The Best Movie Ever: Gladiators
Top 10 lists are cowards. In The Best Movie Ever, we challenge CraveOnline's four film critics – William "Bibbs" Bibbiani, Witney Seibold, Fred Topel and Brian Formo – to decide once and what the single best film ever made is in a certain genre, starring a certain actor, made by a certain director, or whatever else feels relevant at the time. So far, they haven't agreed on a single thing. So… to the Coliseum with them!
This week on The Best Movie Ever, we forced our critics to decide which film is The Best Gladiator Movie Ever Made, because we are 100% certain that this weekend's The Legend of Hercules won't qualify. Although it does have mud wrestling, so we'll admit that it has that going for it. Based on whatever criteria matters to them, these are the films that Bibbs, Witney, Fred and Brian have picked as the apex of a genre based on manly combat for the cheers of bloodthirsty crowd.
They, who are about to criticize, salute you.
It's tempting to list Cannon's 1989 cheese-tastic sci-fi film Arena as the best gladiator movie ever (Tagline: “It's man vs. monster!”), but that would just be me yet again flexing my contrarian muscles, trying to redefine what a gladiator movie actually is. The gladiator genre, even in its purest state, tends to skew campy more often than not. The genre's association with the gloriously clunky wave of ultra-cheap Eurotrash 1960s beefcake-infused sword-and-sandal films pretty much ensures that classics from within are going to be pretty sparse. Even when Ridley Scott tries very, very hard to make a classy gladiator film (with the clever title of Gladiator), it tends to fall flat into thudding dull melodrama.
When it comes to gladiator movies of actual quality, however, there is but one film classic that stands far taller than all the rest. It may be an obvious choice, but Stanley Kubrick's 1960 epic Spartacus remains the best the genre can offer.
Kubrick reportedly hated making the film, as he was a director-for-hire on the project, and it certainly doesn't bare much of the master's ascetic filmmaking style, but Spartacus is, despite it all, a fascinating look into the lives, the mindsets, and the oppression experienced by those who fought to the death for a living in the days of Rome. Kirk Douglas is an energetic and defiant screen presence as the real-life gladiator Spartacus who ends up leading a slave revolt against Rome's elite. While the film has a bold, classical feeling, there is also a vein of twisted decadence and sexuality lurking underneath everything. Peter Ustinov is a voyeur for instance. Laurence Olivier is, as seen in that now-infamous bath scene, openly bisexual (an admonition that was cut from the theatrical release). Add to that a few epic battle scenes, some intimate mechanics of how to fight in an arena, and a tragic ending, and you have a great film.
“Joey, do you like movies about gladiators?” is one of the most quoted lines in film history.
In Airplane it’s set up as a pedophilia trap. Why was this so funny in 1980 and after? Is it because so many of the bare-chested men overthrowing a Caesar, so popular in the 60s, had turned into a relic? Something that was now only seen glowing on the boob tube in the den, in the privacy of a home?
Like the western, I suppose there’s been a mini-resurgence of gladiator films in the 2000s onward, thanks to Ridley Scott’s Gladiator. There are films where clothes are kept on, still fighting to the death for the amusement of elevated classes, in The Running Man, Rollerball and The Hunger Games series. But none of those have that Roman thrill. Gladiator did indeed thrill, but for the “best ever” segment I’m going to go back to 1964 and choose The Fall of the Roman Empire.
Known at the time as the biggest (and most spectacular) box office flop of all time, The Fall of the Roman Empire is essentially the exact same story as Gladiator, featuring most of the same characters (Alec Guinness in for Richard Harris as Marcus Aurelius, Sophia Loren provided the more seductive Lucilla to Gladiator’s Connie Nielsen). The difference between the two is the bloodshed favored by director Scott for Gladiator, and the far more Shakespearean approach of Anthony Mann in The Fall of the Roman Empire. Mann’s film is a bit more about plotting an Empire; Scott’s is more in the arena.
However, the difference to me is the portrayal of the actual Caesar. You’ve got Christopher Plummer in Roman Empire and Joaquin Phoenix in Gladiator. But it isn’t just a choice of actors (while they’re both fantastic actors, to me Phoenix didn’t fully become one of the greats of his generations until Two Lovers), it’s which script and actor got Commodus right. Commodus was Herculean himself and loved to fight in the games. Where Gladiator makes Commodus weaker: resorting to cheap shots against a superior opponent, and more bizarrely, seemingly listening to emo music and applying Billy Joe Armstrong hair gel, Empire makes him stronger, more of a fighter and more vain. No moping. And of course, if a film is veering more Shakespearian, Plummer can nail those weighty lines with a cutting blade.
Okay, I think I messed up this assignment. I was supposed to pick the best gladiator movie ever, and I didn’t even pick the best movie named Gladiator. But, I’m not very familiar with gladiator movies as a genre. I saw the 2000 Ridley Scott movie and I think it’s overrated for a Best Picture winner. The year Requiem for a Dream and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon came out? Come on.
So as long as we’re expanding our interpretation of gladiators to mean modern or futuristic battling men, I would like to call attention to the 1992 boxing movie called Gladiator. I mean, it’s right there in the title, these fighters are more gladiators than athletes. This was kind of a B-movie starring Cuba Gooding Jr., James Marshall and Brian Dennehy. Marshall and Gooding were friends pitted against each other in the ring by the evil promoter Dennehy, and it did the job. Frankly, they don’t make solid formula movies like this anymore, where the only special effect is the conflict, and this movie was on VHS repeat many days in Casa Topel.
Really? I'm the only one? Alright, screw it, yes, the best gladiator movie is Gladiator. The "real" Gladiator, not that euphemistic boxing movie with Brian Dennehy and valuable advice about proper headbutt placement.
Ridley Scott's handsome, crowdpleasing epic comes with its share of faults. The history is… it's just awful sometimes… and the post-Saving Private Ryan shutter angles and jittery slow-motion don't just date the film, they make some of the early action sequences distractingly clunky. Scott oversells the weepy ending and the performances range from impressively charismatic (Russell Crowe, Oliver Reed, Derek Jacobi) to stodgy (Connie Nielson, Richard Harris) to whatever the hell Joaquin Phoenix is doing. But I've come here to praise Gladiator, not to bury it. What Gladiator does right, it absolutely nails.
The general who became a slave. The slave who became a gladiator. The gladiator who defied an emperor. A tale of glory, downfall, redemption and honor. A masterfully structured epic in the classical sense, revealing at just the right time the glory of battle, the misery of the oppressed, the opulence of the ruling class, and the filthy majesty of gladiatorial combat. Curiously, the gladiator matches peak midway through the film, in a gloriously overblown "recreation" of the Battle of Carthage, leaving the final two bouts in the Coliseum to mere single combat: first with a hulking former champion (surrounded by man-eating tigers), finally with an inferior but wicked opponent, who fixes the game with a single, decisive back-stab. The odds remain overpowering, even as the film gets increasingly intimate in the second half. Crowe commands the screen, Scott shoots the hell out of the most dangerous combat once the film really gets going, and the sheer maddening scale of it all never ceases to amaze.
Gladiator is populist entertainment, broad and pleasing, designed to excite and move the moviegoing mob. As such, it seems to understand the point of the Coliseum better than any other film in its genre. In a sense that's millennia old, it deserves a thumbs up.