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Gladiator at 20: how Ridley Scott’s epic rejuvenated the historical blockbuster

The Oscar-winning sword-and-sandals Russell Crowe vehicle refreshed old cliches, before ushering in a spate of copycats

“Joey, do you like movies about gladiators?” the creepy pilot asks the small boy in Airplane!. To younger audiences, the joke no longer makes any sense. In Airplane!’s day, sword-and-sandals movies had become an outdated, unwittingly homoerotic joke. But then came Gladiator, and the joke was on us. Released 20 years ago this month, Ridley Scott’s Roman epic gave the old cliches a new lease of life. It was all here: Colosseum action! Rippling man-flesh! Tigers! But Gladiator had its cheesecake and ate it. It served up crowd-pleasing spectacle and airline-ad visuals but also solemn, Oscar-worthy drama (and, in retrospect, a fair degree of camp).

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