Ranking the best of the “Sword & Sandal” sub-genre from 300 to Gladiator…
The ancient history and mythology of the countries near the Mediterranean Sea have been a treasure trove for generations of moviemakers. Sword & Sandal movies became popular with classics such as Ben Hur in the 1950s, and were further expanded with the cheap but not less entertaining Italian copycat movies that followed swiftly.
While the genre is the nemesis of every historian, it has a lot to offer for action movie fans with its epic battles and heroes vs. monster stories. The release of Ridley Scott’s Gladiator triggered a new wave of Sword & Sandal flicks, this time with upgraded special effects.
While these movies lacked the nostalgic charm of the originals, they were able recreate the ancient times in an even more epic way, and deliver plenty of kick-ass action. In this article, I’ll discuss the ten best modern entries to this awesome genre. So let’s get on our chariot, and buckle up!
10) HERCULES (2014)
Hercules was Dwayne Johnson’s second foray into the genre after The Scorpion King, and the less successful one. He plays Hercules who has the reputation of a legendary hero, but has become a cynical mercenary. Hercules and his companions are hired by King Cotys to fight for him in what looks like an ordinary war, but things are not what they seem to be.
Hercules is Sword & Sandal 101 of sorts. The movie contains all the familiar genre tropes while bringing exactly zero novelty to the table. The dialogues are slightly awkward, and the plot is thinner than a sheet of papyrus. The action is senseless, but plentiful and competently filmed as Hercules and his companions are thrashing one horde of enemies after the other. I think you’ll only enjoy Hercules thoroughly if you’re a hardcore Dwayne Johnson fan. For everyone else, it should be a fairly average movie.
9) 300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE (2014)
King Leonidas of Sparta is dead, and only the army of Athens and their champion Themistokles can save Greece from Persian god-king Xerxes and his fierce Naval Commander Artemisia. 300: Rise of an Empire continues the story from its predecessor, and this time it’s up to the Athenians to stop Xerxes. The movie dials the action back just a little bit, and makes more room for politics and world-building, even though that part of the movie ends up being a fairly generic war drama.
The somewhat monotonous visuals of the austere mountains and shores from the first part are exchanged for more monumental settings. The epic naval battles are the centerpiece of the movie, and there’s a lot of awesome and of course ultraviolet fights. The main reason to watch the movie, though, is Eva Green. Her role as psychopathic and blood-thirsty commander of the Persian Navy is so bad-ass, that every other character in the movie is dwarfed by her performance. 300: Rise of An Empire lacks the raw intensity of the original, but still has enough slick-looking mayhem to offer to make it worth a watch.
8) TROY (2004)
I admit it may be difficult to justify mentioning a movie on this website starring Brad Pitt, but Troy is too good to ignore. And Brad Pitt gives a performance that at least gets him close to being a true action hero for once. Paris, the Prince of Troy, abducts Helene, the wife of King Menelaus of Sparta.
Menelaus’ brother King Agamemnon assembles a massive army, led by legendary warrior Achilles and lays siege to Troy to free Helena. Wolfgang Petersen took on the challenge to retell one of the most famous Greek epic tales, and with a whopping 200 Million USD budget created a movie that does justice to it. With a monumental run-time of more than three hours in the director’s cut, you will need some patience to sit through it, though. It’s a fairly sober movie, and would be a high-profile costume drama if it would not feature some of the most massive and epic battle scenes ever created for this genre.
Combat is brutal when swords, shields and spears clash in the thousands, and as prince Hector of Troy (played by Eric Bana) and Achilles (played by Pitt) are plowing through their enemies on opposing sides of the battle. If you’re a fan of Greek drama mixed with spectacular battles, Troy is your movie.
7) CENTURION (2010)
Centurion exchanges the usual sunny Mediterranean setting of the genre with the forests and mountains of Britain during Roman occupation. The Roman Ninth legion is sent to defeat the tribe of the Picts in Britain, who have been attacking Roman outposts. Things don’t go as planned, though, the legion gets ambushed, and the remaining survivors are on the run for their life. Centurion is a straightforward action-adventure that follows a group of soldiers on their dangerous journey through enemy territory.
The movie has a fairly grim tone that is supported by the scenery of the muddy and snowy British wilderness. There are no epic battles in the movie, but mostly small skirmishes as the Romans and Picts clash with each other numerous times in raw and brutal fights. The movie is another great entry from genre expert Neil Marshall, and a much better effort than the rather bland King Arthur that came out a couple of years earlier with a similar setting. Centurion tells a simple story, but stands out because of its bleak atmosphere and the intense fight scenes.
6) THE SCORPION KING (2002)
Dwayne Johnson’s career took off like a rocket after his breakthrough role in The Scorpion King. A prequel of sorts to The Mummy movies, it tells the story of mercenary Mathayus’ rise from assassin to king of prehistoric Egypt. The movie does not elaborate on how he became the monster in the second oo movie, but rather deals with Mathayus’ effort to free Egypt from the grip of the evil warlord Memnon.
With a body hardened from his wrestling career and great natural charisma, Johnson owns the movie right from the start, and even his acting was already not too bad in his first lead role. Of course we want to see him beat up everyone who gets in his way, and he gets plenty of opportunity to do so. The Scorpion King is a colorful action-adventure, a fun romp through the desert with plenty of humor, and creative and funny action scenes.
