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SYFY WIRE Those About to Die

Ahead of Peacock's Those About to Die, Now's a Perfect Time to Revisit Gladiator

It's been almost 25 years, and Ridley Scott's Gladiator feels epic as ever.

By Matthew Jackson
Maximus (Russell Crowe) sticks two swords in an opponent in Gladiator (2000).

This summer, Peacock will return viewers to the glory days of gladiators in Ancient Rome with Those About to Die, a new historical epic series from writer Robert Rodat (Saving Private Ryan) and director Roland Emmerich (Independence Day). With a massive ensemble cast, tons of historical appeal, and of course gladiatorial contests galore, the series promises to be massive, but of course, it's far from the first film to tackle gladiators in Rome. 

Nearly 25 years ago, one of the best sword and sandal epics to ever grace the silver screen emerged when Universal and DreamWorks released Gladiator (now streaming on Peacock), an epic tale from director Ridley Scott (inspired by Daniel Mannix's same book that serves as the basis for Those About to Die) that went on to win five Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actor for its star, Russell Crowe. The story of a Roman general betrayed and sold into gladiatorial slavery, the film remains as sweeping and powerful today as it was in 2000, and it serves as the perfect vehicle to get you ready for Those About to Die.

For More on Those About to Die:
Everything to Know About Those About to Die
Those About to Die: Everything to Know About the Cast & Characters in Peacock's Gladiator Series

Those About to Die: First Look & Premiere Date for Anthony Hopkins' New Gladiator Series on Peacock

Why You Should Revisit Gladiator

Crowe stars as Maximus, the favorite general of Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris), who's just completed a conquest so great that the emperor has asked him to take over the empire when he's gone. An honorable man, Maximus agrees to Aurelius' terms to take over as Caesar until such time as the Roman Republic can be restored. When Aurelius' son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) gets wind of this, he secretly murders his father, orders his men to execute Maximus, and goes on to take the throne. But of course, Maximus doesn't die. Instead he's found by slave traders, unaware of his origins, who recruit him to fight in gladiatorial games that will eventually put him face-to-face with Commodus, and with a chance for revenge.

It's a plot that sets the stage for a big journey from the provinces of Rome to the glories of the capital, and offers Scott lots of chances to play with the spectacles within Rome's Colosseum, and the results are among the best visuals Ridley Scott has ever produced. He's long been a director who's great with historical epics, and this might be his masterpiece in that regard, a stunning series of battles and quieter, more human moments ranging from a full-scale skirmish in the arena to a one-on-one duel in the film's climax. But stunning though they are, these visuals aren't the thing that's made Gladiator hold up this well. 

Maximus (Russell Crowe) fight with Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) who holds a dagger in Gladiator (2000).

Yes, the fights are great, and the film looks spectacular, but what's really working here beyond anything else is the character work Scott, Crowe, and the rest of the cast are able to achieve, particularly when you consider that the final script was still being written as production got underway. Crowe and Phoenix in particular are magical in this film, with both actors immersing themselves in their roles in such a tactile way that even the script's more predictable developments and slightly stilted dialogue doesn't seem to slow them down. Outside the performances, Scott is a master of capturing precise moments of character development, from the way Phoenix reacts in real-time to gladiator stunts to the way Crowe tests the soil of every battlefield he fights on. With that kind of director in their respective corners, Crowe and Phoenix rise to the occasion, layering moment after moment with fully realized emotions that only enhance the epic feel of the film. 

And that epic feel is, ultimately, wrapped up by the character in a story that's not just about revenge or glory, but about the nature of public spectacle, how it's wielded, and what it can do when fighting for the soul not just of one person, but of a nation. There's an element of revisionism to the way Gladiator discusses the power of Rome and what it really means, but because the film is smart in the way it uses its fight sequences, its characters, and its own inherent grandness, it pulls it off in spectacular fashion. 

Gladiator is now streaming on Peacock. Those About to Die premieres July 18.