Gladiator: Russell Crowe’s magnificent performance and Ridley Scott’s visual artistry resurrected the Roman empire epic

With his 2000 epic film, Gladiator, starring Russell Crowe, Jaquan Phoenix, Connie Nielson, Oliver Reed and Richard Harris, Director Ridley Scott successfully resurrected the Roman empire epic that flourished during the 1950s and 60s.

It’s one of Cinema’s great ironies that the film which ended the hot streak of big-budget biblical\Ancient Roman epic productions in the 1960s also turned out to be the film that rejuvenated this genre (or subgenre) in the new millennium. It was the massive failure of Anthony Mann’s (rather appropriately titled) 1964 epic, “Fall of the Roman Empire” that led to the death of Roman republic\empire epics. The maverick independent producer Samuel Bronston, who produced the film in Spain at then mammoth cost of $20 million plus, went bankrupt and couldn’t produce a single film for the rest of his life. But in AD 2000, director Ridley Scott remixed the themes and characters from Mann’s doomed Roman epic for his film Gladiator, leading to massive critical and commercial success; and thereby ushering in a new era of epic films. “King Arthur”, “Alexander”, “Troy”, “300”- all owes it existence to Scott’s re-imagination. Scott was also helped by the fact that the digital technology had come of age by then; and the studios and financiers didn’t have to bankrupt themselves to get these kind of films made. Vast armies and massive sets – like the colosseum– could very easily be created in Computer by now. Though films set in ancient Rome has been made form the time the cinematic medium was invented- the1914 Italian epic silent film, Cabiria , that inspired the epics of Griffith and DeMille could be considered the first of this kind; the Roman empire epic became a staple of Hollywood\international cinema during 1950s. It was a time when the new medium of Television started taking audiences away from movies, and the Hollywood studios decided to go bigger and bigger with their productions, using different kind of widescreen processes – cinemascope, Panavision, Vistavision, etc. The ancient Roman empire, with its pomp, pageantry and glossy decadence was an ideal subject matter for these widescreen epics. This period of film production that saw some of the most expensive and same of the most successful (and unsuccessful) productions in film history was bookended by two widely different kind of epics: “Quo Vadis” in 1951 and (as already mentioned) “Fall of the Roman Empire” in 1964. Just a year before “Empire”, the unprecedented failure of Twentieth Century-Fox’s “Cleopatra” had all but ended the golden age of Hollywood studios. But at least, “Cleopatra” had the benefit of being the top grossing film of the year- it was its prohibitive cost of $44 million that drowned the studio. “Empire” had no such consolation- despite being a spectacularly mounted, intelligently scripted, and extremely well directed epic, it totally floundered at the box office.

“Empire” told the story of the final days of the great emperor Marcus Aurelius (played by the great thespian Alec Guinness) . It had a twisted love triangle at its center, involving Aurelius’ son Commodus (Christopher Plummer), his close friend turned political rival, Livius ( Stephen Boyd) and Commodus’ sister Lucilla (Sophia Loren). It was both a narratively and visually dense film, and meditated on many profound political and philosophical questions about love, war, loyalty, duty, religion and empire-building. No wonder the audiences found it heavy-going, especially in a year of fluffy musicals like “My Fair Lady” and “Mary Poppins.” So when Scott embarked on “Gladiator,” he simplified the plot and characters from “Empire”: converting it into a simple tale of battle between good and evil, filled with archetypal characters and generic tropes. In “Empire,” there was a genuine lack of a ‘hero’ figure that would drive the plot forward- Mann concentrated on building a rich tapestry of multiple characters and events to showcase the downfall of Rome. This was one of the reasons why the film failed to connect with a popular audience; unlike a “Ben-Hur” or “El Cid“. Scott rectifies this problem by creating a towering, masculine warrior hero at the center of the narrative. While Aurelius, Commodus and Lucilla are borrowed directly from Mann’s epic by Scott, the character of ‘Livius’ was retooled as ‘Maximus’- a heroic General and a ‘family man’, favored by Aurelius over his biological son Commodus. Also gone was the tableau style classical filmmaking of Anthony Mann; in its place Scott took a visceral approach, with frenetic camera movements and editing befitting a modern action blockbuster. He also shifted the focus of the narrative away from political intrigue and complex relationship dynamics to the battle scenes and gladiatorial fights; these elements were present in the original merely to garnish the drama, but Scott made them the focal point of his film: this is more than obvious from the opening scenes of “Gladiator”. Unlike “Empire,” which begins with Aurelius’ powerful and grand statement about peace and ‘Pax Romana’ , Gladiator begins with a bloody battle in the Germanic jungles circa AD 180- Germania’s barbarian hordes are the last ones holding out against the Roman Empire; and Maximus (Russell Crowe), under orders from Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris), leads a violent charge against the horde. “Empire” also featured a violent battle with Germanic tribes, but that came much later in the narrative, and was much more tamer. Since “Gladiator” came after Mel Gibson’s “Braveheart” and Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan”- two films that set benchmarks in the depiction of battlefield brutality with their emphasis on visceral, graphic realism- the battle scenes in this film pull no punches- reveling in an outpouring of blood and decapitated bodies.

