Gladiator (2000) *****

As well as being first in the queue to see The Gladiator on original release over two decades ago and enjoying countless viewings since on DVD and television, the chance to see a big-screen revival (as part of this week’s cinematic triple bill) was not to be missed. There’s always some worry in going back to see a movie you adored that time will have caught up with it or that the big screen will magnify flaws. Instead, this was a pure blast, one of the greatest epics of all time and definitely one of the most brilliant scores.

I always feel kind of sorry for people who’ve only see this kind of picture on a small screen – no matter how big your television it comes nowhere near the cinematic experience. I’m not even sure why it was showing on the big screen – the 20th anniversary has passed so maybe the draw was the upcoming British Father’s Day.

If you’re quick, you will be able to see it until June 17 at the Showcase cinema chain in the U.K. This is a new 4K print. It may run longer if it picks up sufficient demand.

Director Ridley Scott was in something of a career lull after the highs of Blade Runner (1982) and Thelma and Louise (1991) and his previous historical adventures – The Duellists (1977) and 1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992) – had been box office duds, so this was a considerable big-budget gamble for Dreamworks and Universal.

Few historical epics begin with action. Directors tended to want to build up the various characters before any battle got under way. But apart from a few seconds of an idyllic pastoral setting establishing how much Roman General Maximus (Russell Crowe) wants to get back to his Spanish farm, we are immediately, with foot-tapping music by Hans Zimmer, into one of the best battles ever filmed, not just for the tactical detail, and the sense of danger – an emissary is returned missing his head – but the ferocity of the action.

Backgrounding this is politics. Dying Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) distrusts his son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) and want to make Maximus the power in Rome. The reaction of Commodus is to smother his father and murder his rival. Maximus escapes but ends up a slave in a gladiator camp in North Africa and eventually returns to Rome plotting revenge.

Into the mix comes Commodus’s sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen) who had romantic yearnings for Maximus in the distant past and various senators plotting to remove Commodus from office. The story basically shifts from dramatic action in the arena to outside intrigue with Maximus being seen as a man who could potentially unseat the emperor.

But Ridley Scott has such a fine eye for everything, genuine locations mix in brilliantly with CGI, the action sequences are astonishing, and emotions are kept at a peak. Even when the main narrative pauses here and there to allow philosophic and patriotic speeches they are so deftly written they often amount to the best pieces of dialogue in the picture.

Few movies have as many memorable lines. Sample: “what we do in life echoes in eternity;” “death smiles at us all, all we can do is smile back;” “people should know when they are conquered;” “father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife, I will have my vengeance in this life or the next;” the “little bee” sequence;  and the lines that ended up as taglines on the advertising posters” a general who became a slave, a slave who became a gladiator, a gladiator who defied an emperor.”

While he could easily have let the action speak for itself and who would not have welcomed more battles with Roman foes or more combat in the arena – and many other movies with a character in a similar predicament have succumbed to that temptation – Scott ensures that the tensions between the characters are never lost. So Commodus is driven both by wishing to please his father and desiring an incestuous relationship with his sister. Lucilla is torn between protecting her son (Spencer Treat Clark), her growing attraction to Maximus and trying to keep her brother at bay while plotting against him. Maximus, who has no head for politics, finds himself involved in intrigue as a way of gaining revenge on Commodus.   

Nor does Scott get bogged down with too much exposition or the intricacies of character as has often been the downfall of epics. The story has been whittled down to essential conflict.

It’s hard to pick a winner from the various action scenes – the opening clash in the forests of Germania with snow beginning to fall; the first gladiatorial combat where Maximus takes control; a small band of gladiators fighting what seems a losing battle against chariots; Maximus being unexpectedly attacked by tigers in the arena; or his climactic fight with Commodus.

And there are substantial cameos for British stars – Richard Harris, Oliver Reed, David Hemmings – who have lost their box office luster but not their acting ability. Connie Nielsen was a revelation.

Russell Crowe became instant superstar with his majestic portrayal. His name had already been on the lips of Oscar voters, having been nominated the previous year for The Insider (1999), but he took the Best Actor Oscar here. Although the film was named Best Picture Ridley Scott lost out – unfairly I felt – in the Best Director category to Steven Soderbergh for Traffic. (How do the two films compare now, I wonder). Joaquin Phoenix and Hans Zimmer were also nominated and the movie also picked up nominations for cinematography and screenplay (David Franzoni, William Nicolson and John Logan.) All told it won five Oscars and seven nominations.

This was the climax to my cinematic triple bill this week and since it also included Nobody and The Father, it could well turn out to be one of the best days I have ever spent at the cinema.

CATCH-UP: I reviewed The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) a while back and if you compare both pictures you can clearly see how much Ridley Scott owes a debt to the previous film.  

There’s a company called Park Circus – http://www.parkcircus.com – which has the rights to show on the big screen virtually all the old movies made by Hollywood studios and it’s worth checking out whether this might be coming your way soon.