In my review for Hans Zimmer's King Arthur, I mentioned the fact that I prefer Hans Zimmer's scores to large-scale epics to those for straight action films. Gladiator is the first of those epics, and though many say it is simultaneously the best, I disagree. As a listening experience, both The Last Samurai and King Arthur are more satisfying. That's not to say that Gladiator isn't a great album, though, and the sheer number of later scores that have lifted style from it is amazing.
Gladiator's first two tracks open with two of the trademarks that have become so thoroughly overused in later "epic" scores, some may find it annoying here - the use of the duduk, and Lisa Gerrard's "wailing woman" vocals. However, this is where all those derivative epics got their inspiration - back in 2001, this was a novel concept and there's no denying it works very well in the film over those waving wheat fields that, yes, have since been overused (most blatantly by 300, whose controversial score by Tyler Bates also borrows somewhat from Gladiator).
"The Battle" is one of Gladiator's longest and strongest tracks, though it got Hans Zimmer in a peck of trouble when the Gustav Holst foundation decided it sounded too much like "Mars, Bringer of War" for their tastes. The influences are certainly there, but they are no more blatant than they were in Star Wars. It's a great action piece that never lets you go, and represents a big shift from the chaotic action of Zimmer's 90s scores towards the more harmonious, easy-to-follow action in Zimmer's 2000s scores (especially Pirates of the Caribbean, which took more than a bit of inspiration from Gladiator). It's a shift that I am immensely grateful for.
Gladiator's middle section lacks cohesion sometimes. The stronger tracks, like "Earth" and "To Zucchabar", are more ethnically oriented - the former introduces a nice but somewhat underachieving, lilting main theme, while the latter offers some beautiful duduk work by Armenian artist Djivan Gasparyan. These are offset by more dull tracks such as "Patricide", which takes inspiration from The Thin Red Line in its dramatic shifting strings.
"The Might of Rome", though, sets the score firmly back on the epic track, shifting from an epic crescendo with some ethnic percussion into music that can very well be described as Wagnerian (indeed, it lifts quite obviously from Siegried's Funeral March). "Strength and Honor", too, has certain elements of Wagner in its slow, melodramatic progressions.
"Slaves to Rome", a short, monumental and surprisingly bolero-like piece, segues directly into the second of Gladiator's two ten-minute action tracks, "Barbarian Horde". It's just as strong as "The Battle", and reprises several themes, including the main theme from "Earth", presented in a far more monumental way here than in that earlier track. The end offers a massive statement of Maximus' theme (which was heard on horn at the beginning of "The Battle"), aided by a chorus and some absolutely massive orchestrations. This is the only moment where Gladiator truly transcends Zimmer's later epics. It's just a shame that, while King Arthur managed to keep this level of melodrama running for minutes on end, these moments are fewer and farther between in Gladiator.
Lisa Gerrard's New Age sensibilities show in "Elysium," which she composed with help from Klaus Badelt. Hans Zimmer offers a short statement of the Earth theme in "Honor Him". Then, at the end of the album, the two themes are combined in Gladiator's most famous piece, "Now We Are Free". I'm not usually a fan of the sickly-sweet, barbershop mentality of New Age music, but Zimmer's Earth theme especially lends itself well to Gerrard's voice in this piece, and it's a fitting end to Gladiator.
My biggest bone with this score is that it somewhat lacks a coherent personality, a problem neither King Arthur nor The Last Samurai encounter. Gladiator switches between ethnic orchestration, brassy Holst-esque action and New Age vocals too often to make it a coherent listening experience. All three of these styles are handled excellently by Zimmer and Gerrard, but they do rub against each other somewhat on album.
Despite all this, Gladiator is a monumental effort and a truly defining score in Zimmer's career. I am grateful to Gladiator because it moved Zimmer away from his punchy, frenetic 90s action scores and towards the superior, large-scale epics he has been regularly composing in the 3rd millenium.