According to the latest list of Netflix arrivals, one of the best films of the 21st century is finally about to become available for online streaming.
Gladiator is being uploaded to the service this week (July 1, if things stay on schedule), marking arguably the biggest highlight among a slew of interesting titles including Mean Girls, the Lethal Weapon series, and of course, Beavis And Butt-Head Do America.
To celebrate the occasion, we thought now might be a good time for a retro review of the film that landed Russell Crowe in Hollywood’s innermost circle and set the tone for countless sword-and-sandals epics to follow. Here’s a look back at the film and its impact on modern cinema (and, really, entertainment at large). Gladiator kicks off with a battle scene that remains among the best-ever filmed (though when you look at all the work that went into Game Of Thrones‘ “Battle of the Bastards” you might consider that there’s a new leader in this category!). Maximus Decimus Meridius (Crowe) leads Roman forces against a Germanic tribe and decisively crushes them in the name of his emperor, Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris).
Maximus then decides to end his career as a commander, and he attempts to retire in peace to his country villa with his wife and son. Peace is not to be, however, as Marcus Aurelius calls on Maximus to serve as Rome’s regent. The emperor is nearing the end of his life and knows his son Commodus () is unfit to rule. But when Commodus learns that he’s not to become emperor, he smothers his sick and elderly father to become Rome’s new ruler, with no one alive to vouch for Maximus’s claim. When Maximus refuses to pledge his loyalty to the ambitious and insecure Commodus, he’s sentenced to death. He escapes his execution and flees to his family, only to find them murdered. From there he’s captured by slavers and molded into a gladiator. In the company of the almost fatherly owner/trainer Proximo (Oliver Reed) and a new friend named Juba (Djimon Hounsou), Maximus finds new purpose in his life as a gladiator. He becomes determined to follow the advice of Proximo, who’s a former gladiator, and win enough to fight in front of Commodus in Rome. There he resolves to “win the crowd,” and in doing so turn the people against their emperor.
For the most part, Gladiator made such a major impact simply because it tackled the idea of an epic historical fiction in a more serious manner than we were used to, or than we’ve seen since. This is an invented story that’s nonetheless firmly rooted in historical settings and social and political atmospheres. It may be based loosely on the Spartacus tale of a revolting gladiator, but for the most part the narrative was original.
Writer David Franzoni and director Ridley Scott successfully transported a generation of filmgoers to ancient Rome without resorting to absurd special effects, wild inaccuracies, or overt cheesiness, and still kept us entertained. You might be able to count historical fiction films that can check all those boxes on one hand. The film also stands out as one that helped to establish new stars and further the ascension of existing ones. Crowe stands out of course, as he won the Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role (and was then nominated for the same award the next year for his work in A Beautiful Mind).
But this film also represented something of a coming out party for Phoenix, who deftly portrayed one of the most chillingly unpredictable villains in recent cinematic history. Even Hounsou took a huge leap forward in this film. Watch him in the likes of Blood Diamond or Guardians Of The Galaxy—or even in the trailers for The Legend Of Tarzan—and you may still think to yourself, “That’s the Gladiator guy!” The film also represented a step forward for legendary composer Hans Zimmer, who up until 2000 was largely known for his work on animated Disney films. The soundtrack for Gladiator has lasted as one of the most memorable of the 2000s so far.
After 16 years, the casino game selection at Gala Bingo pays homage to Zimmer’s work by hosting a Gladiator game that features his music. Designed as a slot reel populated with character images and even shots from the film, it’s all steeped in atmosphere from the movie, largely because Zimmer’s sounds so easily transport us back to the first time we ever saw it. Incidentally, the same sounds evidently appealed to Zimmer himself so much that he just about duplicated them for Pirates Of The Caribbean in 2003. Gladiator has reached such an iconic status largely because of something simpler: the way it makes us feel. Sure, the storytelling is tremendous and the history is attractive; the acting is wonderful, and the musical backdrop is memorable. But, at its core, the film is a classic tale of heroism; a good vs. evil story that was simply more effective than most of its kind. And for that reason (and the others mentioned above, of course), it’s one of the most exciting additions to Netflix in quite some time!