Gladiator (2000) Director: Ridley Scott
“Are You Not Entertained? Is This Not Why You Are Here?”
An essential modern warrior-revenge film, Gladiator reinvigorated historical epic movie-making from its long dormant slumber. Starring Russell Crowe in his finest performance as the Spaniard-Roman general, Maximus Decimus Meridius or “The Spaniard,” he is joined by Joaquin Phoenix as Commodus, the pale and greedy son who murders his father, the noble Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris). The warrior Maximus is favored by Marcus Aurelius over his own son, for his many victories in war including against the Goths, and thus he is expected to succeed emperor Marcus Aurelius as ruler of Rome. However, when Commodus violently seizes power, Maximus is dismissed and left for dead but Maximus escapes from the Praetorian guard and races home to Spain where tragically his estate has been destroyed. His wife and children have been crucified in the ultimate moral transgression. Battered from his injuries Maximus collapses and is sold into slavery. As a slave, Maximus quickly proves himself to be a skilled gladiator, entertaining large crowds, until he is brought to Rome to fight in the Colosseum. His identity is revealed as he defies the will of the emperor and even Cicero meets with him in private to arrange an escape and a coup d’etat, as his armies are still faithful, but it fails and Maximus is brought back to the ring to fight. After defeating every great warrior, Maximus finally reveals his identity to the Emperor before Commodus, himself, enters into battle against Maximus. He secretly stabs Maximus before the fight in order to gain the upper hand, but Maximus nevertheless kills Commodus. Before he dies, Maximus calls for reforms in Rome. The film closes as he appears again with his family among wheat fields, after death.
The plot for the film is based on Daniel P. Mannix’s 1958 novel, Those About To Die, however the script was constantly being revised and rewritten right up until completion. Character names were changed and various endings were being reconsidered. Russell Crowe, a notoriously difficult star for directors to work with, became something of a loose cannon –and he was not alone. Many of the actors on the set of Gladiator were rowdy alcoholics, including the notorious bing drinker Oliver Reed. While Reed mostly abstained from drinking during the day for filming, while on a break in Malta Oliver Reed got into a drinking match with a group of sailors. He apparently drank eight pints of German lager, a dozen shots of rum, half a bottle of whiskey and a few shots of Hennessy cognac and arm-wrestled several sailors before collapsing and dying en route to the hospital. Reed’s tragic death brought further rewrites to the script for Reed’s character Proximo, the slave-owner who purchases Maximus.
Gladiator predictably swept the Academy Awards, winning Best Picture, as well as Best Actor (Russell Crowe was apparently a nightmare to work with on the set by always attempting to rewrite the script). There are some marvelous special effects in this film designed to recreate Rome, as well as to re-animate the late Oliver Reed. Gladiator is a “swords and sandals” epic that hearkens back to an earlier kind of film-making in old Hollywood.
This film pulls from a rich history of Roman lore, though some pieces of the film are anachronistic – outfits, helmets, and gladiators would have been plugging products to sell in the ring. Gladiator draws upon allusions to I, Claudius, the famous novel, as well as ancient writings from Plutarch and the film Spartacus. Also of influence to the film was Pollice Verso 1872 (“with a well-turned thumb” in Latin) by: Jean-Léon Gérôme
Gladiator is exciting, horrifying, tragic, vengeful and yet satisfying all at once. It is well-cast, Hans Zimmer’s score is inspiring, and the cinematography is gripping, although hazy and depressing at times, giving the film a uniquely gritty and dark undertone keeping in line with the modern view that life in antiquity was “solitary, nasty, brutish, and short…” Despite its extreme violence and minor historical inaccuracies (which were intentional) Gladiator is a truly great and enduring film.