Gladiator is the greatest sports movie.
Coach Proximo tells Maximus “Win the crowd, and you will win your freedom.” Maximus already knew he had to win, because losing a gladiator fight means death. But after vowing to win the crowd, to “give them something they’ve never seen before,” Maximus plays differently. He wins with pizzazz, to blow fans’ minds.
For sheer stakes, the consequences of winning and losing, nothing comes close to Gladiator. The “games” are for freedom, love, honor, friendship, righteous revenge… and all of glorious Rome. That’s not an exaggeration. Hanging in the balance of the last match is how Romans will be ruled. Commodus fights Maximus, and if Commodus wins, the monarchy continues; if Maximus wins, the government becomes a republic, ruled by the senate. A lot is on the line.
Fifty thousand spectators turn out to watch Maximus compete in the Coliseum, just about the same number who attend a Big 10 football game. Before battle, he scoops up dirt or sand, to rub between his hands. This is something athletes do, and gladiators simply must be great athletes if they’re to survive, able to run, cut laterally, jump, and swing giant shields, swords, or morning stars. The combatants in Gladiator have the hulking builds of NFL football players, but the NFL’s awesome violence and injuries are nothing like this. No NFL coach tells his team to “Go, and die with honor.”
Maximus excels on his own, going hand-to-hand against “the only undefeated champion in Roman history: the legendary Tigris… OF GAUL!” (And tigers.) But he also understand the value of team. “If we stay together, we survive,” he tells his fellow gladiators in the reenactment of Hannibal’s defeat at Carthage. Like a great player/coach, he gives directions loud and clear. He makes the biggest plays himself, of course – stunning feats of killing that splash gore and elicit mad cheers from the mob.
Now consider that final fight as a sporting event. The fans turn out to see Maximus, and unexpectedly find themselves watching him fairly kill the emperor of Rome. That’s a ticket stub worth saving.