Maximus is a powerful, and popular general loved by his soldiers and the people of Rome. Even the aging Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, is impressed with his stature and courage in battle as he delivers victory after victory for the Roman empire. Before his death, the emperor chooses Maximus over his own son, Commodus, to succeed him and return the Roman empire to the people. Naturally, Commodus is far from impressed with these events, murders his father and assumes the role of the new emperor. But with Maximum in his way he sentences Maximus, and his family, to death.
Although Maximus manages to escape from his executioners he is unable to rescue his family in time, arriving at his home to discover the burnt and tortured bodies of his wife and only son. Loosing the will to live, and suffering from injuries sustained during his escape, he collapses only to be captured by slavers who then sell him on to a gladiator school where he is destined to fight until he dies.
Initially unwilling to fight, Maximus discovers that by training hard to become a true gladiator he can travel to Rome to fight at the coliseum and take his revenge on Commodus, and thus fulfilling the dying wish of the emperor. Using his knowledge of the battlefield, he quickly impresses his audiences and the time soon comes when he and the group of gladiators are called to Rome. There he is to participate in a marathon of gladiator games held in the honor of the new emperor, and where he can plot his revenge.
The picture is bright and colourful with a high level of detail and depth through and there seems to be an improvement over the original DVD release. The picture manages to go from the subdued to the sublime with the pale blue and darkened colours of the opening battle scene against the barbarian hordes in Germania looking extremely impressive whilst the bight and sharp images of ancient Rome and Maximus' dream sequences bring out the best colours that the technology can provide.
It's also a film that goes on to prove just how quickly the power of CGI progresses, and judging by some of the more recent CGI heavy releases it's not always for the better either. Whilst the award winning CGI images were cutting edge technology at the time, and they still do manage to impress, there are a few scenes where it becomes all too evident that the hand of the computer has been at work. Still, the images blend in well enough with the live action without causing too many problems and, given the amount of action and contrasting light and dark scenes, there are no signs of edge enhancements or pixelisation. Also, being such a recent release there are no problems with either scratches or other forms of print damage. All in all, it's good all round performance worthy of a spin to show off that big screen LCD or Plasma television.
Due to the amount of information on the disc, Gladiator is equipped with a lower bitrate Dolby Digital 384 Kbps 5.1 soundtrack whilst, rather unfortunately, the superior DTS soundtrack which was present on the original two-disc release has been lost. Lower bitrate or not, the sound is still utterly fantastic and makes the film even more watchable than it already is. In fact, Gladiator won an Oscar for its soundtrack so that must make worth an audition or two, or three.
The rear channels are used being continuously used throughout the film and during the initial battle scenes you are completely surrounded by thuds, screaming, shouting, charging horses and thousands of arrows flying over your head - so much so that I kept ducking and looking behind me in case a barbarian was charging towards me. Once the film turns to the Colosseum you are enveloped with the cheering crowds and battling gladiators as lions roar and swords clash all around you. And if you ever needed proof that your subwoofer was working then you'd find it hard to find any film to give it a better test drive. The dialogue is fixed in the centre channel, with no cross channel bleeding, whilst the stereo separation and direction is superb in the front stereo channels.
Once you get past the usual anti-piracy spiel, the main menus across the three discs are animated and scored with the same haunting music from the film whilst the submenus are static but scored with different sets of music. Whilst there's plenty of extras to work through, each menu is simply laid out and easy to navigate through. Spanning two discs there are more extras than you can shake a sword at and, as such, are too many in number to provide too much of an depth look at. As a result, the extras are described in more of a brief overview.
This Gladiator Extended Special Edition includes the first-ever DVD commentary by Russell Crowe, recorded together with Ridley Scott. To get one of these great men into the studio for a commentary is impressive enough, but to get both is nothing short of a miracle. It's also a great chance to make your own opinion of the pompous Crowe and his phone throwing ego. And boy, does he love his ego and self importance, but equally, it doesn't half result in a fantastic film as he totally involves himself in the film. He certainly earned his pay cheque for this film.
