The Best of Pictures: Gladiator (2000), by Josh Long

8 Dec

Directed by: Ridley Scott
Written by: David Franzoni, John Logan, William Nicholson
Starring: Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen, Richard Harris

Ancient Rome is a subject that has captured the imagination of the cinema for years. The pomp and circumstance, the epic war stories, the myths and legends of the Caesars have given us many of cinema’s great films. While they remained popular into the 70s, American movies tended to shy away from Rome for much of the 80s and 90s. But Ridley Scott brought us back to the Coliseum with 2000’s Best Picture winner Gladiator.

Gladiator is an epic modern tragedy. Its focus spans the entire Roman Empire, from distant North Germania to Spain, to the city of Rome itself. It deals with the rise and fall of emperors, generals, senators, and of course, gladiators. And it seems to follow an almost Sophoclean tragedy plot. Maximus (Russell Crowe) is a decorated general betrayed by the emperor’s son, who finds his wife and son murdered, is captured by slave traders, and kills his way to the top in the Coliseum, where he will ultimately meet his fate 1.

Oscar loves epics, and I think it was the setting and tone that allowed the Academy to look past the spectacular violence that might otherwise hurt a contender. The story has a classical feel to it, and is easily identifiable. Russell Crowe’s performance is rather one note 2, but in all fairness that’s really all the character calls for. Maximus fights for two things, family and country. His motives are clear, easy to read, and he follows that line directly. As a warrior, he has a basic objective, and fights to achieve it, without any of that “meaning” nonsense in the way. Probably the most complex character is that of Commodus, made wonderfully revolting by Joaquin Phoenix’s eerie performance. Commodus has deep issues, making him the kind of villain that we enjoy watching. He probably has as many lines in the film as Maximus.

One of the other things that drew praise for Gladiator was the re-creation of ancient Rome. Even if the special effects seem commonplace by today’s standards, they still do a very good job of making the world look authentic. But while those special effects help the movie, some of the other effects choices aren’t as effective. The slow-motion techniques employed will look somewhat jerky and outdated to many viewers. The way Scott uses a slightly lower frame rate (20 maybe?) in some of the battle scenes (particularly the first one) is a technique that looks great, 3 but the occasional use of a jerkier slow motion, maybe the fault of outdated post-production slow-mo, doesn’t work as well.

While I enjoy Gladiator from a pure entertainment perspective, I must admit that it’s a little thin when it comes to themes. There are a lot of potential themes that could be dealt with here. America has often been compared to the Roman Empire, but there seems to be little if any effort to consider that comparison. In the same way, there is the “entertainment” issue – ancient Rome’s otherwise sophisticated society turned to pure barbarism for entertainment. This raises interesting questions about the nature and boundaries of amusement, but the film chooses to deal with this only in passing. That said, the viewer really does get the sense of what it was like to watch a gladiator fight. With the theatrics and the surging crowd, it almost feels like a football game. Upon rewatching it, I almost found myself responding to a good kill like I would to a hail-mary touchdown. The excitement of the event is captured perfectly, even if the film chooses not to focus so much on the ethics of the situation.

The themes that it does highlight are those of honor and dedication. It’s quite a patriotic movie, if you think about it. Maximus sacrifices everything for his belief in a people’s empire. They’re noble, but basic ideals around which to center a movie, but it’s safe to say that the story is the point of the movie, not the message. And the story unfolds in an exciting and well-structured way. An interesting reversal of fortune is when former Roman general Maximus finds himself fighting against the same empire he once defended – the loyal subject has become the rebel.

As an Oscar winner, I can understand the movie’s appeal. At the same time, I feel like Traffic, also nominated that year, had a lot more punch to it. Steven Soderbergh’s film dealt with much deeper issues in a way that was and still is very relevant, and it does so with a stunning artistic approach. But as scale and spectacle often win out over artistic panache, it isn’t too much of a surprise. At least Soderbergh went home with Best Director.

Gladiator is a film that will be exciting to watch over and over, even if it doesn’t change your life. There are solid performances, lots of eye candy, lions, and tigers (but no bears). It’s absolutely worth seeing, and a valid entry into the Best Picture catalogue.

1. Spartacus meets Payback, maybe?

2. While I don’t find any fault in the performance, it surprises me to see how much praise critics heaped on Crowe at the time. Many suggested that without Crowe, there was no movie, and while he clearly is the story’s center, it’s not that dynamic of a performance.

3. Scott was apparently heavily influenced by Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, and wanted to replicate that same “in the middle of the action” feel.

One Response to “The Best of Pictures: Gladiator (2000), by Josh Long”

  1. Liz December 12, 2009 at 3:24 am #

    "it’s not that dynamic of a performance."

    Have to disagree. I don't know how an actor could have committed himself more wholeheartedly, physically and emotionally, to a film.
    Crowe is – very firmly -the heart and soul of the film.
    And the film would have been a joke with anyone but him.

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