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High-Stake Game: Pam Grier prepares to vanquish Margaret Markov in 'The Arena,' a late version of the gladiator movie as exploitation fodder.

They're So Glad

The Top 10 gladiator films of all time

By Richard von Busack

SOME 150 sword-and-sandal movies were filmed during the heyday of the gladiator epic (1950­65), not to mention the stray forebears of the silent era and the 1930s--chalk it up to the sure-shot appeal of men in skirts. Even though this critic knows the catchy theme song to The Mighty Sons of Hercules, there was no way he could be keelhauled through every Atlas, Spartacus, Hercules and Samson movie ever made. However, Something Weird video (www.somethingweird.com) boasts a huge selection of gladiatoriana to teach you how to live like Romans ... and how to die like men! Hail Caesar!

Cabiria (1914)

A kidnapped Roman girl is slated to be sacrificed to Moloch, the enormous three-eyeballed child-barbecue idol worshipped by the dwellers of Carthage. Only a Roman secret agent and his African manservant (the mighty Maciste) can rescue her. This incredible early epic suggested the idea of Intolerance to D.W. Griffith, and Fritz Lang borrowed the image of fiery Moloch for Metropolis. Director Giovanni Pastrone includes volcanoes, chases and a huge Carthaginian's Temple of Doom. Most fans only had eyes for Bartolomeo Pagano's Maciste, who was a Mussolini look-alike--even unto the male-pattern baldness and the barrel chest. Sadly, Maciste, the most superheroic black character in the first half-century of movies, is played by a white man in blackface.

Sign of the Cross (1932)

A sudden thirst for bath water strikes viewers during Claudette Colbert's famous milk-bath sequence. In this pre-Code epic, Cecil B. DeMille works both sides of the street--giving viewers a load of Roman decadence while reminding them of the Christian faith men died for. Charles Laughton is a stitch as Nero ("Delicious decadence," he sighs). The arena scenes (never more baroque) include crocodiles, lions and a "Bride of the Gorilla" entr'acte in which a nude blonde knotted in flowering vines is tied up for the pleasure of a chest-thumping silverback (played by Guy Inagorillasuit).

Roman Legion-Hare (1955)

The sign over the arena reads, "Coliseum Today: Detroit Lions." Running out of victims for the beasts, Nero (a Charles Laughton imitation by Mel Blanc) orders his centurion Yosemite Sam to rustle up some gladiators. To no one's satisfaction, save the viewers', Sam returns with a Brooklyn-accented, six-foot-tall gray-purple rabbit. After the troubles are over, Bugs Bunny patriotically declaims the only Latin he knows, "E Pluribus Unum."

Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954)

Delmer Daves' lean action picture was a sequel to The Robe, but it easily surpasses the original. The Christian Demetrius (Victor Mature) is sentenced to gladiator school and winds up as the lover of the infamous Messalina (Susan Hayward). Losing his religion, he denounces Christianity in bitter terms that you never expected to hear in a Hollywood movie. (Messalina's comment when she learns of the Commandment against coveting thy neighbor's wife: "Tell me, are Christian wives so ugly that no one looks at them?") Also starring Ernest Borgnine, full of Roman gravitas as the gladiator-school instructor Strabo, and the organ-voiced William Marshall as a foreign ruler enslaved to the ring.

Spartacus (1960)

The Cadillac of gladiator movies, with a fine triumvirate of Romans: Laurence Olivier as an ambitious patrician grooming John Gavin's Julius Caesar for leadership; Charles Laughton as a happily decadent senator; and Peter Ustinov as a hustling provincial. The battle between Woody Strode and Kirk Douglas is one brief moment that transcends the spectacle genre. Their mute scene inside a wooden holding tank gives you a sense of what it would be like to wait for your turn in the arena.

Duel of Champions (1961)

This Italian cheapie is notable for the frowziest of all gladiatorial spectacles. The evil soldiers of Alba throw a Roman legionnaire POW (Alan Ladd) to a trio of "wolves," actually flea-bitten German shepherds. A once-famous actor literally goes to the dogs.

The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964)

The epic that killed all epics. Its finale is a stunning javelin fight between Stephen Boyd and Christopher Plummer, playing Emperor Commodus. (That self-same emperor, played by Joaquin Phoenix, is the villain in Gladiator.) The film features battle scenes and a careening downhill chariot race. Still, The Fall of the Roman Empire is a political drama, concerned with questions of political power and citizenship. And as political films do, it tended to bore its audience. The lavish half-mile-wide re-creation of Rome hasn't been surpassed. The sets are flabbergasting--especially a replica of the Temple of the Capitoline Jupiter, one of the seven wonders of the world. Alec "Obi-Wan Kenobi" Guinness plays the emperor Marcus Aurelius, whose meditations (however New Agey they may read today) prove him the most erudite of all emperors.

Arena/Bread and Circuses (1968/1967)

Starship Captain James Tiberius Kirk--a classics-scholar dad must have given him that middle name--ends up in the gladiator ring with a rubber-headed Gorn in the "Arena" episode of Star Trek. Being Kirk, he avoids death by Styrofoam boulder and triumphs over the alien by inventing gunpowder. The immortal Roman-style "Fight Music" is by Alexander Courage. In the Star Trek episode "Bread and Circuses" (title by the Roman satirist Juvenal), Kirk arrives on a planet parallel-developed with ancient Rome. To edify these alien Romans, Scotty and Spock fight gladiators in an arena, and Spock cheats with a Vulcan nerve pinch. At the end, slaves who "worship the sun" take over peacefully. The "sun" is actually "the son of God."

The Arena (1973)

"I come from a long line of skillet-throwing women," Pam Grier once said; maybe her character here is her great-to-the-45th-power grandmother. The monumental Grier plays Mamawi of Nubia, enslaved and brought into the arena in ancient Brundisium (Brindisi) to fight her fellow women. Director Steve Carver (Lone Wolf McQuade) filmed at Cinecitta, Rome's huge film studio. There is a strangely tender scene of a pair of ill-fated lovers--a massive bald-headed gladiator trainer (Peter Cester) and his doomed wife (Mary Count). The Arena was the last significant film about Rome until now, when the advent of CGI makes it possible to build Rome.

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From the May 4-10, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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