After Ridley Scott created the dystopian sci-fi worlds of Alien and Blade Runner, it felt like every director unable to compose his own visual poetry of the future simply plagiarized Scott’s. He defined the way we look to the future; now, with Gladiator, the 63-year-old British director (above, with Oliver Reed, Djimon Hounsou, and Russell Crowe) has us all rethinking the way we look at the past. ”I enjoy myself most when I’m creating worlds, whether they’re period or science fiction,” says Scott. ”I come from art direction, so I love to climb into the books and research. I just thought, God, what a good idea — to tackle the Roman Empire.”
Breaking away from the stuffy Roman masterpiece theatrics of Ben-Hur and Spartacus, Scott’s Gladiator seemed to take the ”ancient” out of ancient Rome. Through his lens, the Colosseum became a swirling bread-and-circuses carnival of adrenalized Technicolor violence; the imperial palaces became icy-cold drawing rooms cloaked in shadows and dripping with treachery, incest, and paranoia. And while 1963’s Cleopatra signaled the decline and fall of the old-school toga picture, Scott dared to rattle the genre as he had with his science-fiction films 20 years earlier.
Scott’s ability to complement his lavish pop sensibility with his characters’ more intimate moments elevates Gladiator above the one-dimensional summer action flick we had every right to expect from its rock-’em, sock-’em TV ads. Sure, Crowe unleashes hell on the battlefield and in the gladiators’ ring, but Scott also gives his leading man plenty of quiet time to convey the desperation of a man alone in the world. With Gladiator, Scott’s done more than dutifully tip his cap to the traditional Hollywood epics. Like David Lean on steroids, he has redefined the epic for a new millennium.