‘Gladiator’ at 20: More than ever, Ridley Scott’s Roman epic feels like a genre’s brief return than a full revitalization

This piece was first published on KENS5.com, and can be viewed here. 

“‘Spartacus’ was years ago, and that was the last important picture about Rome. So I think there’s an opportunity here—and maybe this will bring it back. Maybe it’s time for one like this.”

A white-bearded, white-toga’d Richard Harris said those words while taking a break on the set of “Gladiator” in 1999, suggesting – as did many of his costars – the significance of a Hollywood production the likes of which moviegoers had largely been deprived of since, well, Stanley Kubrick’s “Spartacus” nearly four decades earlier. Harris, the late Irish actor who portrayed Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius in “Gladiator,” was right with his words. And he was wrong.

Enduring works like “The Matrix,” “The Sixth Sense” and “Fight Club” indicated a bold future for moviegoing at the turn of the century, buoyed by dazzling visual innovation, exciting new cinematic voices and a general affinity for making multiplex crowds go, “Wait, movies can do that?” And then there was Ridley Scott’s Roman-set revenge spectacular, which sought to make the masses think, “Wait, movies can do that again?”, this time with the aid of computer effects. In the process, “Gladiator” embraced an existential paradox that has crystallized in the two decades since: It was weaponizing the latest leaps forward in sparkling technical wizardry to take audiences back, and to revitalize a dormant genre that New Hollywood’s grittier, urban stories snatched studios’ attention away from. The mid-60s saw Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese and Sidney Lumet inspire modernized ways of thinking about movies. The allure of “Ben-Hur’s” chariot race was suddenly of another era; in came the intoxication of offers that couldn’t be refused. Even Kubrick went from the Roman Republic to space later in the same decade. Continue reading →