You know, all things downtrodden should get their day in the sun. When greatness falls from grace, it doesn’t mean it’s lost its shine. If I get knocked on my a*s, it usually means that when I come back up I better have a new approach to the battle to stay up. Same thing with movie genres. Westerns came back. World War II movies came back. Hell, if slasher films can find a place in the newly plexed America, why not gladiator flicks?
David Franzoni thought so and came up with the original story that attracted director Tony Scott. It begins around 180 AD. The Roman army, led by the spanish General Maximus (Russell Crowe), faces their last battle against the barbarian Germanic hordes. Once done, the empire will know peace, but the Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) hasn’t got much time left to enjoy it. Impending death can motivate you to set things right for the future, and Marcus sees Maximus as the right guy to lead Rome in a transition to a republic. This does not sit well with the Emperor’s son, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix). That boy just ain’t right.
The sniveling would-be emperor seems to have everything except for compassion, sanity, the love of his father and the love of his sister, Lucilla (Connie Nielsen). As Maximus has all these things, Commodus isn’t about to give up his supposed birthright, so daddy has an unfortunate accident and sends Maximus out to be executed. It doesn’t quite work out that way and the General, injured, escapes. He races back to Spain only to collapse from exhaustion, injuries, and the sight of the Emperor’s will carried out upon his wife and young son.
Waking as a captured slave, the fallen general soon becomes the property of Proximo (Oliver Reed) to fight in provincial coliseums as a gladiator. But would you believe it? The new emperor decides to re-open Rome’s coliseum to 150 days of gladiator battles, and one thing can lead to another…
The two issues of re-launching this sort of movie are the story and how you tell it. If you’re wondering how you can sell a sword n’ sandal epic in the 21st century, you only need look at one film: “Saving Private Ryan”. Steven Spielberg recast the WW II epic by shooting it like a Vietnam war documentary. The overly theatrical gladiator movies went the way of the musical because a newly cynical public couldn’t blindly accept unrealistic fantasy after the trauma of the 1960’s and Watergate. The audience wants something with which they can connect. Spielberg amply demonstrated one way you can connect with the masses is by creating a world that feels so real, you can almost smell it.
Now Ridley Scott might be accused of aping “Ryan.” The opening battle in “Gladiator” against the barbarians even employs some of Spielberg’s tricks such as washed out color and dropped frames of film for that documentary feel. Scott, however, is one of the pioneers of this style of filmmaking. With the well-received “Alien” and the originally not so well received “Blade Runner”, the director has probably had more influence on all science fiction since than either Stanley Kubrick (“2001: A Space Odyssey”) or George Lucas (You know, that film Kevin Smith is so obsessed with). Not as successful at triumphing over weak scripts (“Black Rain”, “G. I. Jane”) as his younger brother Tony (“Top Gun”, “Beverly Hills Cop II”) Scott has plenty to work his magic here.
This brings us to the story. Originating from David Franzoni and re-written by John Logan and William Nicholson, the script thankfully draws inspiration from much more than “Spartacus” and all the freakshows about the decadence of the Roman Empire (“Satyricon”, “Caligula”).
The solid historical basis begins with Cæsar Marcus Aurelius, a wise and glorified emperor whose reign is often considered the golden age of the Roman Empire. His text of his philosophy and thoughts, called Meditations, is a classic and a cornerstone to Russell Crowe for his research for Maximus.
Marcus did die during a campaign against Germanic tribes in 180 AD, leaving his 19-year-old son Commodus as the new and later reviled Emperor.
Maximus is another matter. His fictional origins come from classic Greek tragedy. While not the strong point of my theatre education (though frighteningly enough, I can appreciate it now), I can see a big red flag popping up over Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. Recently filmed by director Julie Taymor as “Titus”, Anthony Hopkins played the titular Roman general. Having just returned from years of battle, the victorious and popular soldier has the opportunity to become Emperor himself. After turning the position down, the new Emperor, Satuninus, the decadent and untrustworthy son of the late Emperor, views Titus as a threat. Following exile and the deaths of most of his family, Titus vows revenge on his tormentors. Any of this sound familiar? To cap it off, the name of the last man standing in both “Titus” and “Gladiator” is the same.
Jacobean drama can be a little harsh for a mass-market action film, so “Gladiator” emphasizes suspense and stunts over cruel tragedy. Reportedly, much footage depicting the politics and maneuverings of the Roman Senate were cut to keep the film moving and reduce its lengthy running time.
Looking at just the movie itself, Crowe and Phoenix are brilliant, as usual. The rest of the almost completely British cast are excellent, particularly with dialog that could have easily come out stilted or ridiculous. As important as Crowe is, this film would have been awful without the brilliance of Ridley Scott, still one of the best directors of big films, today. Maybe after he finishes the “Silence of the Lambs” sequel, he can find the time to do something about the musical.