It’s hard to imagine, but director Ridley Scott’s sword and sandal epic Gladiator is celebrating its 15th anniversary this month.
The film was incredibly popular upon its release, making over $450 million at the box office, garnering mostly positive reviews, and racking up several Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Actor for star Russell Crowe.
But a decade and a half on, how well does this story of a general who became a slave, a slave who became a gladiator, a gladiator who defied an empire hold up to repeat viewings?
If, unlike me, you haven’t watched this movie enough times to quote vast portions of it from memory, you might need a quick recap of the plot. Gladiator follows the quest for revenge by former Roman general Maximus (Crowe) after his family is murdered at the hands of slimy Emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix).
Having barely escaped with his life, Maximus soon finds himself an unwilling participant in the gladiatorial games, which (as a career soldier) he takes to like a duck to water, and he soon finds himself fighting in the Colosseum within reach of the man who killed his family, but can one man hope to stand against the might of the Roman Empire itself?
Scott was on top of his game when he stepped behind the camera for this one, and he does a lot with a decent screenplay by David Franzoni, John Logan and William Nicholson. Scott has mentioned 1960s classics Spartacus, Ben-Hur and The Fall of the Roman Empire as inspirations for the film, and Gladiator works well as a love letter to this era of cinema, from its sweeping storyline to its grand sense of scale and admirable production values.
By far the aspect of the film that stands out the most is the action sequences, which are expertly choreographed and brilliantly shot. Each one is meaty, exciting and in no way historically accurate, but who cares? This is a movie, not a history lecture!
Scott, cinematographer John Mathieson and editor Pietro Scalia do a masterful job of keeping these scenes paradoxically chaotic and easy to follow. In a refreshing change of pace from the current trend towards tightly shot fight scenes that are overly reliant on unintelligible hand-held footage, the battles in Gladiator are made up of variety of shots and techniques.
In most battles, the camera brings us in tight to experience the emotion of the characters involved, then pulls out to capture the action, and then best of all, it cuts to a wide shot to showcase the tiny figures struggling within the vast arena of the Colosseum as the crowd bays for blood.
While hand-held camera work crops up from time to time, it never out stays its welcome, and usually it serves a dramatic purpose, such as in the opening forest battle, where it gives a great sense of the roiling turmoil of war.
It’s not just the action that looks good; as with all films helmed by Scott, the visuals are stunning across the board, and the uncommonly surreal imagery scattered throughout the film deserves special praise for elevating Gladiator above other, lesser entries in the genre.
The visual effects also hold up well for the most part; and despite the movie being 15 years old (which is closer to 50 years, in VFX time), you still feel like you’ve been transported back to Rome in her heyday.
It’s also worth pointing out that cast member Oliver Reed died before shooting all of his scenes, forcing Scott to employ digital wizardry to overcome this monumental hurdle, and that the end result is relatively seamless is a remarkable achievement.
Rounding out the aesthetic side of things, the production design and costuming are all top shelf, and harken back to the handmade era of filmmaking Scott has sought to pay tribute to.
As well as being a feast for the eyes, Gladiator is rather pleasant on the ears as well. Hans Zimmer’s score, which alternates between darkly operatic, soothingly ethereal, and upliftingly bombastic, is now considered a classic, and rightly so.
Similarly, the sound design is excellent, from the harsh noise of steel ringing against steel to the gentle rustling of the wind through a field of grain, each audio effect is pitched perfectly.
Luckily, Sir Ridley isn’t just on form marshaling the technical aspects involved with making the film; he also does well to draw out strong turns from across the cast.
It doesn’t hurt that many of the supporting players have been culled from the old guard of British thespians, particularly Richard Harris, who lends gravitas and depth to his brief role as Commodus’ doomed father Marcus Aurelius, and the aforementioned Reed, who is in sparkling form in his final ever performance as Proximo, the roguish head of the gladiator school.
Scott has also lured in plenty of impressive international talent who each get their chance to shine, particularly Phoenix, who makes Commodus detestable and pitiful in equal measure, Djimon Hounsou, the definition of soulful in his scenes as Maximus’ brother in arms Juba, and Connie Nielson, believably filling the role of Commodus’ sister Lucilla, a woman forced to live a life of deceit in order to survive.
But in the end, Gladiator really belongs to Crowe. It’s not just the physicality he brings to the role, but also the charismatic, heroic air he gives off, which is kinda important when you’re making a movie about someone hellbent on killing someone else.
Furthermore, there’s something to be said for his ability to shift from playing a warm-hearted farmer recalling the simple pleasures of home to a hardened warrior growling vicious threats, and it’s virtually impossible to picture anyone but Crowe delivering one of the most iconic quotes in recent cinematic history:
“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.”
