After months of waiting, Marvel has finally released the trailer for Thor: Ragnarok, and what a trailer it was. We saw Thor’s hammer getting destroyed, Asgard getting decimated, and Jeff Goldblum in some truly bizarre makeup. However, the highlight of the teaser came towards the end when it was revealed that Thor would be fighting in a series of high-stakes gladiator matches, gladiator matches against his former ally Hulk, no less.
It’s no surprise that the Thor franchise is incorporating fights to the death with a live audience. After all, audiences have been obsessed about gladiators ever since the days of ancient Rome. What better way to blow off some steam than to watch two fighters try and kill each other in the middle of a giant colosseum? There have been countless movies that have pitted armed combatants against one another for audience amusement, and we’ve tried to assemble the best of the best.
Below you’ll find 15 movies with gladiators in violent confrontations with other gladiators, wild animals, condemned criminals, and even monstrous aliens. While “gladiator” usually conjures up images of sword-and-sandal epics – which are well represented here – we’re taking a few liberties by showcasing a few out-of-the-box competitors. If the movie forcibly pits one warrior against another in a fight to the death, than it’s a contender in the arena.
Here are the 15 Best Gladiator Movies.
15. The Arena
The Arena stars blaxploitation superstar Pam Grier as one of a group of female slaves in ancient Rome. After being sold to the organizer of events for the local colosseum, the girls are forced to fight to the death in a series of gladiatorial contests. Realizing their odds are better if they stick together, an alliance is formed between the gladiators to overthrow the taskmasters and regain their freedom.
While The Arena follows the tried and true Spartacus formula (slaves are forced to fight; slaves start to revolt), it’s really just an exploitation movie that dresses up women in skimpy outfits and has them duke it out with one another. Still, if you’re able to switch your brain off for a couple of hours, the film is a good bit of pulpy fun.
There isn’t much in way of character development, but Steve Carver’s imitation Roman epic has a few decent battle scenes while providing a crackling comradery between the core groups of players. While you can’t take the movie very seriously, The Arena does what it aims to, which is to entertain.
14. Gladiators 7
From the title, one can guess that Gladiators 7 is just another composition of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, except instead of feudal Japan, this movie takes place in Ancient Rome. After being imprisoned and forced to fight for his life in the Roman Colosseum, the hero of the story returns home to find his father murdered and the woman of his dreams about to marry an evil king. Determined to restore order, the hero teams up six of his fellow gladiators to save his beloved and take back the throne.
This largely-forgotten Italian flick borrows heavily from the precursors before it; the scenes of the Spartan recruiting his gladiator allies are particularly reminiscent of Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven. Still, Gladiators 7 manages to amuse thanks to a constant spread of action and a surprising amount of comedy. Granted, the acting of the main character may be wooden, but it’s overshadowed by a colorful group of characters from the rest of the roster. The movie is surprisingly fast paced for its age, and the humor that holds Gladiators 7 together makes it an enjoyable watch, even though it’s basically a rip-off of far superior films that came before it.
13. John Carter
Just hear us out first before you go jumping to conclusions. Is Andrew Stanton’s John Carter the greatest movie ever made? Of course it isn’t; it’s too long, too convoluted, and too over-budgeted to warrant any kind of praise. However, all that being said, it does contain some wonderful looking gladiator matches after the protagonist of the story, John Carter, is transported to a strange alien land on the surface of Mars.
Once making the leap to the Red Planet, Carter is forced to take part in a series of fights to the death inside a Martian colosseum with hundreds of bizarre looking alien creatures looking on as spectators. John’s toughest battle comes when a giant white ape-like creature is drawn into the ring. As if things weren’t bad enough for John, the Martians decide to throw a second creature into the ring. What ensues is a thoroughly enjoyable series of fights in an otherwise forgettable movie.
12. The Sign of the Cross
One of the oldest films on this list, The Sign of the Cross was released in 1932, directed by Hollywood legend Cecil B. DeMille and starring Fredric March, Claudette Colbert and Elissa Landi. It’s story involves a Roman soldier who falls in love with a Christian woman. Torn between his loyalty to the Roman Empire and his newfound love, he comes under fire from the newly appointed Emperor, and soon finds himself in the midst of the gladiator games.
Cecil B. DeMille was a director known for indulging in his decadent side with his movies, and The Sign of the Cross might be his most indulgent. It’s a Biblical extravaganza with enough flair and finesse to still drop jaws after a viewing today. It’s a vivid and sometimes disturbing retelling of the first Christians in Roman times. The set designs are lavish, with the eventual gladiator scenes (involving even that of an elephant) appearing as bombastic as any of the major Hollywood blockbusters produced today.
11. The Running Man
Based on a Stephen King Novel (although drastically altered), The Running Man takes place in a futuristic America where everyone’s new favorite TV show is “The Running Man” – a gameshow that pits prisoners against a dangerous obstacle course to avoid a devastating death. One prisoner, who has been framed for his crime, is determined to make it through the treacherous gameshow, but he soon finds out it’s easier said than done.
Sure, The Running Man isn’t what you would consider your traditional “gladiator” movie, but it does feature prisoners who are forced to fight others for the entertainment of others, and that sounds like a gladiator film to us. Though the movie is somewhat dated, Schwarzenegger’s sci-fi thriller gets points for its rowdy action sequences and satirical humor. The concept of criminals combating each other on a game show isn’t the most original concept in the world (Death Race 2000 comes to mind), but The Running Man is still a fun popcorn adventure due to the fact it doesn’t take itself too seriously, especially when you have a bad guy who duel wields buzzsaws for weapons.
10. Planet Hulk
This may be a comic book movie, and an animated one at that, but Planet Hulk still features scenes of everyone’s favorite green behemoth tearing it up in a colosseum, so we’re counting it as a “gladiator” flick. After Hulk crash lands on a foreign alien planet ruled by an evil tyrant, he’s forced to do battle with other powerful creatures in a stadium.
Though it’s not a big-budgeted epic, Planet Hulk scores in the departments that count, namely in the storytelling and the animation. There really isn’t a dull moment to be had here, even though the film runs just over an hour and 15 minutes and most of the characters don’t get proper development.
Characterization isn’t what Planet Hulk is all about, however. You watch this animated adventure to see Hulk smash stuff, and smash he does. The animated battle sequences are really something to admire here, with the Incredible Hulk duking it out with an entire collection of intergalactic aliens. It might take place on another planet, but Planet Hulk is just as much a gladiator movie, and a solid one at that.
9. The Fall of the Roman Empire
With a cast that includes Sophia Loren, Alec Guinness, James Mason, Christopher Plummer and Omar Sharif, Anthony Mann’s The Fall of the Roman Empire does not disappoint in its grand ideas. The film accomplishes what its title describes by chronicling the succession aftermath of Rome after the death of Marcus Aurelius. It leads to the emperor’s son, Commodus, trying to retain his power while dealing with the greed and grandeur that led to the decline of one of the biggest empires in human history.
Of course, the plot to the movie is largely fictionalized, but what great movie isn’t? Though the word is thrown around rather loosely nowadays, Mann’s film is epic in every sense of the word. It’s absolutely massive in scope, boasting a huge cast and extras by the thousands. The script combines political insight, violence, romance, and action in one rousing narrative. There are several standout scenes here, including an exciting chariot duel that more than warrants the price of admission.
It’s a known fact that before Jesus of Nazareth was crucified, Pontius Pilate asked the people of Jerusalem whom they wanted freed: Jesus or Barabbas, the latter a known thief and murderer. The public chose Barabbas.
This 1961 period piece directed by Richard Fleischer tells the story of Barabbas after he is let free and spared crucifixion, haunted by the image of Jesus wherever he goes. His spiritual crisis eventually leads him to the halls of the gladiatorial arena where he attempts to confront his inner turmoil and finally win his freedom.
Like The Fall of the Roman Empire, Barabbas is a complete work of fiction, but a good work of fiction. As the story progresses, the common thief from the New Testament is given room to develop and grow, making it clear that Barabbas has his own demons to conquer. The cast excels in providing convincing performances, including a very sympathetic Anthony Quinn in the lead role. The action scenes also hold up remarkably well, making this historical epic one that should be revisited instead of one that’s forgotten.
7. Demetrius and the Gladiators
Like the past few movies on this list, Demetrius and the Gladiators is made up of completely fictitious events, yet is set against an historically accurate backdrop. It’s gladiator epic that chronicles the beginnings of Christianity; the main character, Demetrius, is a devoted Christian who renounces his belief in violence. However, when he finds out that his girlfriend has been slain by the hands of a gladiator, Demetrius is quick to pick up the sword and swear revenge, stepping inside the gladiator ring while quickly rising through the ranks.
Though the standard of acting is mixed, there is still much to be enjoyed in this throw-back gladiatorial epic. It’s elevated by a clever script that touches on the moral issues of violence, pacifism, and the Christian mentality. Demetrius is a gladiator who abandons his religion after a crisis of faith, providing some rich character building moments against some mature themes. While the film may drag in certain spots, it works as a spectacle for the senses with lavish costumes, epic production designs, and some well choreographed battle sequences.
6. Jason and the Argonauts
One part sword-and-sandal epic and another part fantasy film, Jason and the Argonauts is an odyssey that is still entertaining nearly 55 years after its release. It follows the legendary Greek hero Jason and his almost never-ending quest for the Golden Fleece. Along the way, Jason and his band of adventurers run into all sorts of challenges, including a gang of murderous skeletons and a giant monster called the Hydra, a beast with several different heads.
