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Gladiator (2000)
Director: Ridley Scott
Starring Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen, Oliver Reed, Djimon Hounsou
Rated R for violence, gore, and language.

Movie trailers and commercials are often misleading. In many cases, those deceptions are for good reasons: to disguise who falls in love with whom, to conceal which character dies, or to veil the ending. In some cases, however, the studio thinks it can get more people into the theater by advertising a movie as something that it's not. Gladiator, which opens this Friday, is a prime example of the latter. While the commercials would have you think this new film starring Russell Crowe is a blockbuster action pic, it is, in reality, a pensive movie about empire with periodic bursts of battle.

The opening music is the first clue that Gladiator isn't what it seems. Instead of a stirring symphonic score or ear-splitting rock/electronica soundtrack, Hans Zimmer's music is foreboding and meditative. The intertitle that announces the Roman empire (under philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius) is on the verge of conquering the last of the Germanic tribes feels like a disappointing coda rather than a supreme achievement.

All of that soon changes with the battle itself. As Roman general Maximus (Crowe, The Insider) stirs his men like some precursor of Henry V, their worshipful glances attest to his integrity and leadership. The engagement is yet another appropriation of Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg must be giving master classes these days), with jagged editing, quick-moving close-ups, and visceral sound. In the middle of it all is Maximus, swinging his sword like a whirling dervish and inspiring his men to superhuman feats.

After the battle, though, the film returns to its slow, brooding pace. For a big-budget Hollywood picture, Gladiator is surprisingly interested in political and historical questions: who will succeed Marcus Aurelius (his son Commodus is the natural heir, but Marcus favors the honorable general) and the relationship between the Roman Senate and emperor. When Marcus asks Maximus to be emperor or when a Senator approaches him about his allegiance, the movie treats these as more important than the battle that has just transpired.

In the ensuing politics that follow, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix, Return to Paradise) maneuvers himself into the emperor's chair and orders Maximus to be killed. But in the second instance of Russell Crowe kicking some serious behind, he escapes and returns to Spain to reunite with his wife and child. Unfortunately, Commodus's men arrive there before him and slaughter his family. Then, in a confusing scene, Maximus is sold into slavery in North Africa to be gladiator fodder. Little do his opponents know, though, that Maximus is invincible in ways only seen on the big screen. And thus begins his rise to glory and journey to Rome, where he will have the inevitable confrontation with his nemesis.

Despite the good vs. evil conflict and five different gladiator battles, the film moves slowly and ambivalently. Maximus seems more resigned to his fate than enraged to seek revenge; Commodus's sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen, Mission to Mars), an old flame of Maximus, tries to help our hero but not with much passion, and the hinted-at romance never comes to fruition; and even Commodus, certainly a despicable individual (first lusting after his sister and then blackmailing her), is shown as someone who might also have Rome's glory at heart.

So what should we make of this slow-moving blockbuster? As the so-called American Century concludes, it's hard not to see some of this country's strengths and weaknesses echoed in Commodus's declining Roman Empire. And director Ridley Scott (Blade Runner) subtly amplifies these ideas--the Roman Empire has defeated all of its enemies, its army is far superior to anyone else's (the flaming arrows it rains on the Germanic tribe are strangely evocative of the cruise missiles America has grown so dependent on), its leader squabbles with the Senate, and the people care more about violent entertainment and instant gratification than any long-term future. And when Commodus is asked, "What is the greatness of Rome?", his response "It's an idea, a vision" would fit nicely into most America-first history textbooks.

British-born director Scott offers no solutions except for the great man of integrity. This, too, feels like a rebuke of contemporary America, particularly its current president. I don't know how many times Maximus pines for his wife, but it has to be at least a half-dozen occasions. Furthermore, his refusal to cut deals or take the easy road is stirring, if simplistic. And when Maximus rides a white horse into the arena, even the most cynical spectator will probably feel a tingle down his back.

While the story might forego Hollywood's traditional tropes, Gladiator has the sort of costumes and production design that only come from a budget approaching $100 million. The opening battle scene is a stunning melange of helmets, armor, and swords of all kinds. The emperor's palace is lush and fabulous; and the digital recreation of the Coliseum is suitably spectacular. Scott's palette of grays and browns is appropriate and beautiful.

Crowe's acting style, in a character a far cry from his middle-aged paunch in The Insider, is impressive and heroic. The only drawback is the flatness of a man who's too good for this world. Phoenix as Commodus has the task of combining power-mad insanity with something of an introspective quality, a feat he pulls off well. The other actors, including Richard Harris and the late Oliver Reed, all handle their assignments with skill, if not gusto. 

In many ways, Gladiator succeeds on its own terms. Unfortunately, most first-weekend audiences will be expecting something very different. 

J. Robert Parks

Gladiator, one of the summer's surefire blockbusters, has arrived. And people are going to love it. Sticking closely to the tried-and-true model of the revenge story, probably the easiest crowd-pleaser of all, it tells the story of a wronged man determined to kill his enemy. There are some noises made about higher causes (the salvation of Rome, strength and honor, etc.,) but it's clear...we're rooting for the good guy to plunge his sword into the bad guy's guts. And it works...audiences are cheering. It's big, noisy, violent, and so shallow you can hardly splash in it.

I'd love to discuss the characters of Gladiator, but there aren't any. There are only archetypes, basic Good Guys and Bad Guys.  Maximus (Russell Crowe) is a great but reluctant Roman general who loves his family and his farm. Maximus strong. Maximus handsome. Maximus good.

Then there is Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), the son of Caesar. You know he's the bad guy right away: he sneers a lot, and his name is, well, Commodus. Commodus hates Maximus because Caesar (Richard Harris) would prefer to see his general rather than his son succeed him on the throne. Commodus coward. Commodus bad. Commodus liar. Commodus murderer. Enough? Commodus has sickening crush on his own sister (Connie Nielsen). Do you need any more convincing? Commodus BAD. 

In a jealous rage, Commodus kills his own father, tries to kill Maximus, and seizes the throne. Automatically, the followers of Marcus Aurelieus (the film portrays him as an honorable and even kind Caesar) have without hestitation become mindless puppets, evil robots, doing the barbaric will of stupid, wicked Commodus. Maximus escapes his own death sentence only to find he's too late to save his family. And so we return to the dilemma that made Braveheart such a crowd pleaser...and Mad Max...and [insert more Mel Gibson blockbuster revenge stories here.] 

Don't worry, I'm not giving away any surprises. This is all in the first half hour. And the movie doesn't have much more story to tell. The rest of it is sound and fury.

The story might have been intriguing if Maximus had become a real character. Unfortunately, he becomes sympathetic only because we see him suffer one trial after another. That's the easy way to make an audience care about someone...beat them senseless with misfortune and injustice. Who is Maximus really? We're given no scenes of him with his family so that we care about them as individuals, but we are given scenes of their grisly end. (His son is played by the boy from Life is Beautiful, so we automatically adore him.) We are given no scenes of Maximum working the farm. He DOES have a loyal dog; we learn that clearly and early. But the dog disappears during the first battle and, inexplicably, is never seen again. What happened? Is he dead? Is he still running through the woods? The opportunities to develop Maximus' character are innumerable, and not one of them is taken. 

Maximus' life will get worse before it gets better. He's dragged off by slave traders (who came from where exactly? How did they know where to find a wounded and solitary man on the run?) He is sold to a trainer of gladiators, Proximo, and makes a name for himself by fearlessness in combat. Soon, he's prancing around like a professional wrestler, but carrying that politically correct disdain towards such violence. "Are you not entertained?" he sneers at the crowd. His fame spreads, and when Commodus, now a self-centered Caesar, re-opens the Colosseum for carnage, Maximus and his cohorts are off to be the main attraction. Maximus' journey from general to slave to training to the Colosseum happens in, oh, about fifteen minutes. Why slow down and tell a story? Why waste time? There is blood to shed!

Surely, you say, this movie has more to offer than violent spectacles! See the grand visual re-creation of ancient Rome! Look...the Colosseum! Look...people wearing togas! Look...senators! Do we get to explore the streets? Do we hear anything about what makes Rome great? Do we learn anything about life in this rarely filmed chapter of history?

Not really. The "good guys" talk about saving Rome, and that is made to sound like a good idea. But the characters can't put into words what it is they are trying to save. "Rome is an idea." "Rome is a dream." "Rome is... a whisper." That's as intelligible as a sound-bite campaign commercial! And while the movie wants us to cheer for the dreamers with undefined principles, the film itself seems to be custom-made entertainment for people with appetites like Commodus himself. No politics, no thinking, no exploration, no soul-searching. Just violence. "What goes on in Rome?" you might ask anybody who sees this film. "Gladiators fight and get killed there" is all they've been given to say. 

The digital animation that raises this empire from the dust is sometimes pretty, but too-often shoddy. Except in the Colosseum, Rome is cast in a strange light that makes it look like the set for a perfume commercial, populated by large flocks of birds under strange skies. This film might make people appreciate the depth of field in the landscapes and cities of The Phantom Menace a little better.

Trying to keep up with the film's breakneck pace, an admirable cast does their best with what they have. Ridley Scott depends on Richard Harris, Derek Jacobi, Oliver Reed, and the indisputably talented Russell Crowe to bring weight to this film. To their credit, they do make the year's flattest, dumbest dialogue sound almost interesting. Joaquin Phoenix does his best as the sniveling Caesar-wannabe, but he is left with silly lines like, "I am vexed by him. He vexes me."

Perhaps the truest words of the movie are given to Proximo (Reed) the trainer. He admits that he is an entertainer, that he exists because people are drawn to bloodsport. That screaming crowd in the Colliseum is Rome's true heart...people who get their jollies watching carnage. (I found myself longing to find Eric Idle and John Cleese dressed in togas somewhere in the grandstands, or Blackadder, just to provide a moment of humor for relief.) 

And it's all rushing to the by-the-numbers showdown. No sooner does Commodus declare "I will not make a martyr of him!" than he decides to challenge Maximus to public one-on-one combat. Huh?

As bloodthirsty as the mob, Director Ridley Scott seems deliriously happy whipping up whirlwinds of violence. But he doesn't even do that well. He borrows camera speed-tricks from Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan without learning how to use them effectively. As a result, the audience sees a lot of action, but has no sense of where the players are on the field, and rarely sees how anybody accomplishes anything. Imagine trying to watch a fight while having yourself beat up and you'll have the idea.  I doubt the actors even had to learn how to use a sword; the camera never stays on them long enough to show a duel. The battles display none of the art that gave at least aesthetic value to the duels in The Phantom Menace and Rob Roy. I guess we're supposed to buy the DVD so we can use slow-motion to determine just how Maximus wins these contests.

Are we ever worried that Maximus might not get his revenge? Is there any suspense built here at all? No. It's all happening too fast, and too loudly, with the accompaniment of an awful, overbearing soundtrack (Hans Zimmer).

Gladiator is Braveheart 2; in fact, it's Braveheart dumbed-down, if you can imagine that. One can imagine the conversation that Ridley Scott had with Russell Crowe : "Remember when Mel Gibson played William Wallace? Remember how he looked exhausted, numb with pain, and still kept fighting?" "Yes." "Do that." "Anything else?" "There isn't time for anything else."

The film's burglaries go much further than that. One romantic flashback, which is used again and again and again, is a close-up of our hero's hand gliding through the wheat of the farm he loves. This is a blatant rip-off from Terrance Malick's beautiful work Days of Heaven, almost an exact copy. If a songwriter can sue a pop singer for stealing a melody, can any legal action be taken against something like this?

Yes, I'm going to have to make the comparison I was most afraid of... Gladiator is the World Wrestling Federation in historical costume. Or worse. At least WWF doesn't pretend to have historical significance. I might go so far as to call Gladiator pornographic, in that it seeks to please our senses, to appease our appetite for something inappropriate, while it tries to make itself feel better with feeble if-you-blink-you-miss-it conversations between one-dimensional characters. But these conversations aren't about sex... they're about the dream of Rome... whatever that is. So I guess it's okay then.

There's nothing wrong with wanting to see the bad guy get justice. And there's nothing wrong with responding to one of our most elemental stories. This is a metaphor that resonates with us..."A hero will rise." It's the story of David and Goliath. But a Christian audience might reach for something more, might hope to see a character learn something, might search for a glimpse of mercy. I don't remember Christ urging anybody on for revenge when he, the greatest of heroes, was done wrong. "Strength and honor" are Maximus' ethics. Listen, though, to the audience as they leave the theatre. Are they talking about having been moved by honor and justice? Or are they going "wow" at the big noisy bloodshed so spectacularly delivered? What was this movie really about?

Watch how the mobs run to Gladiator in the modern colosseum. Watch how they'll make this the blockbuster of the summer. And, God forbid, watch for it at the Academy Awards. 

Jeffrey Overstreet 5/14/2000

Jeffrey Overstreet writes regular reviews, news, and essays on the arts and Christian perspectives at the Green Lake Reflections web page and in The Crossing, a magazine for Christian artists.  He has been published in Christianity and the Arts Magazine, The New Christian Herald, and AngliCan Arts Magazine, and he is a founding member of Promontory Artists Association.  You can contact Jeffrey at Promontory@aol.com


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