-off will coming out late 2010 or early next year.

    But hey, looks like Gerry’s been working out…

    1. Pageantry of Roman spectacle, wow, how eloquent rockerdad! Yeah we’ve come a long way in terms of set production, though it doesn’t mean it always equal ‘quality’ movie though, just look at Clash of the Titans. Yeah, this genre will always have knock-offs in years to come.

      He..he.. I realize this is a long post that the comment section is on the same level as the photo spotlight!

  8. wow…such a long post! I’m maybe the only one that’s not really into Gladiator (well…maybe not the only one 😉 ) It is good but it doesn’t really appeal me.

    I’ve watched it once and once is enough.

    As for kingdom of Heaven…yaick I hate it because it twisted the real history.

    1. No I don’t think you’re the only one and that’s fine. I’m not always in line with what the critics/academy like, this just happens to be one of them.

      Hollywood almost always ‘butcher’ history Nov, nothing new there. At least they don’t pretend Maximus was a real guy 🙂

      1. yup they always butcher history…I always avoid moview based on history….Kingdom of Heaven was on TV so I watched because I had nothing better to do.

        1. What TV stations do you have there now? I remember how excited we were when we got RCTI, but those lame music videos were annoying. I bet they cut a bunch of scenes on TV though, always a bummer!

          1. Today’s Local TV is a major bummer, they play more sinetron and stupid reality shows and so few of foreign movies 😦 Maybe the intention is to make us love Indonesia entertainment more…but those sinetron are always a plagiat

  9. Great writeup! This is one of those movies I must have seen 7 times in the course of one year just because it was ALWAYS on someone’s TV no matter where I was. Need to see it again, I remember loving the action scenes and totally zoning out during all of the lengthy dialogue scenes. But still, this movie truly did set the bar and even Scott couldn’t meet that same degree of awesomeness from this point on. Definitely made going to the movies suck. Well done.

    1. Thanks Aiden! Funny, I actually love the dialog scenes a bit more than the action stuff, but this one has a nice balance, which is probably it’s so enjoyable. I guess when one sets the bar so high it’s tough to beat, we’ll see how far he managed to get at with Robin Hood.

  10. mcarteratthemovies

    This is the quintessential epic — and the crazy thing is it’s not nearly as long as “Gone with the Wind.” You’re right, Ruth, in saying it offers everything we could want: killer battle scenes, romance, intrigue, psychological warfare, wild animals, incest (or implied incest, anyway) and, the most important part, characters we connect to. “Gladiator” is holding steady as my favorite Russell Crowe movie. It even almost topped “Braveheart.”

    Almost.

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  12. I’m just gonna say Spartacus turned out to be surprisingly good. It began as a guilty pleasure for me, but it actually managed to grow out of that as it went along

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