The sword-and-sandal genre was a classic of Golden Age Hollywood, credited with revitalizing the public's interest in going to movie theaters after home television was introduced to the masses.
In fact, without epic movies like Ben-Hur bringing audiences back to the big screen, it's anyone's guess as to where cinema might be today.
And the greatest protagonist of the sword-and-sandal genre? The gladiator, of course! A man who's thrust into the Colosseum—a giant death trap without exits, where the only way out is by the sword.
Over the years, many great movies have been made in this genre. Here are our picks for the best movies about gladiators!
10. The Robe (1953)
Directed by Henry Koster
Starring Richard Burton, Jean Simmons, Victor Mature
Drama, History, Romance (2h 15m)
The Robe follows Marcellus Gallio (played by Richard Burton), a Roman military tribune who's responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus.
However, on the way there, he stumbles across a gladiator auction and meets Demetrius (played by Victor Mature), a runaway Greek gladiator.
While it may not have impressed critics of the time, The Robe certainly impressed general audiences and inspired several imitators.
9. Barabbas (1961)
Directed by Richard Fleischer
Starring Anthony Quinn, Silvana Mangano, Arthur Kennedy
Biography, Drama, History (2h 17m)
As the title suggests, Barabbas follows the life of Barabbas (played by Anthony Quinn), the infamous criminal who was pardoned by Pontius Pilate (played by Arthur Kennedy) in exchange for Jesus's crucifixion.
It's a compelling piece in which Barabbas becomes a gladiator who's trained to fight in front of Emperor Nero. It's a redemption story in some ways, with a handful of gladiator fights thrown in for good measure.
8. The Eagle (2011)
Directed by Kevin Macdonald
Starring Channing Tatum, Jamie Bell, Donald Sutherland
Action, Adventure, Drama (1h 54m)
Marcus Flavius Aquila (played by Channing Tatum) had a father who was Senior Centurion of the Ninth Legion, a famous band of Roman military that got lost in the area of Northern Britain and never returned.
In The Eagle, Marcus takes on the task of locating the Eagle Standard in the North with the help of his slave Esca (played by Jamie Bell).
There are plenty of fantastic battle scenes, chases sequences, and all kinds of fist-pumping action in The Eagle that you'd want in a gladiator epic—just that none of it happens in the Colosseum.
7. Centurion (2010)
Directed by Neil Marshall
Starring Michael Fassbender, Dominic West, Olga Kurylenko
Action, Drama, History (1h 37m)
Does anyone remember Centurion? It was a solid film featuring Michael Fassbender at the beginning of his burgeoning career, but it was perhaps overshadowed by the greats that came before it.
In Centurion, Quintus Dias (played by Michael Fassbender) is the son of a famous gladiator and he finds himself behind enemy lines. In order to honor his infamous father, he takes it upon himself to lead his men back to salvation—and along the way, swords will be swung.
6. Jason and the Argonauts (1963)
Directed by Don Chaffey
Starring Todd Armstrong, Nancy Kovack, Gary Raymond
Action, Adventure, Family (1h 44m)
The classic historical epic Jason and the Argonauts took great risks and successfully expanded the scope of the genre.
The plot follows Jason (played by Todd Armstrong), a man prophesied to overthrow the despotic ruler Pelias (played by Douglas Wilmer). However, Pelias is aware of this prophesy, so he seeks to have him killed.
He does this by encouraging Jason to find the Golden Fleece and return it to him, praying that he dies on the adventure.
Unfortunately for Pelias, Jason is accompanied on his mission by a squad of competent gladiators and warriors. With the help of his champions (and the goddess Hera), Jason sets off on his quest.
5. Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954)
Directed by Delmer Daves
Starring Victor Mature, Susan Hayward, Michael Rennie
Action, Drama, History (1h 41m)
In this sequel to the aforementioned The Robe, we get a film that's much improved over the original.
Demetrius and the Gladiators follows the story of Demetrius (played by Victor Mature), a devout Christian who takes it upon himself to hide the Robe of Christ, only to be thrust into the Colosseum to fight for his freedom. Talk about misfortune!
A massive box office success, Demetrius and the Gladiators made it clear that sword-and-sandal movies were worth investing in.
4. The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964)
Directed by Anthony Mann
Starring Sophia Loren, Stephen Boyd, Alec Guinness
Drama, History, War (3h 8m)
The Fall of the Roman Empire follows the decadence and arrogance of the ancient Roman aristocracy, which precipitated the empire's eventual downfall due to negligence and corruption.
This classic film features all of the classic Roman tropes, including grapes, gladiators, and luxurious robes. Starring cinema greats like Sophia Loren, Alec Guinness, and Christopher Plummer, The Fall of the Roman Empire was bound to be an incredible success.
Unfortunately, fate had other plans. It was such a massive flop that it made people think twice about making expensive gladiator movies again. But in retrospect, it's a solid watch with solid performances!
3. Ben-Hur (1959)
Directed by William Wyler
Starring Charlton Heston, Jack Hawkins, Stephen Boyd
Adventure, Drama (3h 32m)
Here we have yet another Biblical gladiator film. And why not? Ben-Hur was the film that proved how mixing Bible stories with historical empires could be a fun and potent combination on the big screen.
The film follows Judah Ben-Hur (played by Charlton Heston), a Jewish prince who's sold into slavery. In order to win back his freedom, he must now compete as a gladiator.
Ben-Hur was one of the most expensive films ever made at the time. Fortunately, it received all the critical and public adulation it needed to vindicate those costs. To this day, Ben-Hur is tied for the most Oscar wins in Hollywood history (with 11 wins).
Not only was it an extravagant production, Ben-Hur set the benchmark for gladiator movies to come with its immaculate set design and impressive action sequences.
2. Gladiator (2000)
Directed by Ridley Scott
Starring Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen
Action, Adventure, Drama (2h 35m)
"Are you not entertained?!" How could we not be when Gladiator is playing? This is the quintessential gladiator movie, after all!
Gladiator follows Maximus Decimus Meridius (played by Russell Crowe), a Roman general who wants to leave his military position so he can return to be with his family.
However, the treacherous actions of the Roman emperor's son Commodus (played by Joaquin Phoenix) prevent him from doing that. Sold into slavery, Maximus becomes a gladiator who must fight for his freedom—and, unfortunately for his opponents, he's really good at it.
In modernizing the sword-and-sandal genre for modern audiences, Ridley Scott showed the world that he can make great movies no matter the subject. Gladiator remains one of his best films to date.
And as one of the best gladiator movies ever made, it unsurprisingly inspired several lame copycats—but it also inspired several good ones, some of which have appeared on this list.
1. Spartacus (1960)
Directed by Stanley Kubrick and Anthony Mann
Starring Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Peter Ustinov
Adventure, Biography, Drama (3h 17m)
It isn't as well-known as Ridley Scott's Gladiator, but Spartacus was certainly one of the biggest inspirations behind that film.
The story follows the slave Spartacus (played by Kirk Douglas), who's made to fight as a gladiator for the entertainment of his owners. However, after Spartacus leads a revolt, he ends up sparking a full-fledged revolution—and he finds himself at the helm of it.
With Spartacus, Stanley Kubrick crafted one of the most impressive historical epics of his day. He brought a humanism to the film that Ben-Hur lacked, resulting in a resoundingly impactful film.
Despite monumental creative differences between Kubrick and Douglas (who was both producer and main star), the film's quality fortunately remained intact. Without a doubt, Spartacus is the all-time best movie about gladiators ever made.