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Category:    Home > Reviews > Science Fiction > Thriller > Political > Drama > War > Genocide > Games > Experiment > The Gladiators (1969/Peter Watkins, aka Gladiatorerna/Project X/New Yorker DVD)

The Gladiators (1969/Peter Watkins, aka Gladiatorerna)


Picture: C+     Sound: C+     Extras: B+     Film: A-



Several key works in Science Fiction have not been available as much as they should be, while others have remained shockingly unseen.  Peter Watkins’ The Gladiators (1969, aka The Peace Game, Gladiatorerna) is definitely the later, the first of the films in the genre’s death sport cycle, yet a film that offers so much more.  In one respect, it picks up where Francois Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 (1966) left off in its depiction of the police state on the deepest level and no doubt influenced George Lucas’ THX 1138 (student short and 1971 feature version) long before the digitized and unfortunate “director’s cut” that cut the heart and soul out of the 1971 version.


The film involves a group of soldiers from all nations running a series of highly successful (and constantly televised like a TV series, which seemed outrageous at the time) war games dubbed “peace” games as if having them kept things in order.  That same old world order is what World War I was all about, so you know we are in trouble already.  To make things crazier, an Italian pasta company sponsors the games, even though the bullets and fights are real and people do get killed.  Remember, this was decades before so called “reality TV” ever happened, though a part of this DVD’s extras wisely says the ugliest, darkest part of that cycle is that the premise is not to question anything you see on such shows, which simply extends to everything else you see on TV.


But Game 256 is a little different.  Things do not go quite as planned, though initially, everything seems like another “normal” mindless installment of the show.  As usual, the featured participants (marked by letter and numbers, not names) have to reach “The Control Room” to win, but in between them and this nerve center are men with deadly weapons, traps, a supercomputer calculating their every move and other surprises that doom them to failure.  This time, however, the set-up has become just predictable enough for some of those “contestants” to come up with new ways to foil the system and that is where the story becomes very interesting.


Many have tried a dangerous kind of revisionist thinking about the Science Fiction genre by giving the films like this that are this good another designation like “Social Fiction” or even attempt to declare Sci-Fi dead because too many still want to associate it with fantasy and space operas, when the genre in fact became the most mature since Film Noir in the period between 1965 – 1982.  Ironically, it is Fahrenheit 451 (book and film) that predicted such political correctness, though other political forces loathe anything great that makes you think or has great things to point out and say.


Though the film has dated slightly thanks to the fall of The Soviet Union and because it has been imitated so many times, that has put only a slight dent in the film overall.  It is dense, intense, smart, never quits, has an exceptional screenplay by Nicholas Gosling and Watkins and terrific production design by William Brodie that does not look dated in the least.  If anything, the dirt and war paraphernalia seem as relevant as ever.  The film seems like a behind the scenes of something were (are) never supposed to see and there is nary a false note throughout.


The lesser-known actors like Arthur Pentelow, Frederick Danner, George Harris, Jeremy Child and Roy Scammell are joined by many still-unknowns, while some of those names got their start here and moved on to successful acting careers.  Scammell also became a fight and stunt coordinator on some choice projects.  Even the most successful are more known for their faces than names, so watching this will be a pleasant surprise to film fans, though the ethnic diversity will surprise most.


At the crux of the film is non-stop honest about the human condition and consequences of an over-mediated and media-plastered world.  Even with the Internet as potential balancer, which is very shaky at best, that “strange weather” of so much media owned by so few has a dark side that keeps bottoming out and still has not reached the lowest depths.  By showing instead of preaching, The Gladiators is a landmark that has been kept in the vault far too long.  This DVD should finally start the process of changing its status form unknown to classic up there with the best works of Kubrick, Truffaut, Godard, Ridley Scott and the many memorable films (and few clunkers) in the cycle it inspired.


The anamorphically enhanced image takes the 1.66 X 1, 35mm image and bookends (or pillarboxes) it slightly in the 1.78 X 1 frame.  It has a slightly grainy look on purpose, has some slight color and slight detail limits, but the impressive early work by ace cinematographer Peter Suschitzky now best known for his work with David Cronenberg and more commercially for The Rocky Horror Picture Show and The Empire Strikes Back and underrated Lisztomania and remarkably underrated, recent Shopgirl.  The EastmanColor holds up well enough, while Lars Hagstrom’s editing is very impressive and a must for new filmmakers.  The Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono sounds good for its age, with a mix of new music by Claes af Geijerstam and two other music pieces we will withhold until you see it.


Extras include text on Watkins career, the amazing 1959 short film Diary Of An Unknown Solider (17 minutes, black and white), a great booklet inside the DVD case including credits text and self-interview by Watkins and a full length audio commentary by Dr. Joseph A. Gomez on Watkins, the film and so much more that makes it one of the all-time great commentary tracks.  Film fans will love his comparative analysis of the film to the original 1975 Rollerball (he ignores the remake) and Schwarzenegger Running Man, though I wished he had also included the 1976 Logan’s Run, Death Race 2000 and Robert Altman’s Quintet.  All together, that makes for maybe the strongest title in the exceptional New Yorker DVD catalog to date, one so highly loaded with great films left and right that it is an achievement, but Peter Watkins’ The Gladiators is that great a film.



-   Nicholas Sheffo


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