Written by David Franzoni, John Logan, and William Nicholson
Directed by Ridley Scott
I am not a fan of Ridley Scott, a statement I’m sure I’ve made multiple times on this blog. I have certainly said it out loud plenty of times. I think he is a fantastic production designer, building worlds in intricate detail. But he is not a consistently strong storyteller or director of human beings. Filmmakers with prolific careers often reveal their personal views for their work, especially if they make big-budget Hollywood pictures. In Scott’s work, I see themes centered around a disdain for how humanity is crushed by institutions and the military’s glorification. In this film, Blackhawk Down, and others, he romanticizes and mythologizes the warrior figure in a personally uncomfortable way.
Gladiator is the tale of Roman General Maximus (Russell Crowe), who has helped the Empire defeat the German barbarians and is set to return home victorious. Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) is visiting the battle site and tells Maximus he wants the soldier to become the new ruler, that Marcus’s son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) is unfit to rule Rome. Before Marcus can tell anyone, this Commodus finds out and suffocates his father. Then, he proceeds to have Maximus arrested and taken to be executed in the forest for defiance.
Maximus escapes only to find his family murdered at the hands of this new mad emperor. The fallen soldier is picked up by slavers and is forced to train as a gladiator with Proximo (Oliver Reed). Maximus returns to Rome, but this time as a fighter in the Colisseum with his life on the line. It’s only a matter of time until Commodus learns this new champion’s identity, and Maximus knows he will be living on borrowed time then. But hope may rest with Commodus’s sister, Lucilla (Connie Nielsen) & Senator Gracchus (Derek Jacobi), who realize Commodus’s reign will be brutal.
Gladiator is a decent movie. At the time, I know it looked impressive. I saw it reluctantly in theaters with college friends; it just was subject matter that never appealed to me. I also don’t find Russell Crowe to be a compelling actor; he plays almost everything fairly flat, in my opinion. I have to say some special effects have aged beautifully. Others feel painfully dated. The digital slow-motion added in post-production during the opening battle scene is one of those artifacts of the early 2000s that I found hideous at the time. Instead of setting up the camera for a slow-motion shot, they reduce the number of frames per second to result in an incredibly shitty stuttery effect.
Oliver Reed died during filming, so Scott had to use what special effects existed and use lighting to keep the character alive for his final scene in the picture. It is glaringly apparent when we see the digitally resurrected Reed, his head pasted onto the body of another actor and the lighting crew doing their best to obscure the details. Even Rome, which was hailed at the time as a wonderful recreation, feels more artificial as so many early digital effects have become in the ensuing decades. I always like to point to picture like Star Wars with practical effects or even Scott’s own Blade Runner, which hold up better than the early computer-generated effects movies.
There is nothing remarkable storywise about this movie. The characters feel very stock and the story predictable. When you have the main character played in the broadest uninteresting manner, it’s hard to feel invested in the film. Crowe does an adequate job of posing and grimacing when the script calls on him, but there is no depth or complexity to Maximus. The same could be said about every character in the story. Phoenix is wasted as Commodus, a caricature of a bad guy. I couldn’t help but think of Julie Taymor’s ostentatious Shakespeare adaptation Titus that came out around the same time. That film took similar subject matter and delivered on both strong visuals and great performances. It is a much darker and bleak tale but, in the end, a more honest portrayal of these shallow cabals of power and leadership. Gladiator makes you feel good while ultimately saying very little.