The first blood and sandals epic to hit the screen in decades, Gladiator feels as if it’s hewn from the same blocks of travertine marble that built the Colosseum; in a nod to the gigantism of both ancient Rome and modern Hollywood, the hero?s even named Maximus. Such massiveness flirts with decadence, of course, and any star given to preening could have pulled the whole enterprise into the pit. But Russell Crowe, dead eyed and brusque, always seems vaguely annoyed to discover himself in a movie — he’s heir to Mitchum in this — and he carries ”Gladiator” on his beefy shoulders as the Imperial general who comes back from the nearly dead to achieve fame and a qualified revenge as the meanest gladiatorial sumbitch in the Valley of the Tiber.
It could have played like a Very Special Halloween Edition of ”Raw Is War,” and, true, such supporting characters as the effete, evil emperor (Joaquin Phoenix), his headstrong sister (Connie Nielsen), and the crusty old warrior (Oliver Reed) are straight out of the ”Conan” playbook. But director Ridley Scott bears down on spectacle and on history, and the result is like watching a dancing elephant: You?re astounded — elated, even — that something so immense can move so nimbly.
Does it work on TV? Surprisingly, yes — although this is the rare case where, for a first time viewing experience, the full screen VHS version may be preferable to the extremely letterboxed visuals of the DVD. While the two disc package offers such extras as a history of gladiatorial games, a diary by the young actor who plays the emperor in waiting, and cutting room floor outtakes that, for once, are as good as anything in the film, you may feel like you?re watching the movie itself through a helmet. If you missed ”Gladiator” in the theaters, go for the tape. If you?re picking up the DVD — consider buying a bigger television.