“Rome is the mob … The beating heart of Rome is not the marble of the Senate, it’s the sand of the Colosseum.”
“Gladiator,” Ridley Scott’s epic starring Russell Crowe, proved that timeless sentiment with blood and glory in 2000. And no one’s done it better for a decade — not that they haven’t tried. “Gladiator” spawned a legion of imitators. Crowe’s Academy Award-winning portrayal of the Roman general turned slave turned gladiator breathed life back into the sword-and-sandals genre, and rose from the dust of “Cleopatra’s” glittering tomb with a vengeance. But “Alexander,” “Troy,” and Scott’s own “Kingdom of Heaven” (without Crowe) paled in comparison, even when they followed so many of “Gladiator’s” established patterns, right down to the mournful female ululation over a classical soundtrack.
The glistening muscles of Hollywood pretty boys, British Empire accents and CGI alone couldn’t cut it. Something was missing. Call it a story — and gravitas. Crowe’s swagger and whispered prayers said more on-screen than all the battle speeches howled by the likes of Brad Pitt, Colin Farrell and Orlando Bloom. Sorry, boys. Liam Neeson was a convincing knight in “Kingdom” but was dispatched too soon, and Edward Norton might have helped more as the king of Jerusalem if he hadn’t been forced to act behind a golden mask. Lessons learned.
“Gladiator” inspired not only other films but also the HBO series “Rome” and, one could argue, other successful cable period series from “Deadwood” to “The Tudors.” Over the years, the producers of “Gladiator” tried to dream up ways of making a sequel for their hero who unfortunately went to his just reward at the end of the film. What if Maximus became a vampire…? No, Hollywood. Stop it.
Basically a remake of Anthony Mann’s “Fall of the Roman Empire,” starring Alec Guinness, Sophia Loren and Christopher Plummer, “Gladiator” handily surpassed its 1964 predecessor. The sets (at least half CGI), costumes and incredible score by Hans Zimmer and Lisa Gerrard created an atmosphere that transported the audience completely enough to luxuriate in. I was forced to coach my fearless 10-year-old nephew out from under his seat when the tigers showed up — we felt we were there in the Colosseum with the throngs.
But the element that brought the past to life for me best were the performances, the actor’s sandals planted squarely on digital terra firma. Led by the incomparable Richard Harris, Joaquin Phoenix, Djimon Hounsou, Connie Nielsen and Derek Jacobi helped to hide any flaws in the plot or script or CGI. Yes, we saw Rusty’s bike shorts under his tunic in one fight scene. But “Gladiator” also gave us Oliver Reed’s final performance as Proximo, the gladiator freed by a touch on the shoulder by Marcus Aurelius (Harris). CGI helped to complete Reed’s missing scenes when he passed away before filming was complete. But what a final call. Oliver, we salute you.
Even with those star turns, this was Russell Crowe’s film. Though he was nominated by the Academy for other performances in “The Insider” and “A Beautiful Mind,” he won his only best-actor Oscar to date for “Gladiator,” and rightly so. No one could have done it better, and no one has. Exactly a decade later, will lightning strike twice? Scott and Crowe are at it again, this time in Sherwood Forest with the latest incarnation of “Robin Hood” (slated for release next spring). As Chris Rock said when he hosted Hollywood’s biggest night some years after “Gladiator,” “If you’re doing a movie about the past, you best get Russell’s ass.”
Film Salon has invited a group of special guests to write about their favorite film(s) of the 2000s. To read the entire series, go here.