5) IMMORTALS (2011)
Immortals is a visual extravaganza from director Tarsem Singh that presents it’s action-packed story in surreal, dreamy pictures. On top of that we get to see Mickey Rourke in one of his best roles in recent years, as relentless and sadistic King Hyperion who seeks to kill the Greek Gods.
To do this, he needs to get his hands on the legendary Bow of Epirus. The soldier Theseus is chosen by Zeus to stop him, and the young hero must not only face Hyperion’s army, but also the legendary Minotaur and the Titans themselves. The plot of the movie is not particularly complicated, but it takes a couple of interesting turns. Its edgy style makes Immortals occasionally look like an arthouse flick, but it never gets out of hand, and the movie fully delivers on the action front.
The choreography of the fights is perfect. Singh combines excellent camerawork with an overabundance of CGI blood and gore, as Perseus goes against the seemingly inhuman forces of Hyperion’s army. Mark Cavill makes for a great hero, but Mickey Rourke steals the show from him, with a bonkers costume and cruelty that knows no boundaries.
4) GODS OF EGYPT (2016)
I can imagine that Gods of Egypt will fall into one of two categories for many viewers: a soulless CGI turkey, or a gleefully demented rollercoaster ride. My vote goes for the latter. Many years after creating the dark and brooding genre masterpiece The Crow, director Alex Proyas decided it was time to go into the opposite direction.
The god Horus is destined to become king of Egypt, but is betrayed by his brother Set before his coronation and robbed of his godly powers. It is up to the human thief Bek to help Horus restore his might and defeat Set. Gods of Egypt warps ancient Egyptian mythology and its characters into a superhero/monster flick hybrid. Don’t bother with the plot, this movie just throws one action-packed set piece after another at the audience.
Among its many attractions are cyborg-like gods, spaceships, fire-breathing giant snakes and a world-swallowing worm demon. Fortunately the movie never takes itself seriously, and there’s plenty of tongue-in-cheek humor. Even Gerard Butler as the master villain is relaxed and jovial most of the time as he conquers and destroys the world. Gods of Egypt is a cheerful acid trip, and spectacle cinema of the highest grade.
3) CLASH OF THE TITANS (2010)
Clash Of The Titans is a remake of the 1981 movie with the same name. The new version tells a similar story, but replaces the charming stop-motion effects with state-of-the-art CGI. The Greek gods declare war on the humans that are losing faith in them, and only Zeus’ son Perseus can stop them.
On his quest he must traverse dangerous lands inhabited by monsters and even venture into the underworld. Clash of The Titans may strike the best balance between sticking to the roots of the Sword & Sandal genre, and giving it an update with present-day special effects to make the ancient world of myths and monsters come alive. It’s a fun and action-packed ride from beginning to the end, as Theseus and his companions fight their way past harpies, giant scorpions, the Medusa, and of course the Kraken!
Sam Worthington gives a likable performance as Theseus and is joined by a great cast of famous actors, among them Liam Neeson in a ridiculously shiny costume as Zeus. Clash of the Titans was followed by the decent, but less exciting sequel Wrath of the Titans that I can only recommend if you want another 100 minutes of the same.
2) 300 (2006)
300 is a movie that deservedly is often mentioned along with Gladiator as one of the best modern takes on the Sword & Sandal genre. It’s based on the comic book from Frank Miller, that in turn was very loosely based on the battle at the narrow coastal pass of Thermopylae. The pass was defended by a squad of Spartan warriors led by King Leonidas against the giant army of Persian King Xerxes during his conquest of Greece.
300 for the most part is a fantasy story with little historical accuracy, and focuses instead on ultra-violent action scenes. Zack Snyder created striking visuals by manipulating and every single image of the movie to the extreme with digital effects. The movie features one battle after another, and it never gets boring to see the masterfully staged fights, with fountains of blood and bodies piling up at an incredible rate.
300 has a pathos that would border on the ridiculous if it was not so intense and atmospheric that one cannot help but be drawn in. The movie was a breakthrough role for Gerard Butler, who would regularly return to the action genre, and also put Zack Snyder on the agenda as specialist for CGI-laden comic book adaptations.
1) GLADIATOR (2000)
Gladiator is not only the best modern Sword & Sandal movie, but also an action movie classic by now. It tells the epic story of Roman general Maximus who is wrongfully accused of murdering emperor Marcus Aurelius. Maximus is enslaved, and forced to join a group of gladiators. He becomes a famous fighter, and prepares to take his revenge on the treacherous new emperor Commodus. Gladiator was yet another stroke of genius from director Ridley Scott. It’s a historical drama, adventure and action movie in one epic package.
The movie is a stellar production with monumental sets and battle scenes that even today do not fail to impress. Almost every single one of the combat sequences has become famous, from the battle between the Romans and Germanic tribes to the many gladiator fights. Russell Crowe gives the performance of his life, and a young Joaquin Phoenix impresses as his cunning and hideous antagonist. Gladiator is the uncontested masterpiece among the modern takes on the Sword & Sandal genre, and takes the first place in our ranking.