Gladiator

Gladiator (2000) Director: Ridley Scott

“Are You Not Entertained? Is This Not Why You Are Here?”

A man standing at the center of the image is wearing armor and is holding a sword in his right hand. In the background is the top of the Colosseum with a barely visible crowd standing in it. The poster includes the film's title and credits.

★★★★★

Gladiator is the essential modern warrior-revenge epic film. It reinvigorated the historical epic film from its long dormant slumber. Of course, the film stars Russell Crowe, in his finest performance as the Spaniard-Roman general, Maximus Decimus Meridius or “The Spaniard,” alongside Joaquin Phoenix as Commodus, the pale and greedy son who murders his father, the noble Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris). Maximus is favored by Marcus Aurelius 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 seizes power, Maximus is dismissed and ordered to be killed, but he escapes from the Praetorian guard and races home to Spain where his estate is destroyed, and his wife and children have been crucified. Battered from his injuries, Maximus collapses and is sold into slavery. As a slave, Maximus quickly proves himself a skilled gladiator, entertaining large crowds, until he is brought to fight at the Colosseum in Rome. 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, 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 film’s script was constantly being revised and rewritten right up until completion. Character names were changed and various endings were considered. Russell Crowe, a notoriously difficult to star for directors to work with, became something of a loose canon. Many of the actors 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, who was apparently a nightmare to work with on the set, always attempting to rewrite the script). There are some marvelous special effects in the film 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 early Hollywood.

The 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, as well. It 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

Jean-Leon Gerome Pollice Verso.jpg

Gladiator is an excellent film, one of the best of the 2000s to be sure. It is exciting, horrifying, tragic, vengeful and yet satisfying all at once. It is well-cast, surely one of Russell Crowe’s best performances and also the same for Joaquin Phoenix. The Hans Zimmer score for the film is brilliant, and the cinematography is excellent, although hazy and depressing at times, giving the film a gritty and dark undertone, following 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 deliberate) Gladiator is a great film.

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