The annual bloodbath known as the US summer box office has begun in earnest and already one film has emerged victorious: Ridley Scott's $103m Roman spectacle Gladiator which debuted with $32.7m and utterly slayed all its weekend competition.

Starring Australian actor Russell Crowe as the hero who fights back in the gladiatorial ring after being sold into slavery, Gladiator marks Hollywood's return to the sword-and-sandal epics that made actors like Charlton Heston household names during the 1960s. The film is a co-production between DreamWorks, which handled the North American release, and Universal Pictures, which will distribute overseas.

Although its opening figure falls somewhat short of the $72.1m May record set by The Lost World: Jurassic Park, Gladiator's performance was still impressive, particularly given its R-rating, a running time of 2 hours and 30 minutes and the threat that professional basketball playoff games might siphon off male viewers on Sunday night. The opening figure compares favourably with the current record-holder for R-rated Hollywood films, Air Force One, which grossed around $37m on its first weekend out in 1997.

Gladiator ended up grossing more than the next six movies combined over the weekend, easily dislodging U-571 from the top perch. According to the early estimates, the film averaged $11,130 at each of the 2,938 theatre sites it played, with women making up a surprisingly strong portion of the audience despite all the screen bloodshed and testosterone-heavy combat scenes in the Coliseum.

The fact that such an old-fashioned cinematic genre should be dusted down and find favour again with audiences, despite all the 21st Century distractions of the Internet world, proved even more ironic: this was the same weekend that was supposed to launch the next wave of Hollywood entertainment through the on-line debut of Quantum Project, the first studio-made movie developed specifically for the web.

Even less auspicious this weekend was the opening for Hugh Hudson's I Dreamed Of Africa, which took in a disappointing $2.5m for an average of $1,184 for Columbia Pictures. The adventure film, which is the opening attraction in the Un Certain Regard sidebar in Cannes this year, attracted a reasonable amount of advance press attention on the back of its star Kim Basinger, but suffered at the hands of US critics.

  • Gladiator ($32.7m)
  • U-571 ($7.6m)
  • Frequency ($6.5m)
  • The Flintstones In Viva Rock Vegas ($6.3m)
  • Where the Heart Is ($5m)
  • Love And Basketball ($3.4m)
  • Keeping The Faith ($2.8m)
  • I Dreamed Of Africa ($2.5m)
  • Rules Of Engagement ($2.4m)
  • 28 Days ($2.35m)