The Gladiators (1969/Peter Watkins, aka Gladiatorerna)
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
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