There is one more element that Scott adds into this intoxicating mix, some truly rousing, mythic dialogue befitting a classical hero: “Brothers, what we do in life echoes in eternity“, screams Crowe before he leads his men into battle.. The dialogues would get more and more rousingly hyperbolic as Maximus’ myth continue to grow during the course of the film. Maximus emerges victorious of course; Aurelius holds on to his hand while taking the victory lap- thus, rather unsubtly, anointing Maximus as his heir in front of the troops. This coincides with the arrival of the ‘real’ heir to throne- Aurelius’ psychotic son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) along with his ambitious daughter Lucilla (Connie Nielson). Commodus expects that he will be declared the heir by an ailing Aurelius, but the latter has other plans: having known that his son is immoral and unfit to be an emperor, Aurelius chooses Maximus to be his ‘heir regent’ to transform Rome back into a republic. Maximus, a loving husband and father with no interest in politics, had hoped to return to his native Spain after the battle in Germania, but Aurelius’ decision forces him to stay back. Lucilla, who was in the past romantically involved with Maximus, realizes that her father favors Maximus over her brother, but she keeps quiet. Aurelius had hoped that Commodus would quietly accept his decision and back off from the throne, but Commodus flies into uncontrollable rage and kills his own father, and anoints himself the emperor. The new emperor demands loyalty from everyone- including his sister as well as Maximus. Lucilla, who by nature is an ambitious opportunist, accepts Commodus as the new emperor, but Maximus, realizing that Aurelius has been slain, refuses to give his allegiance to the new emperor. A decision that triggers a series of tragedies in Maximus’ life.

Maximus is arrested on emperor’s orders, and is told that he and his family will die. He kills his captors and rides for his home near Trujillo, where he finds his home destroyed and his family murdered. Maximus buries his wife and son, then collapses from his injuries. He is found by slavers who take him to the city of Zucchabar in the Roman province of Mauretania Caesariensis, where he is sold to a gladiator trainer named Proximo (Oliver Reed). Initially, Maximus resists Proximo’s attempts at turning him into a gladiator, but later he relents, and accepts his fate, only to end up becoming the most popular and skilled gladiator in the arena. Maximus also befriends an Numidian slave named Juba (Djimon Hounsou), who becomes his close friend and ally and inspires Maximus to take revenge against Commodus. Meanwhile, Commodus had returned to Rome with Lucilla, and his dictatorial instincts have already put him on a collision course with the senate- lead by Senator Gracchus (Derek Jacobi). To get the upper hand over the senate and win the admiration of the public, Commodus organizes ‘150 days of games’ in the Colosseum to honor his father. This news reaches Proximo, who decides to take his gladiators to Rome to participate n the blood sport. Proximo also reveals that he was once a gladiator who was freed by Marcus Aurelius, and advises Maximus that he must “win the crowd” to win his freedom. Maximus debuts in gladiatorial combat in the Colosseum as a Carthaginian in a re-enactment of the ‘Battle of Zama’. Unexpectedly, Maximus leads his side to victory, and Commodus enters the Colosseum to offer his congratulations. Since Maximus’ face is hidden inside a helmet, Commodus doesn’t know who he’s dealing with He orders the disguised Maximus, as leader of the gladiators, to show himself and give his name; Maximus reveals himself and declares vengeance- in the most exhilarating moment in the film, and by delivering the most rousing monologue of them all: “I’m Maximus Decimus Meridius, Commander of the armies of the North, General of Felix Legions, servant of the true emperor Marcus Aurelius, Father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife, and I’ll have my vengeance, in this life or the next“. Commodus is shocked out of his wits to see his enemy, whom he had believed to be dead, standing in front of him as the Gladiator hero’. He gestures to his guard to get rid of Maximus and his fellow gladiators, but is compelled by the crowd to let the gladiators live, and his guards are held back from striking them down.

