chapter  7
17 Pages

Gladiators in Film

With the appearance of Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000), the topic ofgladiators in film has evoked a lively interest among scholars. For example, just after the release of the film, Marcus Junkelmann wrote a short but penetrating appraisal of the film’s portrayal of gladiators and gladiatorial combat in his Das Spiel mit dem Tod (Death Game) along with a few paragraphs on Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus (1960). Four years later, Gladiator: Film and History, edited by Martin Winkler, was published. The book is devoted entirely to Scott’s Gladiator, examining and evaluating not only the film’s depiction of gladiatorial combat but also the representation of the history of the period in which it is set. Other parts of the book investigate the meaning of the film for twenty-first century America. Most recently, Fik Meijer, in his book The Gladiators (2005), included a brief chapter on the same two films as Junkelmann. This chapter will revisit these two films, but will also include a discussion of major Hollywood films that contain gladiatorial scenes made before Spartacus and Gladiator, beginning with Cecil B. DeMille’s The Sign of the Cross (1932). It is my intention to examine how these films have influenced each other and to estimate how accurately their creators have represented gladiatorial combat. There are, however, limits to the historical criticism that one can apply to ‘sword and sandal’ films. In

general, film makers can be credited with getting the large picture right and occasionally showing concern for accuracy in details. One cannot expect an entertainment medium, which above all aims at commercial success, to maintain a scrupulous adherence to historical authenticity, especially when it comes to finer points. After all, these films are not scholarly documentaries. It would be a mistake to probe too far into historical minutiae in judging them. On the other hand, there is a point at which the accumulation of historical errors begins to diminish the re-creation of the spirit of any past era. Films with an historical setting have a responsibility to represent the past as accurately as possible, and when they insert fictional events and characters, to do it at least plausibly.1 After all, film has the power to bring history to life and thus to convince. Historical accuracy is especially important for a film like Gladiator, whose director, although he warned that his intention was to represent the spirit of the times rather than the letter, promised a scrupulous concern for historical truth.2 Moreover, the avoidance of historical errors is not incompatible with the creation of a dramatically interesting and enjoyable film. Film makers must remember that they have a special responsibility when they undertake historical subject matter, especially because the average cinemagoer generally assumes that what appears on the screen is at least a reasonable approximation of the period it represents. Historical accuracy in films is not an impossible ideal to attain, but it does require attention to the recommendations of a knowledgeable consultant. Unfortunately, this is an area where film makers often fall short, as in the case of Gladiator. It is a disservice to the viewer of a film to flout flagrantly the expectation of historical accuracy. As Kathleen Coleman points out:

. . . for those viewers whose reception of history begins and ends with the version presented on screen, Hollywood’s Rome is not a palimpsest but an original and ineradicable document.3