Welcome to the madness and mayhem of gladatorial combat, where people line up for miles around to get a glimpse of the fighting on the big screen…or make that the arena floor. Director Ridley Scott ushers in the return of the Roman epic with his film, Gladiator. It is a film that captures the spectacle, but not the heart (or the history) of the Roman films of old.
The film opens with the armies of the dying emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) in battle with the fearsome Germans. The chief general of the Romans, Maximus (Russell Crowe), is a strong leader, and Marcus Aurelius decides to name him as the next emperor of Rome.
Naturally, this doesn’t sit with Marcus Aurelius’ oldest living son, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), who schemes to capture the throne for himself. In doing so, he strips Maximus of his rank, and sends him to his death.
But, through a twist of fortune, Maximus ends up a slave in Zucchabar, forced to fight in gladiatorial combats to the death. Can Maximus survive the games long enough to gain his revenge?
Though a completely fictional story, Gladiator flirts with historical significance. Both the setting (Rome, 180 A.D.), and several characters (most notably the emperors Marcus Aurelius and Commodus) are lifted directly from the pages of history. However, a perplexing final scene does a bit more than fudge history, it launches the film into a parallel universe with little historical similarity to our own. Anyone familiar with the Roman Empire will be drawn out of the movie’s spell, which is a pity.
But, this film was not made for scholars. No, like the gladiatorial games themselves, this film is made for the spectacle of it all. And, when that spectacle is onscreen, the action is riveting. From battling armies, to duels to the death, Gladiator is impressive (though bloody) to watch.
And yet, for a film entitled “Gladiator”, where is all the gladiating? We are given three memorable trips to the floor of the arena (and a simpering finale which is merely pandering to the audience), and that is it.
What does the film do with the rest of the time? Drama…and cheesy drama at that. The story is a very simple tale of vengeance that makes Braveheart seem like a work of Shakespeare in comparison.
Joaquin Phoenix makes a slimy emperor to be sure, but he lacks enough dramatic presence to be a truly sinister villain. Russell Crowe is a much more admirable heroic figure, but this is his lightest role since Virtuosity. Only in some brief supporting roles do we get to see some solid acting (by Richard Harris and the late Oliver Reed).
Like a recreated battle on the arena floor, the story of Gladiator is just the window dressing for the carnage which ensues, and the end result may not quite jibe with history. But, for those with a taste for carnage, Gladiator has plenty to share.