It’s hard to imagine, but director Ridley Scott’s sword and sandal epic Gladiator is celebrating its 15th anniversary this month. The film was a huge critical and commercial success when it hit cinemas back in 2000, raking in $450 million at the box office and racking up several Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Actor for star Russell Crowe.
But a decade and a half on, how well does this story of a general who became a slave, a slave who became a gladiator, a gladiator who defied an empire hold up to repeat viewings?
A simple story, well told
At its heart, Gladiator is a simple story (albeit one told exceptionally well): Roman general turned unwilling gladiator Maximus (Crowe) seeks revenge after his family is murdered on the orders of slimy Emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix).
Along the way, he forges unlikely friendships with fellow slave Juba (Djimon Hounsou) and his gruff master Proximo (Oliver Reed), and wins over the Colosseum crowds with his martial prowess, making a confrontation with the increasingly threatened Commodus inevitable. But can one man hope to stand against the might of the Roman Empire itself?
So yes, Gladiator clear has all the ingredients for a solid popcorn blockbuster – the question is: what made it so much more than that?
Blending old-fashioned storytelling and modern visual effects
The answer is simple: Ridley Scott. The director was on top of his game when he stepped behind the camera for Gladiator, and his artistic sensibilities elevate a decent if unremarkable screenplay by David Franzoni, John Logan and William Nicholson. Scott has mentioned 1960s classics Spartacus, Ben-Hur and The Fall of the Roman Empire as inspirations for the film, and Gladiator works so well largely because it’s a love letter to this bygone era of cinema, from its sweeping storyline to its grand sense of scale and admirable production values.
Nowhere is this commitment to old-school storytelling techniques more visible than in the action sequences, which are expertly choreographed and brilliantly shot. Each one is meaty, exciting and in no way historically accurate, but who cares? This is a movie, not a history lecture! Scott, cinematographer John Mathieson and editor Pietro Scalia do a masterful job of keeping these scenes paradoxically chaotic and easy to follow, and the reliance on practical stunts over CGI lends everything an appreciably visceral edge.
And speaking of CGI, the visual effects in Gladiator also hold up well for the most part. Sure, some of the establishing shots of ancient Rome and Colosseum set extensions don’t look quite as convincing today as they did back in 2000, but even so, you still feel like you’ve been transported back to Rome in her heyday. You’d also be forgiven for failing to notice that Reed – who died before all his scenes had been filmed – has been digitally inserted into a handful of scenes where necessary, and that in itself is a pretty spectacular achievement.
Then there’s the score; composer Hans Zimmer’s music is a sublime bit of business that arguably rates among the best of his career. Shifting gears between operatic, ethereal, and bombastic without missing a beat (no pun intended), Zimmer’s score is now considered a modern classic, and rightly so.
A stellar cast on uniformly excellent form
Yet what really allows Gladiator to stand the test of time are the strong performances by the film’s uniformly excellent cast.
Scott has lured in an impressive roster of international talent who each get their chance to shine, particularly Phoenix, who makes Commodus detestable and pitiful in equal measure. Equally commendable are Djimon Hounsou for his soulful turn as Juba, and Connie Nielson, who believably fills the role of Commodus’ sister Lucilla, a woman forced to live a life of deceit in order to survive.
It also doesn’t hurt that many of Gladiator‘s supporting players have been culled from the old guard of British thespians. Richard Harris lends gravitas and depth to his brief role as Commodus’ doomed father Marcus Aurelius, while Reed is in sparkling form as Proximo.
But in the end, Gladiator really belongs to Crowe. It’s not just the physicality he brings to the role, but also the charismatic, heroic aura he exudes, and there’s something to be said for his ability to shift from playing a warm-hearted farmer recalling the simple pleasures of home to a hardened warrior growling vicious threats. It’s a masterful transition, and one that ensures we root for our hero even at his most brooding.
Final verdict: a timeless epic that’s hard to top
15 years after it was first released, Gladiator holds up remarkably well to modern scrutiny. True, it ends with more of a whimper than a bang, and there are smarter epics out there, but its endearing marriage of heartfelt performances and grand spectacle is hard to top.