Gladiator, a film by veteran director Ridley Scott was released in the summer of 2000 to much critical acclaim. Audiences thrilled to his epic vision of Ancient Rome, an era ignored by moviemakers since the heyday of the peplum (epics set in the Classical World) had come to an end in the sixties. The film was a huge box-office success and has been hailed by cinema lovers as a classic ever since.
The story itself concerns a Roman general’s struggle for vengeance against the Emperor who has killed his wife and son. Captured, he is enslaved and taught to fight as a Gladiator, before been taken to the Colosseum in Rome, where he is given the chance to redeem himself. Winning over the crowds with his excellent combat skills he might just get a chance to enact his revenge and restore the Republic…It’s a story that is well known to many Romanophiles and moviegoers and as such I will not get into too much detail about it. For those who have not seen the film I shall not try to ruin the the experience by giving away too many plot details.
The part of the Gladiator/General – ‘Maximus Meridius’ is aptly played by Australian brawler Russel Crowe. It is hard to imagine how any other actor could better his performance as he manages to pull off his role as a tough hero in the action scenes as well as having the emotional range for Maximus’ most private moments. The scene where he witnesses his wife and son crucified is excellently played by Crowe, showing us he isn’t just an actor who can weild a sword around.
The part of the evil Emperor Commodus is portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix who plays his part with an air of menace, as the disturbed, murderous, incestuous ruler of Rome. Commodus is the most well developed character in the film, he is torn between his love for his father, Marcus Aurelius (a brief cameo part played well by the late Richard Harris) and his hatred of him for disallowing him to become heir to the Empire. A constant theme in the film is his need to be loved either by his sister, Lucilla (Connie Nielsen in a underrated role) or by the ‘mob’ of Rome. It is this need for love which ensures Maximus’s survival, as the Emperor dares not kill him in fear of upsetting the populace. Phoenix is brilliant in depicting the Emperor’s emotional torment and has since shown himself to be a great actor in subsequent films.
Special mention should be made for Oliver Reed, the hellraising actor who died during the film’s production . He plays the part of Proximo, Maximus’s trainer and a lenista from Zuchabarr. Although he plays a minor role, he is among the best actors in the film and is utterly belivable as the tough old rouge bent on making a ‘killing’ through his Gladiator school. The speech where he tells Maximus about his old days as a Gladiator is memorable. For fans of the 1976 BBC drama; I, Claudius, Derek Jacobi (who plays the Emperor in the series) makes an appearance as Senator Gracchus, a man who assists Maximus on his mission and who wants ‘power to reside in the hands of the people’. (an allusion to the Gracchi brothers of the Republic perhaps?)
The film suceeds best at where it tries hardest, and that is in it’s action scenes. Scott has certainly provided us with an adrenaline pumping blood-fest, from the bloody battle in the forests of Germania, through to the nail biting duel between Tigranes of Gaul and his tigers and on to the duel between Maximus and the Emperor. These are among the best action sequnces filmed for a historical epic and this is where the film really shines. Unfortunately the political background story seems rather dull in comparison and lacks some development, you know what is going to happen before it takes place and it lacks the twists and turns to keep the viewer entertained. They seem too tacked on and are only really used as a gap leading up to the next showdown in the arena. Despite this, there are some memorable moments including a scene where Commodus tells Lucilla his plans for the future of the Empire, where “Commodus and his progeny shall rule for a thousand years!”
In terms of historical accuracy, it seems as if Scott hasn’t put much consideration into this field. Just like the ‘re-enactment of the battle of Zama’ sequence in the film, it is specatcle that was important to the ancient Romans (African women on chariots in the place of Scipio’s legionaires) and not the historical truth. As Commodus tells one of his hosts “My history is a little hazy Cassius, but didn’t the barbarians lose the battle of Carthage?” to which Cassius replies “Yes Sire, forgive me Sire!”.
This could very well be the voice of Scott telling us to overlook the inaccuracies and enjoy the spectacle, while asking us to ignore the mistakes. I shall not list these inaccuracies as they are numerous, needless to say the historical consultant for the film sent letters to his colleagues in the academic world asking them for mercy, who knows if they gave him the thumbs up or the thumbs down.
Personally I find the depiction of the city of Rome itself to be strange, it seems too clean, too picturesque and rather sterile compared to the Rome depicted in the HBO series of the same name. Scott has obviously decided to depict the city not as it might have looked, but as most people imagine it to be: a place filled with large temples made of gleaming white marble, with statues and columns strewn across the place.
It was these inaccuracies I found that disappointed me when I first saw the film, but on repeated views I have tended to overlook them and it has become a more enjoyable experience. Perhaps it’s best to swith off your mind somewhat, before popping the film into the DVD player.
Despite these problems Gladiator is an enjoyable film, that doesn’t see itself as a lesson on the Roman Empire but as a spectacle just like that being displayed in the Colosseum. Just as the Ancient Romans thrilled to the clashing of the Gladiators so do modern audiences. Gladiator shows us that we still have many traits in common with our ancient ancestors. The film has many things to recommend about it: great acting, cinematography, a rousing score by Hans Zimmer amongst other things. Since it’s release Gladiator has been responsible for making the epic popular and Hollywood have responded by releasing numerous epic films from Troy to Alexander to Scott’s own Kingdom of Heaven, yet argubally none of these other epics have managed to exceed or equal Gladiator. The Film, like Maximus, still stands triumphant over it’s opponents.
Note: This Review is about the Theatrical Version of the Film and not the extended Director’s Cut.
You can order this DVD online at Amazon