Both men appear to get on well enough and provide plenty of information on the production both in front and behind of the camera. Highlight for me has to be their comments during the opening battle scene as they trashed the British countryside and comment about the mad extras who just love to recreate battles at every opportunity and Crowe's rather unfortunate injury to his cheek. It may be a little hard to keep going for the best part of three hours, but they manage it even into the closing credits where they talk about the Oscars, so you may also opt to read their ramblings via the optional subtitles. You can even go the full hog and listen to the audio commentary and enable the Trivia Track which occasionally pops up on the screen with production information and historical facts. Talk about information overload!
The extras on the second disc, collectively called Strength and Honour : Creating the World of Gladiator, add up to a whopping three hours in total and after a near bum numbing three hours for the main feature it's something you're going to want to revisit at a later date. Still, revisit it you must as it contains quite possibly the most detailed and comprehensive collection of featurettes about a film ever to grace our favourite little shiny disc format. The featurettes, also equipped with subtitles, are split into seven sections which can be individually selected or, if you're feeling rather sadistic, watched all in one go. The package also includes a specially created booklet featuring excerpts and images from Scott's Gladiator companion book How It All Started.
The rather interesting thirty five minute The Tale of the Scribes : Story Development rather unsurprisingly covers the development of the story and contains plenty of interviews with the principle cast and crew. Next up is the equally interesting thirteen minute The Tools of War which takes a look at the history of, and the creation of the replica weaponry used in the film. As usual, we learn of a few liberties taken with the weapon design, but it's nothing outrageous. Following on is the twenty minute Attire of the Realm which is yet another interesting featurette with the designers and principle actors who discuss the costume design.
Highlight of the extras on disc two has to be the whopping one hour long The Heat of Battle featurette which goes behind the scenes looking at the three big battle sequences in the film. There's plenty of extremely interesting behind the scenes footage along with a huge raft of interesting interviews with members of production crew, director and actors from a comfy hotel room, to on set interviews in the heat and cold with the likes of Russell Crowe, Richard Harris and production crew members. This is definitely the meat and two vegetables of the extras and also highlights a few misconceptions about the production and their wanton destruction of the woodland countryside. However, given the length of the featurette it's just a pity it's not chaptered.
Next up is the rather poignant twenty five minute featurette Shadows and Dust which looks at the various problems of script rewriting and the CGI technology used in bring Proximo back to life. It also includes some extremely saddening on set interviews with the late Oliver Reed plus plenty of other interviews with other cast members and production crew on the great man. It's not only a clever featurette in explaining how they managed to fit Proximo back into the film, but it's also a worthy celebration of just what he brought to the film. It's just a pity that there's no comment for Russell Crowe.
The twenty minute The Glory of Rome featurette looks at the visual effects used to create the ancient city of Rome and the opening battlefield scenes. Again, director Ridley Scott is on hand to present the detail of the featurette, but it's basically down to visual effects supervisor John Nelson to explain the tricks of the trade on how they only built partial sets and then used CGI to fill in the gaps in both sets and extras. The final featurette on the second disc is the eighteen minute Echoes In Eternity featurette which looks back at the film's phenomenal release and the production teams reaction to both the initial screen tests, its general release and the many awards, including the Oscars, that came their way.
The third, rather less interesting, disc is split into two Image and Design and Supplemental Archive sections. The first of these sections contains further Production Design, Storyboarding, Costume Design Galleries and Photo Galleries sections. The Product Design section starts off with the nine minute Production Design Primer : Arthur Max featurette who looks at the challenges and responsibilities in creating the look for the film. The section then continues with a Production Design Gallery which contains conceptual art, set designs, location photos and other material from Germania, Zucchabar, Rome and its impressive Colosseum. It's not the most exciting of sections and one strictly for the fans.
