• Following Us

  • Categories

  • Check out the Archives

  • Awards & Nominations

Non-Review Review: Gladiator

My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius, commander of the Armies of the North, General of the Felix Legions, loyal servant to the true emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife. And I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next.

– Maximus sums up the plot in case you were sleeping for the first hour and a half

The general who became a slave. The slave who became a gladiator. The gladiator who defied an emperor. Striking story!

– Commodus also reiterates the plot in case you weren’t paying attention

I think a lot of the appeal of Ridley Scott’s Gladiator rested on the fact we hadn’t seen a film quite like this in over a generation. In the years since we’ve witnessed a rejuvenated genre, with historical epics becoming more and more common. It’s easy to forget the impact of the Ridley Scott’s swords-and-sandals epic in the wake of films like King Arthur, Robin Hood or even Kingdom of Heaven – let alone 300 or shows like Spartacus: Blood & Sand. And yet, even after all these big all-action historical endeavours, there’s still something special about Gladiator.

It's the eye of the tiger...

Perhaps it’s because Gladiator is just good enough that you get caught up enough in the action and the character moments unfolding on screen that you don’t really care that the movie takes quite a few “liberties” with history. The obvious inspiration for the plot seems to have come from Emperor Commodus, the “eccentric” Roman ruler (although it really needs to be placed in context) who seemed to enjoy taking part in his own games. However, the vast majority of the plot is completely made up. Not just what happened on screen, but what happened beforehand – Rome was not founded as  Republic, it was founded as a Kingdom.

Still, none of that matters, because the movie knows what it is doing. Although a supporting role for Derek Jacobi and a cameo from Brian Blessed in the crowd scenes would indicate otherwise, Ridley Scott is not attempting to remake I, Claudius. He’s simply trying to give us a solid old-fashioned adventure movie, packed to the brim with spectacle. And it is. The battle scenes – accompanied by Hans Zimmer’s score (go on, hum it, you know you want to!) – are among the very finest I can recall. Though a reenactment of a classic battle in the Colosseum is the bit that everybody remembers, the individual set pieces are all well-staged (from an opening skirmish against the barbarian hordes through to the final one-on-one swordfight). Indeed that recreation of the Battle of Carthage prompts the following exchange, which perhaps sums up the reason that nobody gets too worked up about the historical inaccuracies presented on film:

My history’s a little hazy Cassius, but aren’t the Barbarians supposed to lose the battle of Carthage?

Yes, Sire. Forgive me, Sire.

No, I rather enjoy surprises.

However, while Scott’s gift for choreography helps make the film remarkable, the movie is elevated above most of the other films within its genre by the performances. The movie features a star-making turn from Russell Crowe, who in one fell swoop earned his first Oscar and cemented his public persona. Crowe is a fantastic leading man, who effortlessly breaths life into Maximus and manages to grant the somewhat straightforward character a great deal of nuance. Maximus isn’t the most complex character ever to exist on film, but perhaps that’s the appeal – his motivations and goals are easy to determine, he’s a character caught up in a tale much more epic and sweeping than even he knew. There is something magical in the way that Scott and Crowe tie Maximus’ quest for vengeance to a greater revolution in Roman society.


A roamin' Emperor returns...

And yet Crowe’s performance tends to overshadow those around him. There is a stunning supporting ensemble. Oliver Reed and Richard Harris lend an oldschool charm to events – the viewer gets the sense that both men are oddly at home within the genre, harking as they do from the twilight of these sorts of swords and sandals epics. Djimon Hounsou is solid in a small supporting role as a fellow gladiator.

However, it’s the work of Joaquin Phoenix which gets unfairly overlooked. In many ways, Commodus is a trite villain. He’s a collection of clichés, all executed in such a way as to make him increasingly unsympathetic. However, it is all in the execution. Phoenix makes him a character who is insidious and creepy… and yet absolutely sinister. He transitions the character throughout the movie from a sinister and insecure little slug to an increasingly capable villain. Despite making the character pitiable, Phoenix enables the audience to truly hate him.

Which brings us to the paradox of the film. It’s interesting that one of the most quoted and remembered moments comes as Maximus, adrenaline coursing through his veins, wallows in his victory in the arena. “Are you not entertained?” he accuses the crowd, his voice raising to a shout, “Are you not entertained?” The point is clear: the audience soothed by blood spilt on sand should really take a look at themselves and their thirst for violence. What does it say about society? Indeed, Scott seems to link Rome’s decline with its decadence. Commodus can’t govern, so his increasingly gratuitous games are designed to placate and distract his subjects. The sight of slaves tossing bread into the stands before the match draws the phrase ‘bread and circuses’ to the forefront of the audience’s mind.

However, Scott seems to undermine any point he’s making about gratuitous violence by making it in a gratuitously violent films. Blood spurts, limbs fly, people are mauled by animals. And we, the audience, are clearly meant to be excited by it (and, to be frank, we are). Maximus could just as easily be speaking through the screen to modern audiences. However, Scott is making his point about violence to an audience watching a violent film. It’s somewhat akin to the problem with Funny Games, a scathing criticism of “torture porn” which would only be watched by people who love torture porn. Gladiator seems to want to point its finger at us and make us realised that violence as entertainment is not necessarily fun, but it ignores the fact that it makes violence fun.

Of course, I am probably reading too much into it (there is of course a difference between Maximus and the coliseum audience’s perception of the violence, which to them is real; and our perspective, which is that it is fake). There is a difference between staged physical harm and actual physical harm, and Maximus may only be speaking out against the later – though I maintain he may be making a general point about any culture which treats violence as entertainment. But I digress.

Gladiator isn’t a perfect film. The plot seems to random ramble along, drawing in different tangents at different times rather than working as one cohesive whole (indeed, the conspiracy angle of the plot is dropped rather quickly in the final plot in favour of a more straightforward ending). A more cynical viewer may dismiss such an ultimately pointless tangent as mere padding (in an already extended film), but it serves to offer the viewer a greater sense of the world, while allowing Commodus to establish himself as an astute and efficient villain. The key point is that the cast and the director are strong enough that these scenes and elements crafted on to a fairly straightforward revenge tale add nuance and depth rather than detracting from the movie’s focus.

Gladiator is a great swords and sandals epic of the kind that, before its release, you might have been forgiven for assuming that Hollywood had forgotten how to make. Sure, it has been a little overhyped since then – I’m not entirely convinced it deserved the Best Picture Oscar, but I don’t actively disagree with it (although Scott probably deserve the Best Director statue he was denied) – but it is a solidly entertaining film which suggests perhaps what Hollywood might have done decades ago had CGI existed.

5 Responses

  1. Great review. I think you nail it on the head that part of the appeal of the movie is that it really returns to the essence of the swords and sandals genre of yesteryear and has most if not all of the elements you want to see in this kind of movie. Also agree with you that Joaquin Phoenix gives an absolutely superb performance for a role that could have so easily been one-dimensional and contrived. Glad to see him back in the business after his lengthy “break”.

  2. Gladiator is one of the greatest Roman based movie ever seen. Russel Crowe is a great actor. I am looking forward for his recent movie Robin Hood. Great review indeed.

    • Have you seen Robin Hood yet? I was a little disappointed, to be honest. But Gladiator… is just pure class on screen.

  3. i do love this film and this review really sumed it up exelently.
    @darren i have to say the robin hood movie was pretty awful and his accent wasnt very good ( he threw a tantrum when somebody criticised his acent)

    • Thanks. I think “pretty awful” is a little harsh, but Robin Hood certainly did have its problems. I am hoping, however, that Scott’s Prometheus is a much stronger film.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: