starring Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Richard Harris, Oliver Reed, Derek Jacobi and Connie Nielsen
written by David Franzoni, John Logan and William Nicholson
directed by Ridley Scott
I usually watch movies on video rather than on the big screen in a movie theater because movie theaters cost so much, the crowds are not lonely unpleasant but dangerous, and besides, being with other people isn’t my thing. Each year I see, maybe, one movie in a theater. This year, that movie was gladiator. I knew from movie reviews in the newspaper that there was a lot of action and spectacular war scenes and I thought I ought to see such things on the big screen for the best effect.
Gladiator is the fist big Roman movie out of Hollywood in about forty years, since Charlton Heston starred in Ben Hurand Elizabeth Taylor in The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire and Cleopatra. One reason may be because the public grew tired of the genre. Or maybe producers grew tired of the expense. It could be the expense of the cost of hiring so many extras. (The Guinness Book of World Records credits Ben Hur with the most extras ever.)
In Gladiator, many of the crowds scenes in the Coliseum consisted of computer-generated figures rather than real life extra actors, and I thought it looked okay.
I like to compare Gladiator with Ben Hur first, because the latter was the one big Roman movie of my own childhood, and second because the two movies look so different. Whereas the Heston movie was visually very bright (studio lighting), showing the Mediterranean world in hot yellow sunlight, the Russell Crowe movie is rather dark. It opens with a gruesome, gripping battle scene in the forests of Germany in northern Europe during the winter. Dark and cold. What the first twenty minutes of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan is to modern war battle scenes, the opening of Gladiator is to movies about ancient Rome.
Furthermore the city of Romeitself comes across quite differently. In older movies Romeseems clean, made of stone, peopled by loquacious toga-clad senators and soldiers. But in the Ridley Scot production the darkness of the opening scene carries over into the rest of the movie and Rome looks dark, too. Filthy hovels crowd the streets. The population is loud, crude beyond belief, and any semblance of culture, civilization or even plain, common civility is only narrowly present. I kind of feel that this is a more accurate portrayal of what the ancient city was like.
It is a very long movie - almost 2½-hours. I think it ought to have been able to have told a better story in less time. General Maximus (Crowe) is favored by the dying Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) to succeed him as emperor and lead the empire back to being a Republic, rule by the people through the Senate. But the Emperor’s immoral, dishonorable son, Commodus (Jaoquin Phoenix) learns that he is a bout to be passed over for the throne and secretly murders his father and sends his guards to do the same to Maximus. One thing lead to another and Maximus not only escapes death, but ends up as a slave, training to be a gladiator. Next, he finds himself in the Coliseum in Romefighting before the new Emperor who does not recognize his rival. His prowess in the circus leads Commodus to walk into the ring for a personal audience. This is where he learns with a shock that Maximus lives, and Maximus delivers the lines that are on everyone’s lips. “I will have my revenge in this life or the next.”
Of course, he gets his revenge in this life. That’s the whole point.
Whenever I watch movies like this I have to think about ho historically accurate they are. Then I can see how modern thinking about politics and society are written into the script, either by accident or on purpose. Gladiators fighting to the death in front of large crows is such a mainstay of our modern world’s idea of Rome that it would do us good to think critically about how it is being used in entertainment.
If you like fast, gory action then you should definitely see this movie. If you are a Richard Harris fan, then you should see this movie. And if you want to see the last great performance of Oliver Reed, then you really must see this movie. Reed was a famous drinker and ladies man. He died while making the film in Maltaafter a drinking binge with some British sailors. I remember when it was in the in the newspapers.