Gladiator (2000)

D: Ridley Scott
S: Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix

Spellbinding historical drama from director Ridley Scott, long overdue a return to the kind of film which engages the senses and the mind and lingers in the memory. The plot concerns itself with the fall and rise of a Roman general (Russell Crowe) who, following the death of conflicted Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris), finds himself an enemy of the state, or, more specifically, of the new Emperor (Joaquin Phoenix). He is reduced to the status of a slave and eventually falls into the hands of gladiator trainer Oliver Reed (in his final performance). He then begins to forge a new life for himself as a ruthless killing machine who entertains the fickle mob as the behind-the-scenes politics of second century Rome stand to make him a hero of the people. Without question the best film of the year so far, and well above the standard of the traditional summer blockbuster, Gladiator is a visually magnificent, well crafted, and intelligently written film which does not condescend to its audience. It explicitly plays upon the ironies of how the spectacle appeals to base instincts, and though violent, it is far from amoral and glamourous in its depiction of both the culture of violence and violence itself. With a central character grounded by family, religion, and a pledge of loyalty to the dream of a Roman Republic, the film reinforces its more visceral scenes with emotionally resonant drama which is surprisingly well paced and allows time for thematic and moral issues to draw attention to themselves. It does eventually boil down to a fairly conventionally jingoistic resolution in favour of the principles of democracy (worked through a society which was sustained by imperialism and slavery), and alters historical fact to appeal to contemporary sensibilities (which is nothing new for this genre), but it has more heart than any mainstream action film made in the United States in the past several years (John Woo's Face/Off excepted), and packs a wallop in all departments.

Let us not get too excited here. It is not like this has not been done before. It has been quite some time though since a mainstream American film set in Roman times has managed to straddle the popular and the political (it has been a long time since there even was an American film set in Roman times). Comparisons with Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus are inevitable, as are references to Ben-Hur, and do not necessarily serve the film all that well. Though the technical capacities of the medium in the early twenty-first century have allowed Scott to recreate astonishing battle and combat scenes (not to mention numerous snowstorms and showers of rose petals which stand in for the usual rain and the completion of Oliver Reed's performance despite his death), he is not the cineaste that Kubrick was, or even Anthony Mann (The Fall of the Roman Empire). His vision is at once too aesthetic and too intimate to quite encompass the broader social and political questions raised by his film.

Writers David H. Franzoni, John Logan, and William Nicholson have come up with a script which is remarkably consistent in tone and in its ability to suggest context (despite frantic rewrites following Reed's demise). There is much reflection upon the nature of the Roman empire in the immediate wake of Christianity, and several rumblings about corruption, demagoguery, and manipulation which suggest that every character (even the emperors) is contained by a system above and beyond their immediate control. Yet it is still so aggressively focused on the perspective of a single, strong-minded character that it is not all that far from the conventions of the American action film. It never quite admits that the forces which threaten to overwhelm its hero are more intractable and eternal than quasi-mythical warriors, nor indeed does it point out that this Rome did fall, and not united in glorious, democratic brotherhood. Despite the presence of Derek Jacobi (Love is the Devil) as a conspiring Republican senator who knowingly comments on the nature of the mob, the heroism and villainy in the film are all too clear-cut and the battle between them too conveniently resolved in favour of the triumph of American idealism (as in the recent, more contemporary bit of historical contrivance Three Kings). Joaquin Phoenix is very good as the vexed Emperor Commodus (a real historical figure), a character written to strongly resemble the character of Amon Goeth as portrayed by Ralph Fiennes in Schindler's List. His cruelty is seen to be as much the result of intrinsic psychological weakness and desperate misjudgment as evil, and in scenes which echo sources from Hamlet to Blade Runner, he plays out a drama of doomed filial angst which somehow still never make him sympathetic. There is a lot of depth to the character, but he's still a leering villain, and it therefore comes as no surprise that the film's conclusion ignores historical fact and pits him against his foe one-on-one in the arena.

