IN WHAT IS RAPIDLY becoming the summer of genres no one thought they cared about anymore, a big-budget submarine picture is being followed by an old-fashioned gladiator movie. Ridley Scott's new film, Gladiator, is being promoted in part as a return to the glorious tradition of '50s and '60s gladiator films. This is bizarre in two ways: First, most summer audiences hardly care about what movie falls into which tradition. Second, gladiator movies have a lousy, embarrassing history.

In their heyday, gladiator movies were seedy, semi-secular members of the Sandal Epic family, a group of film genres that included the lavish Biblical epic and the mythological adventure film. Part of the basic appeal of all those kinds of movies were healthy doses of violence and barely sublimated sexuality; gladiator movies, mostly Italian in origin (like the 1949 hit Fabiola), had the diciest reputation.

A man fighting for his life is a very basic idea; gladiator movies are therefore very basic movies. The standard plot is built around a series of increasingly difficult encounters within an arena. By fighting in the arena, the protagonist ends up fighting whoever established the arena. This bare-bones framework allows for very basic ideas about power and caste to be hung on the outcome. Left alone, you get stupefyingly boring knockoffs like The Rebel Gladiators. The success of Ben-Hur and Spartacus was partially that they infused the violent activity with elementary meditations on broader notions, like freedom and personal spiritual growth.

Because basic ideas are often the most mutable, the gladiator movie had an easier time than some genres surviving a waning interest in costume drama. In the '70s, sports movies found it useful to compare athletes to gladiators as a way of indicting the sport industry. In North Dallas Forty (1979), the locker room is one step removed from slave quarters; the movie's lead characters question the basic inequities of the owner/player relationship the same way a gladiator might gripe about rich emperors. The decade's best movie of this kind [Editor's note: Of any kind!] was Norman Jewison's sci-fi sports thriller Rollerball (1975): By nature of his success in the arena, James Caan's Jonathan E represents a type of individuality that threatens the corporate interests who control the game.

The computer avatars in Tron (1982) also participate in gladiatorial combat, but in a sign of things to come for the genre, the plot hinges less and less on the outcome of the combat as the movie continues. Soon, the only place to find gladiator-style plots was in cheap martial arts films: Jean-Claude Van Damme's entire career was built on variations of arena combat, in movies like Bloodsport.

The '90s saw several attempts to reclaim gladiator plots in slightly more ambitious ways: 1992's Gladiator transposed the gladiator mien to the world of underground boxing. Oliver Stone's Any Given Sunday (1999) was a rehash of North Dallas Forty, glossed over with an unconvincing modern media critique. A more clever dissection of the media in Fight Club (1999) obscured its gladiatorial angle -- a treatment of the joys of fighting in public.

By returning to basics, Ridley Scott's Gladiator deploys the oft-transposed genre in the way it was originally intended. Scott tramps through the standard gladiator movie plot like a tipsy party host, embracing each and every cliché like a dear old friend. War hero General Maximus (Russell Crowe) is stripped of his position by a scheming new Caesar (Joaquin Phoenix). Escaping too late to save his family, Maximus falls into the hands of a slaver (the late Oliver Reed), and with the help of a former love and his rough-but-likable gladiator pals, seeks his revenge by finding glory within the Coliseum.

Scott's gamble is that audiences will see his ancient Rome as a setting in which violence is a much more appropriate end result than it is in a bar basement or on a football field, and that smarter audiences will see, in his romantic retread of one or two good movies, the celebration of an entire lofty genre.

Given the attractiveness of the results, I give him good odds to succeed.