Commodus realizes that the only way Maximus can be killed is in the arena. To this end, he recalls the unconquerable gladiator, Tigris of Gaul, to take on Maximus. In a ferocious fight – where tigers are set into the arena while Maximus and Tigris are dueling – Maximus manages to overcome the double threat from both man and beasts and fatally wounds Tigris, but refuse to kill him: earning him even more appreciation as ‘Maximus the merciful’ from the spectators. Commodus once again walks into the arena to confront Maximus, and this time the emperor tries to instigate the gladiator into attacking him, but Maximus controls himself, and leaves the arena to thundering applause. Maximus’ popularity also attracts the attention of Senator Gracchus who’s looking for a savior to rid Rome of its mad emperor; and with the tacit support of Lucilla, who’s still in love with Maximus, Gracchus makes a deal with Proximo to free Maximus, so that he can rejoin his legions- who are still loyal to him- and then ride back and save Rome from Commodus. But Commodus sniffs out this conspiracy; he first has Lucilla, her son and Gracchus arrested and imprisoned, then he lets loose his Pretorian guards on the Gladiators’ barracks in order to kill Maximus. Proximo sacrifices himself to save Maximus, but to no avail. Maximus is intercepted by the guards and brought back to the arena, where he’s challenged by the emperor himself to a duel. Commodus realizes that this is the only way he can win back the approval of the Roman public; and realizing that he stands no chance in a fair fight with Maximus, Commodus stabs Maximus before the match to gain an unfair advantage. But despite being severely wounded, Maximus manages to defeat and kill Commodus. In the end, Maximus succumbs to his wounds, but before he dies, he asks the soldiers and senators to carry out Marcus Aurelius’ wish to transform Rome from an empire into a republic. The film ends with the images of Maximus reuniting with his wife and son in the afterlife.

It goes without saying that Ridley Scott was way past his prime when he piloted “Gladiator” to screen. It has been almost two decades since the triumphs of “Alien” and “Blade Runner”; and even “Blade Runner” took a long time to develop a cult classic status. Starting with the dismal “Legend” in 1985, Scott was a filmmaker in decline. By the end of the 90s, he was reduced to making disastrous disaster thrillers like “White Squall” and disastrous Demi Moore vehicles like “G.I. Jane.” Apart from the odd “Thelma and Louise”, his films were all badly received by the critics and the audiences. But “Gladiator” was a subject that was right up Scott’s alley- he had debuted as director with the ravishing period piece “The Duelists” set in the Napoleonic era. So in a way he was going back to his roots by fashioning another period piece; and this time going all the way back to a visually rich Roman empire in the second century. Like all Ridley Scott films, “Gladiator” is a spectacular exercise in visual design; and like many a Scott film, the film suffers in the screenplay department. The screenplay- credited to three writers: David Franzoni, the originator and John Logan and William Nicolson who did the rewrites- is intended to be a “high concept” version of “Fall of the Roman Empire,” but it also borrows liberally from two of the best and most successful Roman epics from the classical period- William Wyler’s “Ben-Hur” and Stanley Kubrick’s “Spartacus.” From Ben-Hur comes the main revenge plot: a man of noble birth betrayed into slavery, and his subsequent quest for revenge against n his Roman friend turned foe; there, Judah Ben-Hur was a Judean prince, here Maximus is a Spanish General. From “Spartacus” comes the whole Gladiatorial angle, with Proximo a sort of stand-in for Peter Ustinov’s Lentulus Batiatus, who takes Spartacus under his wing and trains him as a Gladiator. The film also featured a Senator Gracchus, played deliciously by British Thespian Charles Laughton, who does his best to prevent dictator Crassus (Laurence Olivier) from taking over Rome. (Interestingly, both Laughton and Derek Jacobi, who plays Gracchus in “Gladiator,” have respectively played the lead in the film and Television adaptations of “I, Claudius.”) Unfortunately, the resulting script doesn’t have the dramatic depth, scene construction, rich dialogue or thematic density of any of those classic epic films. Obviously, none of these writers are well versed in classical historical literature; or possess the screenwriting pedigree of a Christopher Fry or Dalton Trumbo; moreover, the film was designed to be a big summer blockbuster, so it’s understandable that the writers and producers would take the ‘high concept’ route to both narration and characterization and remove everything that’s considered dense and highbrow.

