Gladiator: Roman Empire Epic

Whenever you see the name “Ridley Scott” behind a director chair, you are almost never guaranteed real quality. Director Ridley Scott’s filmography exemplifies the nature of his films, which tend to be very expensive and super futuristic. There are a handful of unalloyed masterpieces, like Alien and Blade Runner but then look at GI Jane or Hannibal, films best described as risible and execrable.

Amazingly sandwiched between the last two is a work that sits easily among Scott’s best. The magnificent Gladiator sprawling, enthralling Roman orgy of blood, passion, betrayal and revenge. It is monumental movie-making: visually thrilling, technically astonishing, and emotionally engaging. When an actor commits himself to a role as fully as Russell Crowe does in the grandiose Gladiator, you may ask yourself why and at the same time thank him for his absorption in the part.

The cinematography, whether depicting the bone-crunching, flesh-tearing horrors of battle or the imperial decadence of second-century Rome, is outstanding (anachronistic, computer-generated “helicopter” shot of the Colosseum included). Ridley Scott, filmed the perfume ad; he made most of Chanel’s more memorable spots. Mr. Scott’s inhuman, glossy style is fey and terse: postcards from Mount Olympus. At least that’s where Gladiator seems to take place — there or some other mythical area, since the Roman Colosseum is roughly the size of the Death Star from Star Wars, thanks to the magic of computer graphics. With each scene composed for an audience’s delectation of the constant slaughter, the movie is both pandering and detached. It’s like a handsomely designed weapon: you can’t take your eyes off it even though you may be repelled by its purpose.

Gladiator is set in 180 AD, and uses actual historical personages and events for background. The events that transpire in the film are largely fictional, but they blend in well with the known facts. The Roman Empire is in full blossom, having survived the excesses of one corrupt emperor after the next. The latest Caesar, Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris), is a scholar who has taken to the battlefield to repel a barbarian threat from Germania. To that end, he has invaded, relying upon the leadership and valor of his best general, Maximus (Russell Crowe), to win the day. Maximus does not disappoint, and the Emperor privately decides to name him a his successor — a decision that does not sit well with Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), Marcus’ son. In a fit of rage and grief, he kills his father, then has Maximus taken away to be executed. The general, however, escapes death, slaying his would-be killers, then races home to protect his wife and son. But he is too late — by the time he arrives, they are both dead, and he is soon taken prisoner by slave-traders. Along with his new friend Juba (Djimon Hounsou), he is bought by Proximo (Oliver Reed), an owner and trainer of Gladiators. Recognizing Maximus’ potential, Proximo grooms him for a trip to Rome’s Coliseum.

For Ridley Scott, Gladiator is a return to form after spending the better part of a decade wandering in a post Thelma & Louise wasteland. Here he takes a genre which was on life support for 40-odd years and pounds it back into glorious existence. True, Scott is little concerned with historical accuracy and will be hammered for the film’s multiple transgressions. But like Kubrick’s schizophrenic Spartacus, Gladiator’s closest screen relative, it’s also a work which will triumphantly stand the test of time. The atmospherics are so strong that you can almost smell the sweat pouring from the Colosseum as Crowe battles man and beast for the entertainment of the Roman masses.

But, wisely, Scott’s chief concern remains mythic storytelling, following Maximus’ path from hero, to slave, to gladiator, to de facto revolutionary, a stoic empowered as much by his own inner strength as his skills in the arena. It’s the stuff that ignites the Roman world which surrounds him. It’s also the stuff from which great movie heroes are born. For all the epic majesty worthy of Cecil B DeMille or David Lean, Scott’s greatest accomplishment is simply keeping his camera on Russell Crowe.

In a sense, Crowe is playing the same character that he did so well in both LA Confidential and The Insider: the brooding and indomitable, but reluctant hero. Unlike those previous efforts, however, Gladiator had blockbuster written all over it. If LA Confidential and The Insider heralded the New Zealander’s arrival as a leading actor of his generation, Gladiator is his passport to stardom.

Perhaps Scott’s greatest achievement with Gladiator is neither keeping the pacing of a 2 1/2 hour movie tight nor choreographing a spectacular battle scene, but creating a second-century Rome that is entirely credible and stunning in its detail. Ancient Rome is one of the most romanticized civilizations in the history of humanity, and rarely has it been brought to life with the grandeur of this film. The Coliseum, for example, has been resurrected to its full glory (largely through the use of digital technology). Gladiator consistently looks good, although, during some of the fights, rapid cutting creates a sense of disorientation and confusion.

One minor stumbling block for the film is an occasional tendency towards moments of pretension. One of Gladiator’s themes is that power comes through controlling the mob. Successful gladiators are those who not only sate the crowd’s desire for blood, but do so in an entertaining fashion. From time-to-time, a character will make a florid, preachy speech about this (or some other issue). We get snippets of dialogue like “The beating heart of Rome is not the marble of the Senate, it’s the sand of the Coliseum.” (Delivered by Jacobi, the line sounds positively Shakespearean.) There’s nothing wrong with injecting social commentary about the bestial nature of human beings into a movie like Gladiator. My argument is that it should be more subtle. But that’s a minor quibble.

Gladiator enjoys a solid foundation in the strength of Maximus, the vividness of its evocation of the Roman world and the integrity of the story arc. Script by David Franzoni, John Logan and William Nicholson shrewdly appropriates touchstone moments from previous epics, just as it also cuts down the talk to a minimum when possible; there is none of the windy speechifying that ground many an epic to a halt in decades past. The action is presented in strictly Roman terms, with none of the Judeo-Christian angle so common to the genre in the 50s.

The film revels in both the glory and the horror that were Rome. Proximo’s luminous description of the Colosseum to Maximus beautifully conjures an image of what was then the center of the universe, and the games themselves are presented in context as gaudy, lowbrow entertainment. Countless details in Arthur Max’s brilliant production design and Janty Yates’ highly diversified costume design are offered up in wonderfully offhand fashion.

Crowe is simply splendid, every inch the warrior with his image of a tranquil domestic life an emblazoned but irretrievable memory. Phoenix makes for a more neurotic, internalized Commodus than the gleeful maniac created by Christopher Plummer in “Roman Empire,” a coddled youngster literally in love (and lust) with his sister. As the latter, Nielsen has a consummately regal beauty and bearing; when her father says, “If only you would have been born a man, what a Caesar you would have made,” it’s instantly credible. Harris is excellent as the philosopher emperor (played by Alec Guinness in 1964) who rues having spent most of his career making war, and supporting players Jacobi, Hounsou and a corpulent David Hemmings as the clownishly bewigged emcee at the Colosseum make distinctly favorable impressions.

But the scene stealer, in his last role before his death on location, is Reed, who hadn’t brought such relish to a performance in years, and to whom the film is dedicated. Proximo’s excitement over being able to return to Rome brings out the old man’s boyish delight in his profession, which he insists is just “entertainment,” and Reed clearly reveled in both the physicality and the modestly hammy opportunities the part presented.

It’s an epic tale, most of it pure fiction but eloquently told. But, though the film bagged five Oscars, including best picture and best actor, its endlessly quotable script (“At my signal, unleash hell”; “What we do in life echoes in eternity”) was stiflingly overlooked.

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