Gladiator movies are top Hollywood entertainment. Spartacus, Gladiator, Demetrius and the Gladiators, Gladiators 7, Barabbas, The Arena, The Sign of the Cross, Gladiator of Rome, Cabiria and Alone Against Rome are the best films.
The gladiator movie comprises a small sub-genre in Hollywood. Here are ten gladiator films that no cinema fan should ever miss. Thumbs up or thumbs down? You be the emperor...
Spartacus (Universal, 1960)
Kirk Douglas has the title role of the Thracian slave-turned-gladiator who leads a massive rebellion against the mighty Roman Empire. Laurence Olivier (Crassus), Jean Simmons (Varinia), Charles Laughton (Graccus), Peter Ustinov (Batiatus), Tony Curtis (Antoninus), John Gavin (Julius Caesar), Nina Foch (Helena Glabrus), John Ireland (Crixus) and Charles McGraw (Marcellus) also appear in this star-studded spectacular. Of special note are the savage gladiator scenes in the Colosseum, particularly the match pitting Spartacus versus Draba (Woody Strode), the latter of whom wields the deadly trident and net. Spartacus earned six Academy Award nominations, winning for Best Color Cinematography, Best Supporting Actor (Ustinov), Best Color Costume Design and Best Color Art Direction-Set Decoration. "I Am Spartacus!"
Director: Stanley Kubrick, Anthony Mann (uncredited)
Review: "Massive epic...A new kind of Hollywood movie: a superspectacle with spiritual vitality and moral force...Hollywood has taken the old formula of brawn and sex and added both heart and brain..." - Time (10/24/60)
On DVD: Spartacus (Criterion, 2001)
Promotional still: Kirk Douglas as Spartacus (1960)
Gladiator (DreamWorks, 2000)
Russell Crowe stars as Maximus Decimus Meridius, a Roman general who is a favorite of the dying emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris). Maximus, however, runs afoul of Aurelius' murderous, almost-disenfranchised son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix). Escaping an order of execution, Maximus is unable to save his wife and young son from the same fate. Now taken into slavery, Maximus is trained as a gladiator by Proximo (Oliver Reed), where he seeks his revenge in the Roman Colosseum. The sheer savagery of gladiatorial combat comes alive in Gladiator, which earned 12 Oscar nominations, winning for Best Picture, Best Actor (Crowe), Best Sound, Best Costume Design and Best Visual Effects.
Director: Ridley Scott
Review: "At 2 1/2 hours, 'Gladiator'' is a long ride, but it doesn't drag. The story keeps pushing forward, with lots of action and intrigue. Connie Nielsen, as Commodus' pragmatic sister, Lucilla, does well in the film's most repressed role: As her brother's companion, she can rarely speak her mind...This may be the first Roman epic ever where the audience is made to understand the sensory impact of just entering the arena. Even before the tigers leap out from the trapdoors, these gladiators are finished." - Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle (5/5/00)
On DVD: Gladiator Extended Oscar Edition (Universal, 2006)
International lobby card: Russell Crowe in Gladiator (2000)
Demetrius and the Gladiators (Twentieth Century-Fox, 1954)
In this sequel to The Robe (1953), Victor Mature returns as Demetrius, a former slave and born-again Christian who ends up as a gladiator in the Roman arena. Susan Hayward (Messalina), Michael Rennie (Peter), Debra Paget (Lucia), Anne Bancroft (Paula), Jay Robinson (Caligula), Barry Jones (Claudius) and Ernest Borgnine (Strabo) also grace this $4.5 million historical epic. "I have the power of life and death over every being in the empire! My power is as great as any god's!" thunders Caligula. Well, can't argue with that.
Director: Delmer Daves
Review: "...They have millinered this saga along straight Cecil B. Devotional lines, which means stitching on equal cuttings of spectacle, action, sex and reverence. They have got our old friend, Demetrius, still played by Victor Mature, as a prisoner of the Romans and a conscript at the gladiator school. This place, which has a strong resemblance to the training camp of the Chicago Bears, is presided over (of all people!) by the fellow who played Fatso [Ernest Borgnine] in 'From Here to Eternity.' And it isn't long before Demetrius is not only taking brutality but also finding pious reasons to dish it out, handsomely." - Bosley Crowther. The New York Times (6/19/54)
On DVD: Demetrius and the Gladiators (Twentieth Century-Fox, 2001)
Gladiators 7 (MGM, 1962)
This Italian sword-and-sandal saga stars muscle man Richard Harrison as Darius, the son of a prominent Spartan who is implicated in the escape of five gladiators. Sentenced for his alleged crime, Darius is forced to toil as a gladiator himself in the Roman Colosseum. Eventually winning his freedom, Darius recruits six of his gladiator friends, returning to his native Sparta where he hopes to reclaim his stunning gal pal (Loredana Nusciak) who is set to marry the evil king (Gerard Tichy). Gladiators 7 was no doubt inspired by the success of The Magnificent Seven (1960), with ancient Greece and Rome bumping the Old West as the movie's setting.
Director: Pedro Lazaga
Review: "The fighting in this movie looks like cowboys shooting Indians which means every cowboy or American military shoots ten Indians before he is shot. Apart from this, the sword fighting is impressive, those Spartans are real acrobats. The story is a little bit 'have seen' but this movie is still worth watching. The costumes are correct as ought to be for Greek soldiers and the love scenes are just as they should be with the ever-presence of beautiful women. But you wonder how even the best gladiators can match a complete army." - Calculo, The Internet Movie Database (9/18/02)
On DVD: Gladiators 7 (VCI Entertainment, 2003)
One sheet movie poster: Gladiators 7 (1962)
Barabbas (Columbia, 1961)
Anthony Quinn stars as Barabbas, the condemned thief who was set free at the time of Christ's crucifixion. Haunted by his brush with death and the lingering spirit of the messiah, Barabbas embarks on a journey which eventually leads to gladiatorial combat in the arena and eternal salvation. Silvana Mangano (Rachel), Arthur Kennedy (Pontius Pilate), Katy Jurado (Sara), Harry Andrews (Peter), Jack Palance (Torvald) and Ernest Borgnine (Lucius) also appear. Look for the solar eclipse – the real thing, not a special effect – in this highly-regarded film.
Director: Richard Fleischer
Review: "The best part of the film is a segment that falls into the sub-genre of 'gladiator school episodes in film.' The representation of a Roman coliseum in action, with various 'acts' going on simultaneously, is the most accurate historical representation that I've seen in film of this kind of event, even more so than in Spartacus or Gladiator. The scenes dealing with Barabbas' training as a gladiator, as well as the actual fights, are also very well done and entertaining; it's a pity that the rest of the movie doesn't match them." Holly E. Ordway, DVDTalk (3/4/02)
On DVD: Barabbas (Sony, 2002)
The Arena (New World, 1974)
Pam Grier and Margaret Markov play two female slaves forced to fight in the Roman arena as gladiators in this film executively produced by Roger Corman. It's kick butt time in this sexploitation actioner, with the black Amazonian-like Grier and her statuesque Nordic counterpart Markov delivering the goods for the decadent rubberneckers occupying the cheap seats. Pam Grier wields a mean trident, much like Woody Strode in Spartacus. The Arena is also known by its more salacious title – Naked Warriors. Oh, my...
Director: Steve Carver, Joe D'Amato
Review: "The Arena is not a classic, or even a Corman Classic really, but heck you could do worse than spending 83 minutes with Pam Grier and Margaret Markov." - Prison Flicks Review (2010)
On DVD: The Arena (Prism Leisure, 2004)
One sheet movie poster: The Arena (1974)
The Sign of the Cross (Paramount, 1932)
Fredric March, Elissa Landi, Claudette Colbert and Charles Laughton star in this $600,000 religious epic produced by the incomparable Cecil B. DeMille. It's Nero and his pagans versus the fledgling Christians, with the Roman circus getting a good gladiatorial workout while amply stocked with crocodiles, lions, elephants and even a lovestruck gorilla. Even in their heyday, Vince Lombardi's Green Bay Packers weren't this entertaining. DeMille paid crowd extras $10 a day – darn good money during the height of the Great Depression. "My head is splitting... the wine last night, the music... it was a delicious debauchery!" Charles Laughton declares as Nero. Sounds like the emperor is playing with fire...
Director: Cecil B. DeMille
Review: "This picture, a vast conglomeration about the Emperor Nero, Christian martyrs, Roman palaces, catacombs, lions yapping in the Circus, is a religious spectacle, like The King of Kings and The Ten Commandments, of the type De Mille likes best." Time (12/5/32)
On DVD: The Cecil B. DeMille Collection (Universal, 2006)
Lobby card: The Sign of the Cross (1932)
Gladiator of Rome (Medallion, 1962)
Gordon Scott, who also played Tarzan in the movies, stars as Marcus, the protector of a young slave girl/secret princess (Wandisa Guida). Marcus ends up in the arena as a gladiator, with the usual romance and Roman political intrigue thrown in as well. Scott delivers some good gladiatorial combat scenes, aided by the usual buff body crowd in this low-budget actioner made in Italy. "You are the only son of one of the most illustrious families of Rome, and I, I'm only a poor, wretched slave girl whom your mother herself bought and paid for in a public slave market," Wandisa Guida as Nista tells Robert Risso's Valerio Jr. Not exactly the perfect profile for eHarmony...
Director: Mario Costa
Review: "There's all of the typical pagan Romans hunting Christians plot lines, including romance. Who ever was writing this tried to put something in it for everyone, and so made a movie for no one. It's boring." - dbborroughs, The Internet Movie Database (5/28/04)
On DVD: Not commercially available
Cabiria (Kleine Optical Company, 1914)
Lidia Quaranta has the title role of Cabiria, who is captured by pirates and sold into slavery in Carthage. Her rescuer is Fulvio Axilla (Umberto Mozzato), who with his towering North African slave Maciste (Bartolomeo Pagano) attempt an intervention before young Cabiria is sacrificed to the fire god Moloch. "5000 People in Cast - 1000 Horses - 200 Elephants - 200 Camels," blares an advertisement for this early, $250,000 silent film epic. Cabiria holds the distinction of being the first feature length film to be screened at the White House.
Director: Giovanni Pastrone
Review: "The film was made with limitless scope and ambition, with towering sets and thousands of extras, with stunts that (because they were actually performed by stuntmen) have an impact lost in these days of visual effects. Hannibal's elephants actually cross the Alps in this movie." - Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (7/2/06)
On DVD: Cabiria (Kino Video, 2000)
Alone Against Rome (Medallion, 1962)
Lang Jeffries stars as Brenno, a young man who winds up in the Roman Colosseum as a gladiator. Rossana Podesta appears as the fetching Fabiola with Philippe Leroy as the evil Silla. Great combat scenes, luscious scenery and fair acting make this Italian-made movie a keeper.
Director: Luciano Ricci
Review: "Here's an almost lost and forgotten film that needs to be re-discovered, restored and given a DVD release. It's one of the very best of its type. And if you are a Rossano Podesta fan she is radiant throughout." - Chris Jarmick, The Internet Movie Database (7/15/00)
On DVD: Not commercially available
Lobby card: Alone Against Rome (1962)
- All images courtesy Heritage Auctions, Dallas, Texas
- Top image: Italian photobusta movie poster: Spartacus (1960)
Copyright © 2012 William J. Felchner. All rights reserved.