Tuesday, March 13, 2012


(May 2000, U.S.)

When the new century began twelve years ago, it looked to me (for a time) that the movie were going to be something wonderful and it was greatly in part to Ridley Scott's GLADIATOR. Scott was returning the movies to a time of great historical epics that had barely graced the screens since William Wyler's BEN-HUR (1959), Stanley Kubrick's SPARTACUS (1960) and Anthony Mann's THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE (1964). In fact, except for the 21st Century updates of excessive bloody violence and some computer-generated images, the ideas and themes of this sort of film didn't change too much.

Like Charlton Heston and Kirk Douglas before him, Russell Crowe as General Maximus Decimus Meridius (say THAT ten times fast!) is the quintessential ancient hero who rises out of the ashes of his own slavery to defeat the powers of the Roman Empire. But when he's not slaughtering his enemies on the battlefield, he appears to be a gentle man at heart whose only real desire is to return to his farm and his family. Like any cliche element of its type, though, there is the cruel enemy in the form of Commodus (played by Joaquin Phoenix), the son of the dying elderly Emperor Marcus Aurelius (played by the great Richard Harris) whose ambition for greed and power (and to sleep with his sister, I might add) threaten not only the hero, but the fate and future of Rome itself. Commodus, however, is not like your typical political movie bad guy. His only real power derives from his need to over-compensate for his pathetic weakness and cowardess. Notice how at the beginning of the film he conveniently arrives at the great battle's end only to ask so innocently, "Have I missed it? Have I missed the battle?" to which his father replies, "You have missed the war." You can hear very well the disappointment and disapproval being handed from father to son. It's the lack of a father's love for his son that ultimately creates evil in this story.

I mentioned earlier the great violence in GLADIATOR. This is not to say that it isn't fun to watch, though. Let's face it - our streaks of human barbarism cannot help but flinch in excitement every time Maximus slays an enemy soldier. The battles here are bloody, but spectacular to the viewer's eye, nonetheless. I especially love the added element of the tigers (the most beautiful animal in the world, in my opinion) during the arena's greatest battle. I've also mentioned the word cliche, too, and it's safe to say that GLADIATOR is loaded with them. But in any film of this sort of historical fiction, cliche is not only present, it's probably key. The art of the hero is destined to practically follow a filmmaker's playbook on the subject; the hero falls, the hero rises, the hero defeats, and many times at the end the hero will die. That's Hollywood, folks!

GLADIATOR won the Oscar for best picture of 2000. It's also one of my ten favorite films of the last decade. Like I said before, when the 21st Century started it looked as if the movies were going to be something wonderful. As the years went on, though, it looks like I couldn't have been further from the truth.

Favorite line or dialogue:

Maximus: "My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius, commander of the Armies of the North, General of the Felix Legions, loyal servant to the true emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife. And I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next!"

1 comment:

  1. You picked the best line in the movie for your quote. It is like looking down at your chest and seeing a laser target spot there. Commodus might as well be dead right then, but we get the pleasure of anticipating his comeuppance for another hour. Ridley Scott has made some of my favorite movies of the last thirty-five years. This revenge drama with the scope of Ben Hur and the violence of Sam Peckinpah is one of the most memorable and it deserved all the awards it got. I did not see Commodus as cowardly per say but rather as a weak version of what a Caesar could be, in contrast to the General without political ambition. His treachery was a reflection of the corrupt world that his father wanted to change. The great scene where Richard Harris and Joaquin Phoenix have their father-son heart to heart is the one place where we might have had sympathy for Commodus, but it ends with a loathing that we will never recover from. Once he takes that step, all of the horrors that follow are inevitable.