The sorrow and menace that Crowe is able to imbue these words with really exemplifies how this was one of those “born to play the part” scenarios, and whilst visual effects may date and audience tastes will change, acting of this quality truly is timeless.
LOOK OUT! SPOILERS!
But for all its accomplishments at a skin-deep level, what else does Gladiator have to offer beyond the initial thrill of its pulse-pounding set pieces?
The truth is, Gladiator isn’t exactly the most layered or even subtle film around, even by the standards of the genre (certainly, there’s nothing in it so subversive and understated as the infamous “oysters and snails” dialogue in Spartacus).
Obviously, the overarching concern of the film is revenge (or more accurately, vengeance), but even though Maximus is pretty justified in wanting payback for what Commodus has done (I’d be murderously inclined if you tried to assassinate me, without even throwing in the brutal slaughter of my loved ones), the act itself ultimately feels a bit hollow.
In some ways it’s because killing Commodus becomes almost a matter of course, something Maximus needs to do before he can be at peace and rejoin his family in the afterlife, and because in the Emperor’s final moments, when we see him for the pathetic, vicious, frightened little man he is, it’s hard to start cheering when he snuffs it, even if he was a horrible bugger.
But just as large a part of why this moment doesn’t quite land comes down to the fact that Maximus facing off against Commodus in a one-on-one duel is by it’s nature always going to seem anti-climactic. Scott himself even admits that it was a struggle to deliver a satisfying ending, as by the final act, Maximus has been built up as an “omnipotent” fighting force.
Pitting such a natural warrior against an ordinary man (even if that man was shown early on to be a capable swordsman) doesn’t really do much for the tension, so much so that Scott ends up using the old “Eh, let’s just stab ‘im before they fight” gambit to up the stakes as much as possible.
It’s not that the ending doesn’t work, it’s just that it comes as a bit of a let down (particularly after the showstopping bout between our hero and Tigris of Gaul, who is aided by ACTUAL TIGERS….ain’t nobody gonna follow that).
But retribution isn’t the only thing Scott’s interested in dramatising. Just as obvious (but somewhat more effective) than Gladiator‘s consideration of vengeance is its examination of power.
Scott and his screenwriting team look at this concept from several angles over the course of the film’s runtime, although the most notable form of the power shown is that of popularity, as seen in the way that Maximus is able to openly defy the martial strength of Commodus without fear of reprisal, solely because of how beloved he is by the people as a (blood) sportsman.
Looking closer, there’s also the juxtaposition between the different ways in which power is utilised by those who have it. This is shown by contrasting Maximus, a man who has no desire for power and who openly rejects it in favour of a simple life with his wife and child, and Commodus, who craves power and sees it as a cure for his crippling insecurity and need to be loved.
Ultimately though, I think the motif that really drives the film is the afterlife, a concept that is hinted at throughout the story, most obviously during two scenes where Maximus hovers on the edge of life and death.
These scenes evoke a transitional sensation, a feeling that Maximus is moving from one world to another, and it makes sense – as Proximo is so fond of reminding us, we’re all nothing but “shadows and dust”, mortals living brief lives that barely leave a mark.
There might be a certain amount of truth to this point of view, however an earlier statement by Maximus,“What we do in life echoes through eternity,” best sums up what I think the film is really “about”: that fleeting though our existence may be, what we do with the time we have can have an impact on the future long after we’ve shaken hands with the reaper.
And so, in the end when Maximus uses the last of his fading strength to ensure that Marcus Aurelius’ dream to give Rome back to the people is realised, it’s meant as a sign that he has done something that will undoubtedly change the course of (fictional) history.
Crucially, Maximus has also ensured that Marcus Aurelius will be forever remembered as a champion of democracy, rather than as the tyrant Aurelius so feared being labelled, with this notion of a man’s legacy again tying back to the potential of our actions to be felt by future generations.
So yeah, Gladiator might not be the Citizen Kane of its time, but it’s clearly got more substance than a few well-staged bits of action, and this is certainly part of its lasting appeal.
THE SPOILERS! THEY’RE…THEY’RE GONE!
Throwing aside my rose coloured glasses and looking back at Gladiator a full 15 years later, I find myself struck by how well it stands up to scrutiny. True, it ends with more of a whimper than a bang, and there are smarter epics out there, but regardless it still manages to stand the test of time thanks to its endearing marriage of heartfelt performances and grand spectacle.
There’s a moment in the film where Maximus demands to know if the audience has been entertained by what they have seen. I have to say that even now, I don’t see how you could watch Gladiator and be anything less than riveted.