Gladiator: The Rebirth of a Genre
The year 2000: The dawn of a new millennium, the height of the dot-com bubble, and just one year to go before we all found out if the fantastic future of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey would come to pass (Spoiler: not yet at least). Seems like a strange time to return to ancient Rome. Thankfully with Gladiator, Ridley Scott saw how a technological boom could revitalize a genre that hadn’t been popular for 35 years.
So-called “sword and sandal” epics had been a staple since the dawn of Hollywood, but the cost of building sets and hiring extras to recreate ancient settings had made studios reluctant to invest in new productions since boondoggles like 1963’s Cleopatra. The past few decades had produced mostly sci-fi and fantasy films like Clash of the Titans and Lou Ferrigno’s Hercules, but no serious dramatic epics.
Scott shared a dream with other filmmakers: to recreate the spectacle of the Colosseum of Rome. With recent leaps in CGI (computer generated image) technology, the tools were finally available for a new level of realism at reasonable production costs. Meticulously recreating Rome and the Colosseum full of spectators, animals and Gladiators was worth the wait – and audiences were amazed.
The film was also led by relatively new talents: Joaquin Phoenix (still mostly known as River’s brother) and Russell Crowe, who was hot off his roles in L.A. Confidential and an Oscar-nominated performance in The Insider. But Scott also wisely filled the cast with masters of classic Hollywood and theatre: Richard Harris, Oliver Reed and Derek Jacobi, known for the last big Roman hit, TV’s I, Claudius.
In the case of Oliver Reed, cutting-edge technology was matched with acting prowess when he suddenly died while on a break during filming. Scott was forced to push the technology further than he anticipated, creating a CGI mask of Reed, which was superimposed on the face of a stand-in who completed the role.
The actors were praised by critics at the time for grounding incredible spectacle with solid performances, and Crowe would go on to win Best Actor at the Academy Awards. Gladiator earned the Best Picture title, but perhaps a symptom of the technological achievements dominating the critical conversation, for only the sixth time in over half a century, the director of the Best Picture winner went home empty handed.
The conversation about CGI and other technologies overwhelming the art of filmmaking would continue throughout the decade, but Gladiator, much like the ancient sport it recreated, set a new standard of spectacle and entertainment.