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GLADIATORS, THE (Gladiatorerna)(director/writer: Peter Watkins; screenwriter: Nicholas Gosling; cinematographer: Peter Suschitzky; editor: Lars Hagström; music: Claes af Geijerstam; cast: Arthur Pentlow (British General), Jeremy Child (B-1), J.Z. Kennedy (B-6), Jean-Pierre Delamour (B-3), Pik-Sen Lim (C-2), George Harris (Nigerian Officer), Frederick Danner (British Staff Officer); Runtime: 91; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Göran Lindgren; New Yorker Films; 1969-Sweden-in English)
“Plays as if it were current reality TV fare.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Peter Watkins’ (“Punishment Park”/”Edvard Munch”) experimental futuristic anti-war semi-faux-documentary plays as if it were current reality TV fare. Nicholas Gosling was co-writer with Watkins. It’s about a pasta company sponsoring a weekly TV series (Saturday nights) based on the international “peace games” competition, which is supposed to stimulate nationalism without engaging in a real war by channeling the countries aggressive drives into the sporting nature of the games. The games are organized by an ‘International Peace Games Commission,’ who model them after the gladiator games of the Roman Empire. Which means the world is divided up into two warring groups, an Eastern and a Western team, and they use real arms in their maneuvers and the deaths are real. The generals and neutral civilians (techies who stand by the computer) stand out of harm’s way as the grunts get killed, as the authority figures push the games forward to either enhance their own power or gain materially. The movies aim is to satirize the futility of war, tell how much damage to the planet the international “system” is responsible for, come down hard on governments from both the East and the West that lie about their aims and point out how the “system” encourages wars that could be avoided. “The system is defined as any hierarchical structure that acts in its own self-interest and which is used by one group of human beings to govern and to hold other human beings in subservience. The system could be maintained by a system of terror or by consumerism or compromise.” The Gladiators takes a pessimistic view of either side solving the world problems or aiding in globalization, and views the mass media as helping whichever regime is in power by continuing to spread its lies. But it does hold out hope that the hierarchical systems though powerful, could be broken. The case is made through a love relationship between a British soldier B-6 (J.Z. Kennedy) and a member of the opposing Chinese team, C-2 (Pik-Sen Lim), which results in a computer valve malfunctioning and the war machine stalling. At the conclusion the love couple goes on the run together from the brick factory (the system), while the handlers of the two sides call the game a tie and unite to destroy these subversives who challenged their authority (which is the movies pivotal point, authority should be challenged by the alienated lovers, rebels against their own government, who are the only real threat to the system). Another interesting point is made through the characterization of a French student from Paris (Jean-Pierre Delamour), viewed as part of the allied team but he breaks away from the game to get into the control room and wreck the game (just like the leftist inspired French student protesters led by Danny the Red). But he’s used by the system as a tool, as his radical movement is co-opted by them and made passive when they are given their kind of music, entertainment, and high paying jobs to indoctrinate them into the system and their revolutionary zeal soon evaporates.

The cast is a mixture of international and non-professional actors. It makes use of a giant computer system, called ICARUS (the Ideological Correction and Rapid Unification System), that is displayed on TV so the public can follow the games. The object of the games is for the competitive countries, those from the East (USSR, East Germany, and the Chinese People’s Republic) and those from the West (USA, UK, West Germany, Italy, South Vietnam, India and Nigeria), to take control of its Control Room and the country that does is declared the winner. Sweden is the neutral host country, but is shown to be a war profiteer and hypocritically benefiting from the “peace games”(or if you will, from war it says public-ally it wants no part of).

It was shot in Sweden on 35mm, in an abandoned factory, at a time when protests against the Vietnam War were at its peak and this film contributes in attacking that futile war as part of a continuous growth in militarism. Its premise fits to a tee the current Iraq War and its bloody and economical futility.

The film can be judged successful if its ideas hold up, and after a long period Watkins’ then controversial ideas prove to be right on the money–like it or not. The earlier critical attacks upon the film’s release, that call his ideas, warnings and prophesies naive, are simply wrong.

It was the winner of the Grand Prix at the Trieste International Science Fiction Film Festival.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”