It’s been hard to know where to go after reviewing a six and a half hour documentary about the Friday the 13th movies, but I’ve somehow found a way forward. This two-part look at the American Gladiators tv show lasts over three hours, and that’s a big ask for a critic whose never seen a frame of the show and is unlikely to ever break that duck in this lifetime. But Ben Berman’s doc for sports channel ESPN is not only a labour of love that treats creatives and participants with the same care, but also a trenchant look at how tv can exploit the innocent; the narrative touches on writers’ strikes, the lack of support provided by programme makers for the individuals involved, and other hot button topics of today, wrapped up in an absorbing, pertinent mystery well worth exploring which makes this American Gladiators documentary something of a breeze to watch.
A ratings behemoth for a decade, American Gladiators predated both reality television and dangerous sports trends, but even the embryonic form concealed humble origins. Creators Dann Carr and Johnny Ferraro discovered the format in the outdoor games played by ironworkers at union-organised picnics where they’d fight, complete complex assault courses and other crowd-pleasing activities. Originally pitched as a movie, American Gladiators eventually made land as a jazzed-up, spandex and ‘roids all-American tv product that emphasised rah-rah patriotism to a degree that the target audience loved, but left the contestants feeling discarded; Berman wins kudos here for most sinister use of sausage machine footage in 2023 so far. Not all the original gladiators or contestants were willing to take part, with issues surrounding opioids and body dysmorphia taking a toll, but Berman does spend considerable time hearing about it all from Ferrano, an smooth-talking ex-Elvis impersonator who made his name synonymous with the brand after having an epiphany watching George Burns on television in the largely-forgotten comedy sequel Oh God! You Devil!
But with brutal on-set accidents, unpaid merchandising exposure, poor wages and debatable aftercare, American Gladiators’ undeniable success came with a certain amount of rancour, and Berman discovers more in part two of the doc, which focuses on the elusive, mysterious form of Carr, who few of the other interviewees have heard of, let alone recognise. Carr seems to have been eased away from both creative control and financial reward, and while his story is put together in a gradual, meticulous fashion, we end up with a familiar story of powerful men using their clout to claim rewards for themselves at the expense of others. Perhaps it’s a cliché for a doc maker to say ‘it’s a metaphor for America’ but it’s hard to deny the obvious, accidental symbolism here; one man’s success is built on another man’s misery, and that energy only runs one way…
‘A wall of lies is built one brick at a time’ says one of Berman’s subjects; like his previous film on a wayward magician, The Amazing Jonathan Documentary, Berman thrives on getting into the granular detail of estranged subjects who have very different perspectives on the same events; while there’s no weighting given to which truth to believe, it’s a gripping watch to unravel exactly who did what to who. Berman can’t help becoming a pivotal figure in his own film, and his unruffled interview technique elicits some dramatic gems. American Gladiators is now a largely forgotten show, but its story is a cautionary one that has plenty of relevance in the streaming age where anything just-about goes to create American carnage and conflict in all media. Unlike the lightweight Air, The American Gladiators Documentary is a film that goes far beyond being an ad for its subject, but looks ‘warts and all’ at how a big-business deal went south for many of those involved. As Carr tartly notes, ‘Truth is like an arrow. It has to penetrate. And sometimes it hurts…’
The American Gladiators Documentary screens as part of ESPN’s 30 for 30 season of docs on May 30th and 31st 2023. Thanks to ESPN for providing advance access to these films.
We had a Gladiators too I watched a few but it was against members of the public. Anyways not bothered about the American lot so nope.
Sigh. Very educational doc, even if you don’t watch the show.
Sorry, not in school today.
Those were the guys with the big puffy paddles who tried to bop each other with them I think. I think there was a toyline in the 90’s. Comparable to the WWF/WWE figures of the time…
I think there were oodles of toys for this one. Would like to have one of these big padded sticks…
Gotta keep us all in line somehow…
Exactly. Gladiator READY!
I’d watch this. I remember with a bunch of my friends watching this when it premiered and we were all hooked for at least the first season. Didn’t know it actually lasted so long, because once you’d seen a few episodes you’d basically seen them all. But the idea hasn’t died. Think the Rock is doing something similar now called American Ninja Warrior or something.
Ah, but taste is a wonderful thing. Tarkovsky for me, American Gladiators for you . . .
Nope. I do Tarkovsky AND American Gladiators. What would your gladiator name be?
Tarkovsky never made a movie about American Gladiators. Fact.
I was on the original run of AG. Gladiator name was Tae Bo Flexmaster Platinum 2000. It was an ’80s thing.
Tarkovsky’s Hotel Transylvania movies were his peak.
I was The Goodslayer.
I thought he got bounced from the show after the first couple of episodes. Couldn’t figure out how to operate the nerf cannon . . .
Andrei Tarkovsky’s American Gladiators was the superior product. His original finale for The Sacrifice features a man to man fight with cudgel sticks on a revolving treadmill.
That’s included as a bonus with the DVD. It has its defenders. The nurse swinging from the rings was over the top though, in my opinion.
My favourite event is the staring into puddles, haunted by ghosts from the future while receiving poetry. Their ability to merge Tarkovsky and AG universes made for great Saturday night entertainment.