This review marks a brief departure from the sci-fi horror segment.
Ridley Scott´s film Gladiator is a sweeping historical epic populated by people who speak almost entirely in anaphoras and metaphors. Apparently, in ancient Rome, even the lowest, most uneducated slaves were forced to converse in dramatic speeches. Thinking up said speeches must have been exhausting work for the poor Romans, and I am truly grateful I live in the twenty-first century.
Gladiator is a bit of a mixed bag. When it´s good, it´s very, very good, and when it´s hokey, it´s painfully so. Moments of true emotional resonance are mixed in with moments so over the top you want to burst out laughing.
Be warned–though it’s ostensibly historical, for those that know even a little about Roman history, Gladiator doesn’t so much as require you to suspend your disbelief as leave it dangling off a cliff by a rope for two and a half hours.
The film opens in Germany, where a battle is being fought against some barbarians. According to the opening scrawl, a Roman victory in this battle will somehow bring peace and harmony to all the world. So the stakes are pretty high.
We are introduced to our hero, the subtly-named Maximus (a surprisingly skinny Russel Crowe) who is apparently the best general Rome has to offer. He demonstrates this by using the brilliant strategy of attacking the enemy by riding cavalry through a dense and muddy forest that also happens to be on fire. He follows up this brilliant maneuver by using the time-honored Roman strategy of just going in willy-nilly and hacking at shit until it’s dead.
Surprisingly, Maximus’ tactics result in a glorious Roman victory. The emperor, Marcus Aurelius, who, despite the fact that he just got done conquering Germany, turns out to be a really chill and peace-loving guy, is so pleased with Maximus that he decides to turn over control of the empire to him upon his death–of course, only until Maximus can restore Rome to the republic it was a few centuries ago. Unfortunately, the emperor’s son, Commodus, is none too happy about this, and decides to murder his father and take control. Commodus turns out to be the most interesting and complex character in the entire movie. The rest of them are all sort of one-sided. Especially our protagonist, Maximus, a reluctant sort of hero whose only ambition in life seems to be to get back to his farm, dammit.
Sadly, that is not to be. After Commodus kills the emperor, he offers Maximus the chance to join him. Maximus somehow psychically divines that the emperor was murdered, even though he was really old and frail-looking and might have actually died of old age. Thus, displaying his typical foresight and tactical brilliance, he walks out on Commodus, leaving the new emperor standing there with his hand of friendship just hanging in the air. This causes Commodus to get really pissed and have Maximus’ family killed. Maximus himself escapes but is picked up by some slave dealers and eventually becomes a gladiator. He fights in several epic battles in the Colosseum, including what is supposed to be a re-enactment of the fall of Carthage. Apparently the forces of the Roman general Scipio Africanus (who actually didn’t sack Carthage) consisted of black women in chariots. Who would have guessed?
To make a long (and I mean that) story short, Maximus and a bunch of senators conspire against Commodus. The plan fails, and everyone gets either killed or locked in jail. Commodus, anxious to prove he’s not a sissy, decides to fight Maximus to the death in the arena (surrounded by his loyal praetorian guards in case things turn sour, of course). He is disarmed, and begs his guards for a sword. The captain of the Praetorian guard, despite having been unswervingly loyal to Commodus up to this point, suddenly decides it’s time for a revolution, and orders his guards to keep their swords in their sheaths. This rather pivotal plot twist might have made sense if they’d built up the character of the Praetorian prefect, but I swear he was only on screen for about six minutes. And that’s in the extended edition. Anyway, the rest of the guards, who apparently haven’t quite figured out how the chain of command works (allow me to explain: the emperor’s orders take preference over the guard captain’s) obey him, instead of the emperor. Commodus tries to fight with a knife, but he gets owned and has his own dagger jammed through his throat. The guards seem to be fine with this, since they just stand there and watch. Turns out all that talk about their loyalty was just talk. Which makes me wonder why no one just stabbed Commodus before. When his sister suggested it about halfway through the movie, the senators protested that the only way an assassination would work would be if they figured out a way to ‘neutralize the praetorians.’ They shouldn’t have fretted about it so much, because it turns out the guards are only as loyal and effective as the scriptwriters need them to be at any given moment.
Maximus dies from his wounds, but before he goes he orders all the prisoners to be freed and the Republic to be restored. The guards obey without a word so that the movie can end. They and their former prisoners (including the gladiators) all pitch in to carry Maximus’ body in honor from the arena. Everyone is all chummy again, the caste system is abolished, and the Roman Republic is restored! Just like in history! Oh, wait...
The movie’s strengths lie in its epic sets, costumes, and battles, and in the character of Commodus, a brilliantly conceived villain who is both utterly odious and strangely sympathetic at the same time. He does horrible things, but his evil is born of a desperate desire to be loved–by his father, his sister, and by the people of Rome. Some of his scenes are guaranteed to make your eyes well up, especially towards the end. Commodus’ speech about ‘busy little bees,’ while perhaps a little over-the-top, is deeply chilling and effective.
Gladiator’s weakness lies in the ludicrousness of many scenes, most especially the ending, which tries way too hard to wrap everything up into a nice, shiny, bittersweet package. Had the movie ended 2 minutes sooner, with Maximus and Commodus’ deaths, it would have been a lot better. Instead we have to watch awkward speeches about restoring the republic, and what a great hero Maximus was.
Gladiator is an example of the problems that can result when modern ideals are forced upon characters in ancient settings. All this talk about the senators, and how they’re voice of the people! I’m curious as to what people are they talking about? Because the senators in imperial Rome were appointed by the emperor and were chosen from rich, aristocratic, noble-blooded families. The goal is obviously to get us to empathize with the heroes more, but when we hear ancient Roman aristocrats soliloquizing about giving power ‘back to the people of Rome’ it sounds more than a little forced. I guess if you imagine it all as taking place in some alternate fantasy world loosely based on Rome, it all makes sense. Though it still doesn’t stop the ending from being cheesier than Dominoes pizza.