In the ten minute Storyboard Demonstration conceptual artist Sylvain Despretz looks at the importance of storyboarding for a film and then demonstrates his unique skill by drawing two all-new Gladiator boards exclusively for the release. The multi-angle Storyboard-to-film Comparisons, with an optional audio commentary from Sylvain Despretz, allows you to flip between the storyboard and the storyboard and the final shot comparison from the film, although quite way you'd only want to see the storyboard by itself is another question. There are three sections, the six minute Germania Battlefront, the two minute Chain Fight and the seven minute The Battle of Carthage. All of the scenes are reasonably interesting and should be viewed with the commentary enabled, but Despretz's tone and complete information overload can be a little tiresome at times. This section is rounded off with a massive and comprehensive collection of storyboard art, some of it incomprehensible images whilst others looks like they were drawn by a five year old.
The Costume Design Gallery contains an in-depth collection of Oscar winner Janty Yates' celebrated costume illustrations for the film. They can either be viewed in one go or via one of six sections including costume designs for Maximus, Commodus and Proximo. The majority of the gallery is made up of her art work but the finished article is also modeled by their respective owner in the film. There's also a massive Photo Gallery of various antics of the cast, crew, extras, sets and props from a snap happy on-set photographer in the United Kingdom, Morocco and Malta. I've no idea how many photographs there are, but I lost count after about thirty or so images. There's also a selection of photographs from a deleted execution scene.
The Supplemental Archive starts off with the Abandoned Sequences and Deleted Scenes. This includes an alternate opening title design plus a nine minute featurette from design Nick Livesey who explains that it was trimmed for timing purposes. The two minute Blood Vision abandoned sequence, with optional, but essentially required, commentary from Ridley Scott is made up of storyboards and 35mm outtakes that give an indication of just what the director intended along with tracking points for the eventual CGI. The four minute Rhino Fight section was suppose to be one of the major action points in the film but was soon abandoned on cost grounds and when they realised it would be rather hard to train a real rhino. The section includes storyboards as well as some rather impressive looking early CGI work on the rhino. The final scene is a thirty section deleted scene which Maximus prepares his new partner Juba for their first chain fight in Zucchabar.
The twenty three minute Vfx Explorations: Germania & Rome featurette contains a breakdown of the computer generated work that went into creating the world of Gladiator thanks to the hand of a few computer geeks and their trusty bank of computers. This mammoth collection of extras is rounded off with the a Trailers & TV Spots section which contains a collection of trailers and other creative materials developed for the film's original theatrical release. And if you don't find something of interest in this collection of extras then there's definitely something wrong with you.
This big-budget summer epic is rightly worthy of its Hollywood predecessors. Whereas its forerunners relied on massive sets and huge numbers of extras and budgets that brought studios to their knees, this first true epic of the 21st century makes full use of the computer, but with the minimal amount of impact. There are plenty of wonderful CGI views of ancient Rome, although at times they did look a bit too much like CGI's, whilst an existing overhead model of Rome from a museum came in extremely handy too. Even better, are the opening battle scenes against the barbarians which give Saving Private Ryan a real run for its money in the drama, brutality and gore stakes.
Although the original two disc release contains the restored footage in the form of deleted scenes, the fact that its been seamlessly restored to this extended version of the film should still make it a serious purchasing decision for existing owners. Even though the DTS soundtrack has been lost in favour of the extended scenes, longer commentary and in vision trivia track, it's still worth hanging on to your original version and picking up this superb extended edition. The only downside would have to be that cash in and the cautious introduction from Ridley Scott who exclaims that "this is not the director's cut, that was the previous release". Hmmm, he doesn't sound to chuffed about a release which has been quite clearly pushed through by the studio executives, although I suspect he was more than happy to dash to the bank with his cheque.
Forget those inferior historical epics of The Kingdom of Heaven, Troy and Alexander, and simply bow down before your hero and the awesome Gladiator - still one of the most undisputed DVD champions still available today. Whilst there's a strong odour of a studio cash in, this is still an extremely highly recommended title which should be part of any serious home cinema and film fans collection. I'd forgotten just how superb this film really is. Make sure you remember by getting this ultimate edition of Gladiator.