078: Gladiator

This is the twelfth movie in my Ridley Scott retrospective.

Gladiator is one of those movies, like for example Titanic and American Beauty, that people have turned against for some reason. I don’t know what it is, but it seems to be cool nowadays to go against the grain just for the sake of it. I am not one of those people. I loved Gladiator when it was released back in 2000 and I love it now, twelve years later. This is a very powerful piece of film making.

The very thought of a sword and sandal epic was outrageous before Gladiator was released. Few had tried in the years since Cleopatra and just about all had failed. Ridley Scott poured the stuffy Ben-Hur-type movie into the shell of a modern action drama. With the help of state-of-the-art visual and digital effects he kept the cost relatively low and created exhilarating setpieces that continue to thrill to this day.

From the opening scenes on the battlefield of Germania to the gladiatorial training in Morocco and the climatic battles in the Colloseum, it is all arranged, shot and directed to perfection. Scott decided to go with a gritty realism that we were not accustomed with in this genre. The fights are incredibly brutal and show us a glimmer of what these fights perhaps were back in the day. They probably were a lot more brutal than what Scott shows us.

Underneath all this brutality lies a touching story about a man who really wants nothing more than to go home. Just like Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan, Maximus is a man who rose to the call of duty, but now he is tired and he wants to go back to his wife and son. He doesn’t crave power, although he gets it handed to him on a silver platter. He is understandably devastated when everything he knew and loved is yanked away from him.

Crowe plays Maximus with such understated intensity that it is really hard not to root for him. He is a tough character. He kills people when is asked to do so, but he also manages to rally the people around him to stand by side and fight for his plight. He wants revenge for what has been done to him more than anything. He will not fell any remorse for the death of his opponent. He is a killer and still we sit there, tears filling our eyes, when he starts his way towards his wife and child. Crowe is a master in this movie and deserves the Oscar he got fair and square.

Crowe has help across the board. Joaquin Phoenix plays his opponent, a young Emperor who behaves more like a petulant child than a statesman. Connie Nielsen is his, maybe, ex-lover who wants to help him so bad, but fears for the life of her son. Richard Harris is an aging emperor who has to choose what’s best for his empire, even though this will upset the one person you don’t want to taunt. There are so many fine performances in Gladiator that it is hard to describe them all here. You just have to see it to believe it.

This also counts for the brilliant sets and surroundings for the story. The way Scott has used real places and enhanced them to his liking is nothing short of astonishing. The moment Maximus and the gladiators enter the Colosseum for the first and the camera does a 360 around them at a low angle so we see all the way to the top of the arena is breathtaking to say the least. Moments like these are peppered all the way through Gladiator and I guarantee you that you won’t notice the majority of them. This way of working would pave the way for Scott’s next huge project, Kingdom of Heaven, but more on that later.

Gladiator is long, but that is something we have come to expect from Scott. Most of his movies have been around or above two hours. This time this is not an issue. There is no wasted second in Gladiator. On the blu-ray there is an enhanced version that has several scenes added to it. These don’t really add anything to the story and Scott doesn’t even want these in there, because at the beginning he says to the camera that this is not the director’s cut. The only reason I can think of why you should watch that version is the commentary by Scott and Crowe together. They are really funny together and reveal tons of information about the process behind Gladiator.

It is unfortunate that Gladiator’s achievement of reviving the sword-and-sandal genre hasn’t yielded a great many movies like it. We got Troy, 300 and Alexander, which were average at best, and a slew of vastly inferior movies like the wretched Clash of the Titans. It’s a shame, because this genre has the potential to provide great drama. But let’s not end on a down note. We have Gladiator and we have to be thankful for this. I love Gladiator and so should you.

> IMDb