In a role which has uncanny echoes of Mel Gibson's starmaking turn in the Mad Max trilogy, Aussie Russell Crowe (Proof) cements his position as one of the major players in contemporary Hollywood. Following L.A. Confidential and The Insider with an action hero part was a shrewd move, and it has paid off. Physically ideal, and a powerful, brooding presence, Crowe manages to hold the centre of the film against a heavyweight supporting cast and a plethora of action scenes. He is somewhat muted, and the character is predicated upon a sense of determination which limits the amount of scenes which allow him to reflect on what is happening. But such scenes are there, and Crowe is believable even when playing the standard-issue 'discovery of the dead family' moment (which allows for the more quietly effective scenes later on where he thinks of them, and provides the film with its emotional resolution at the climax). He handles the transition from humility to bitterness to righteous anger very well, and shows how the acts of violence he commits are always subject to the interpretation of those who made them necessary. His initial brutality in battle is seen to serve the need for peace in the Empire, yet he is aware that the German tribes are both right and brave to defend their lands against invaders. His quickness in the arena gives him cause to berate the crowd who watch him and are disappointed that it is over so soon: "Are you not entertained? Is this not what you came to see?", he cries. His relationship with violence is more complex and layered than Max's, but he ultimately comes to occupy a similar place as the potential saviour of civilisation who remains outside (or even above) the system, again a common position for American action heroes, whatever about Roman generals.

For his part, Ridley Scott (and cinematographer John Mathieson) crafts a visual world which offsets all of this action beautifully. From the eerily-tinted Spanish wheat fields which haunt the gladiator's dreams to the spectacles of the arena, everything we see is designed and photographed to envelop the spectator in a time and place both within and outside of history. It is the futurescapes of Blade Runner and Alien, the fantasy world of Legend, and the fetishised real-life settings of Thelma & Louise, White Squall, Someone to Watch Over Me and Black Rain. It is a Ridley Scott film from its opening frames, yet one with a strong enough script and cast to prevent it descending into self indulgence (1492), or disappearing into the generic wasteland (G.I. Jane). He risks an amount of stationary camera shots and long edits which is laudable in the age of two-per-second cutting and visual fragmentation (Any Given Sunday). Trusting splendid set decorations and good performances to carry due weight, Scott is content to build atmosphere rather than try to construct it from scraps of detail. This pays off particularly well with the battle scenes, which are more rapid, and thus creates a contrast in mood and effect. The action itself is even artificially speeded-up, which increases the sense of disjuncture between scenes of violence and the conditions and circumstances in which they take place. There is also a nice variety of scenery, from the snow-swept forests of Germania to the deserts of North Africa, all of which contributes to the 'epic' feel despite the relative intimacy of the drama.

Gladiator is an example of mainstream moviemaking at near its best. It is intelligent, but not cerebral; entertaining, but not vacuous; well crafted, but not showy (well, not very showy). It is not without its flaws (the noted lack of a real sense of the political sub-text), nor entirely free from questions about the tail-chasing self-referentiality of the spectacle about spectacle, but it is consistently entrancing, involving, thought-provoking, and (natch) spectacular. It is violent, but with its strong sense of pain (both emotional and physical) and the constant reminders that violence has both causes and consequences, it is unsurprising that it has obtained a relatively mild '15' cert for its Irish release. It is well worth seeing even for those not particularly predisposed to the genre, and it does feature that final (and quite wonderful) performance from Oliver Reed, to whom the film is dedicated. It certainly shows that you can still play it straight and tell a simple, rousing story while still raising questions for the audience about both history and contemporary society without losing touch with the roots of our need for entertainment, a lesson lost on the not uninteresting but not very enjoyable The 13th Warrior. Gladiator is not always easy viewing (and it shouldn't be), but it is, on the whole, a rewarding diversion from the routine.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2000.

Note: The Region 2 DVD comes with an additional bonus disc featuring several documentaries and a variety of publicity materials. The set also features a director's commentary.