But the problem is that the film wants it both ways: it wants to be a tent pole blockbuster and it also wants Oscar glory; therefore, Scott has maintained a gloomy, melancholic mood throughout; guess that’s one way of announcing this is high art. Which means that the film, that’s more or less like ‘”Rocky” in the colosseum’, doesn’t have Rocky’s fun or exhilaration- and “Rocky” was a Best Picture Oscar Winner for 1976. Add to that Hans Zimmer’s constantly wailing music score and cinematographer John Mathieson’s dark, desaturated color palette, especially for the interiors, and the dour, funereal effect is complete. The film works best when it plays out as a brawny, action-blockbuster, but when it segues into being a more dreamy, poetic epic it loses narrative momentum. Some of the talkie portions – especially the one between Maximus and Marcus Aurelius and the ones between Commodus and Lucilla are so pretentiously slow, long and and boring that it becomes intolerable. Also, the political intrigue presented in the film alternates between being pretentious and preposterous: Marcus Aurelius’ dream of turning Rome back into a republic being one of the most absurd historical deviations presented in any historical epic. And except for Oliver Reed’s Proximo, who breathes some colorful energy into the proceedings, the film is completely devoid of color and humor. “Quo Vadis,” “Spartacus” and “Empire” were all about one or the other great historical tragedy, but they all had their share of colorful characters and intelligent, witty repartee- the duo of Ustinov and Laughton in “Spartacus” is a real hoot; Hell! even Mel Gibson’s “Braveheart” was a lot of fun; this is totally missing in “Gladiator”; not just “Gladiator,” it’s a sickness afflicting all the would-be epics of our times. They take themselves so seriously and self-importantly that any attempt at a bit of color and humor is considered a crime.

So, it’s left to Scott’s visual artistry and the performances of the actors to save the day; and they do save the day to an extend. Scott is a self-confessed builder of worlds, and this film boasts the most intricate world-building since his seminal, Sci-fi classic “Blade Runner (1982). And like the futuristic Los Angeles of “Blade Runner,” Scott’s vision was to make Rome look crowded, compressed and extremely well detailed. The recreation of ancient Rome is splendid, with all its magnificent buildings and atmosphere. The designs are so impeccably beautiful, shiny, spick and span that Rome resembles a futuristic megalopolis than an ancient metropolis. The look of the film, with its mix of traditional, large- scale sets and CG enhancements, is almost dreamlike. The environments of Ridley Scott’s version of ancient Rome, including a painstakingly crafted digital recreation of the famous Colosseum, seem untethered to any kind of physical reality. It’s as if what Scott has created is an environment that reflects the feeling of Ancient Rome rather than the reality of it. The crew built 40% of a full-scale Colosseum, nearly 100-feet high, and used CGI to finish the rest of the massive structure. The London-based company the Mill, owned by the Scott brothers, supplied the CGI work, providing views of Rome and peopled areas with crowds. The costume design, though a little anachronistic for the period, looks great on screen. Scott also stages the battle scenes with verve and energy- the opening battle in Germania and the duel between Maximus and Tigris inside the colosseum are the best action scenes in the film. The other battles seems to get too muddled and fuzzy at times because of the frenetic editing and shaky camerawork. I was also enchanted by Scott’s use of filtered sunlight and dust to give some real atmosphere to the Colosseum. Scott once again proves that he’s one of the most visually gifted filmmakers ever to make movies, and truly, it’s the visual pleasures that the film provides that triumphs all its dramatic faults and makes it work as a spectacular mounted, visceral, action-packed epic.

Russell Crowe is magnificent as Maximus: “the general who became a slave, the slave who became a gladiator, and the gladiator who defied an emperor.” Crowe’s intense style is perfect for the relentless determination and confidence of Maximus; his performance is all about physical presence, and his terrific voice makes a lot of those corny lines work. Apart from a few big emotional scenes, Crowe’s performance is one of quiet masculine stoicism. The character itself is not well fleshed out on paper, and it’s more of generic archetype, but Crowe breathes life into the role, and thereby breathes life into the film: he adds a remarkable gravitas to this character that elevates the film by several notches. It is a perfect heroic performance for which he deservedly won the Oscar. Connie Nielsen is also very good as Lucilla. It’s again a character that’s not fully fleshed out; we only get a few pointers to her ambition, helplessness and even corruption, but Nielsen manages to bring them all out in full force. However, Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as Commodus is a big letdown. The character itself is confusingly conceptualized, and Phoenix is too modern an actor to pull off this role, with the emperor coming across as a whiny, petulant child rather than the unhinged, power mad dictator. One need only watch Christopher Plummer’s brilliantly deranged performance as Commodus in “Fall of the Roman Empire” to see the difference. Oliver Reed, in his final performance, steals every scene he’s in; Proximo is another one of Reed’s larger-than-life creations. Reed died before the film was complete- In his inimitable style, the old “Hellraiser”- notorious for his alcoholism and bizarre behavior- was drinking at a Maltese pub when he dropped dead. Scott had to resort to CGI and some clever editing to complete Reed’s scenes. The film is dedicated to the memory of Oliver Reed. On release, “Gladiator” was a big box box office success as well as best picture Oscar winner, and it not only revitalized the epic genre, but also breathed new life into Ridley Scott’s stagnant career. It put Scott right back on the A-List, and his career would continue to soar with well received films like “Hannibal,” “Black Hawk Down,” “American Gangster” and “The Martian.”


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