Now and again, I have the thought that maybe — just maybe — Gladiator is overrated. Then, I watch it and realize… it’s not. Inevitably, by the end I’ve reached a conclusion that it is one of, if not THE, best movie ever made, purely from a cinematic standpoint. It is just that good, and it’s probably my favorite film of all time (yes, beating out Titanic, The Lord of the Rings, and Gone With the Wind). There’s a multitude of wonderful things about it, but I’ll simply touch on a few.
The storyline: as a writer, I appreciate good writing. Very few films are made where I think, “I wish I’d written this,” but Gladiator is one of them. There’s never a moment when it isn’t magnificent, when the script isn’t glorious, when the action is not important, where our emotions wane, where we are not heavily invested in this man’s plight. This script took multiple rewrites and several different writers working on it to bring it to its current state, which just proves how powerful combined talent can be. It’s an unorthodox love story, a tale of survival against insurmountable odds, an action film, an exploration of the political situation in Rome, and a historical epic. It has gorgeous dialogue and incredibly moving emotional climaxes. If this were a novel, it would be sheer perfection.
The characters: are wonderfully written, multi-layered, and earn many different emotions from the audience. None of them we simply love or hate, but each builds up a complicated set of reactions in us, as we follow their plights, strengths, weaknesses, triumphs and successes.
Maximus is a man every woman loves, and every man admires, a reluctant, homesick general and even more reluctant gladiator. Men admire his strength, conviction and passion. Women are attracted to his emotional vulnerability and love for his family. His love for his wife never wanes, even after her death; his motivation in survival is to live a life worthy of her memory, not to give up living but to die in an honorable manner. This is what makes the movie so powerful; in all its pagan imagery, at the end, Maximus’ death is not a sad event, because he’s finally going home! He’s being reunited with his wife and child! His toil on this mortal coil is finished at last, and that in-expressively fills us with complete and utter happiness on his behalf. Since when does a death scene do that for an audience?
His antagonist is Commodus, who suffocates his father so he might become the emperor after Marcus threatens to hand over control of the empire to Maximus, for return to the senate. Much like the rest of the characters, Commodus is not your typical villain; he is psychotic, lethal, and at times, downright pathetic, a man desperate for his father’s approval and incapable of ever earning it; a man so desirous of the affection of the crowd that he would risk his own life in the arena; a man morbidly obsessed with his sister and nephew, who sees cruelty and violence as a game that earns him respect and titillation. He forces men into submission and is brought to his knees through his own desperate appeal for popularity.
And then we have Lucilla, his powerless sister, who once loved Maximus and now is concerned for the life of her son, as heir to the empire. Lucilla knows her brother must be stopped… and does all in her power to stop him, to the extent of scheming with the senators to have him assassinated. Her father sums it up best when he says, “If only you had been born a man, what a Caesar you would have made!” Her strength and the risks she takes to bring about good in the empire are further underlined in the “extended cut,” which shows her full interaction with members of the senate intent on dethroning her brother.
Finally, there is Proximo, the ex-slave, ex-gladiator who makes his fortune on the blood of enslaved men. Yet, even he is not beyond redemption, for when challenged on his principles, Proximo risks it all to assist them, to free his slaves, and dies a heroic death having done his part to try and unseat the emperor. His advice to Maximus gives a chill to the audience – people do not come to the games to watch men die, but to be entertained; win the crowd and your power is unimaginable.
The politics: throughout, there is a ringing, hollow truth in that “Rome is the mob. Conjure magic for them and they’ll be distracted. Take away their freedom and still they’ll roar. The beating heart of Rome is not the marble of the senate; it’s the sand of the coliseum. He’ll bring them death — and they will love him for it.” Horrifically, this speaks to our culture’s obsession with “celebrity” and our willingness to trade liberty for “distractions.” Yet, the film approaches the subject of the games in such a way that its audience never feels so much a spectator, but involved in the lives of its protagonists – like Maximus, we are repulsed that this is what Rome has become. It never glorifies its violence. It never asks us to root for it. It simply uses it as a backdrop to tell a powerful tale.
The relationships: all of them are complex and multi-faceted. If you’re not paying attention, many of them will slip past without conscious notice of the deeper ramifications, such as the powerful moment in Maximus’ cell when he reminds Lucilla that her father chose Maximus to rule over his own children. He might have chosen Lucilla, but because she is a woman, he did not. Yet, Lucilla never resents Maximus for being her father’s favorite, unlike her brother; and that is her redemption. The dynamic between everyone is strained in different and familiar ways, but never to the point of clichés: Lucilla loves Maximus, but Commodus hates him because his father prefers him. For Marcus, Maximus is the son he wanted, but never got. Relationships are the primary focus of the film, much more than blood sport.
The main motivation: … contrary to what some believers might think, is not revenge. Love drives the story, much more than hatred. Commodus’ hatred for Maximus is his eventual undoing; it destroys everything in his life… his reputation, his success with the crowd, his relationship with his sister, and eventually, it kills him. Saying that Maximus’ only desire is vengeance for the death of his family is missing the point; it is out of love that he survives, out of love that he wants Commodus to face what he has done and atone for it. Yes, in the end he kills the man who made his life hell, but that was never his one ambition. He fought for his honor, his life, his family, and for what he wanted Rome to become. His escape attempt is not to kill Commodus, but to reclaim Rome for the citizenry.
The cast: is perfection. I make no secret of my opinion that Russell Crowe is one of the most talented actors currently in the business, and this is his Oscar-award-winning performance. It’s worth every curve of his golden statue. He is very much an emotional actor; whatever he is feeling, you can see it in his eyes. And this is why so many love Maximus; because we see him not as a brutal man, but as one disgusted with what he must do to survive. We see him as a father, as a husband, as a lover, as a general, as a devout man seeking peace. It’s all written into his face, expressed through his eyes. Joaquin Phoenix is a perfect foil to him; his Commodus bristles with unrepentant rage, fear, jealousy, hatred, and pure sadism. His calm erupts into total fury. Crowe won an Oscar; Phoenix didn’t… and he should have.
More plot, less action: much was made about this film’s brutality on its release, but when said and done, it has about 20 minutes total of battle scenes (if that) and the rest is all sheer plot and character development. That people remember the few instances of graphic violence (most of it is implied) and not the over-reaching story is something I deeply regret, because I think this film is a perfect example of what a movie is truly capable of: a moving, intelligent epic of the likes we’ve not seen since.