We admit, Jason and the Argonauts isn’t the traditional gladiator movie (there are cyclops and killer monsters in almost every other scene). Though it’s a bit lacking in realism department, this fantasy/adventure is still a whole lot of fun. From a technical point of view, the stop motion effects used to bring the many creatures to life are still a marvel to look at. The serene with Jason and his troop fighting the many swashbuckling skeletons is still a standout moment that inspired filmmakers for many years after.
5. Battle Royale
42 students, three days, one desert island, and a whole lot of bloodshed: Battle Royale is the 2000 Japanese film based on the novel of the same name that takes place in the near future where the government captures a class of high school students and force them to compete in Battle Royal, a no-holds-barred fight to the death.
Though there aren’t gladiators with swords running around fighting tigers, the students in Battle Royale are heinously made to kill each other by the overarching government, not too far off from where we find the gladiatorial slaves in Ancient Rome. Upon its release, Battle Royale was praised and condemned by audiences and critics alike for its intense violence, which consisted of high school kids brutally murdering each other with everything from a baseball bat to a machine gun. Yes, the brutality in this movie is at times hard to watch, but it’s necessary in order to understand the film’s commentary on modern-day Japan.
It doesn’t get more influential than this. This remarkable, silent Italian epic was first released in 1914. More than 100 years later, it’s still inspiring filmmakers who watch it today. Directed by Giovanni Pastrone, Cabiria made the bold choice of chronicling a nearly two-hour story back when most films ran for 15 or 20 minutes at the most.
Though Cabiria is more than a century old, its art direction, special effects, and cinematography are still marvels to look at. The film made gigantic strides in the world of cinema, making use of revolutionary techniques. It was the first movie to use a dolly-tracking system, which was often referred to after as the “Cabiria movements” in the film industry.
Cabiria is the earliest film included in legendary critic Roger Ebert’s “Greatest Movies” list, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s a milestone for historical dramas, vast, intricate and epic in scope. It contains sequences that still drop jaws, including a destructive eruption of Mount Etna, and grandiose gladiator battles with elephants.
Besides the fact that a less than stellar remake was released last year, Ben-Hur has a legacy that is simply untouched in the wold of cinema. This Roman epic starting Charlton Heston as a betrayed Jewish prince was the recipient of 11 Oscars at the 1960 Academy Awards, a record that has only been tied twice since.
Though Ben-Hur is technically a spectacle film (and what a spectacle it is), the story of one former prince turned gladiator going up against the entire Roman Empire is still emotionally compelling to this day. This is the role that Heston will forever be remembered for. The character Judah Ben-Hur is greater in dimension than anything else the actor played in his career, providing a rewarding dramatic experience quite unlike anything else.
Though the acting by the entire cast is superb, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the jaw-dropping gladiator scenes, particularly the now infamous chariot race, which was constructed on 18 acres of a backlot, had 15,000 extras, required 18 chariots to be built (half just for practice), and took five whole days to film.
Known for being Stanley Kubrick’s unofficial farewell to Hollywood blockbusters, Spartacus stars Kirk Douglas in quite possibly his finest role as a former slave who inspired a rebellion and challenged an empire. As a gladiator “every-man,” Spartacus represents the universal message of freedom that audiences couldn’t get enough of when the movie was released in 1960.
The character starts off in gladiator school, made to fight other slaves for the amusement of their masters. Eventually, Spartacus gets fed up of killing his fellow slaves, managing to escape the gladiator camp and start a rebellion of slaves that engage smaller Roman armies in combat in a quest for freedom.
Given the tumultuous history of the project, it was a miracle Spartacus was ever made. For starters, the star of the movie, Douglas, lobbied to have the first director fired from the project. Douglas demanded that Kubrick take over as director, and then once the director got the gig, there were constant creative arguments between the two during production. The struggle was worth it, as Spartacus became a gladiatorial epic on a grand scale that would have secured it a #1 spot on this list if it wasn’t for the next entry.
“Are you not entertained?”
Honestly, how could you not have seen this coming? In the genre of gladiator movies, Ridley Scott’s Gladiator stands on the podium alone, unrivaled in terms of spectacle, dramatic weight, and entertainment value. It’s the movie that won Russell Crowe his Best Actor Oscar for portraying Maximus, a Roman military leader who is betrayed and forced to fight in the arena as a talented gladiator.
Everything in this picture is at the top of their respective categories; the cinematography is gorgeous, the acting is superb (especially Crowe, and Joaquin Phoenix as the Roman tyrant Commodus), the screenplay is Shakespearean, and the battle scenes, oh, the battle scenes! Enthralled and fascinated don’t even begin to describe how the viewer feels as they watch Maximus effortlessly dismember his gladiator opponents into bloody stumps.
With beautiful scenery, a moving story, powerful performances, and Ridley Scott’s confident direction, Gladiator is the rare blockbuster that provides intense action (including a full-blown fight with a tiger) with characters we genuinely care about. It’s what every gladiator film should aspire to be, and so few have ever achieved.
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