Tuesday, February 22, 2011

MM Movie Review: Gladiator

The 2000 Ridley Scott film “Gladiator” was a box office success that is widely credited with reviving the “sword and sandal” historical epics (though given some that came later one might be tempted to use the word “blame” rather than “credit” sometimes). What is the story? Well, as with so many movies these days “Gladiator” is a little light on story. It pretty much boils down to a quest for revenge though they try to spice it up with some other plot points but they really make no sense. Russell Crowe stars as General Maximus Decimus Meridius who we meet in the opening scenes leading his armies to victory over some German barbarians. I don’t know how accurate the battle sequence is, but it is certainly impressive. In almost any Roman-era movie the “barbarians”, be they Germans, Celts or anyone else are all portrayed the same way: very hairy, very primitive and wearing lots of animal skins. The battle is won by Maximus under the watchful eyes of Emperor Marcus Aurelius (played by veteran actor Richard Harris). His son and daughter arrive just as the fighting is over and we move on to my first really (*really*) big problem with this movie.

The great Emperor Marcus Aurelius, an old man about to die, says that he’s really not a fan of the whole “empire” thing and wants Rome to go back to being the ideal, virtuous republic that it once was. Yes, this tired line again. You know, that glorious Roman Republic ruled by a handful of feuding elite politicians which spent its last hundred years killing its own people in civil wars driven by men with more ego than brains and more vanity than patriotism…yes, that one. Of course that was so much better than the peace, prosperity and cultural revival that came with the establishment of the monarchy by Emperor Augustus. Now, considering the fact that Marcus Aurelius is a very old man by this time, one is tempted to ask why, if he so detested the empire, did he not immediately abdicate all his powers to the Senate long ago? Why wait till now when you know you are about to die and must know that this is going to cause sufficient upheaval that you want your best general to step in as military dictator to oversee the transition? Such questions are never answered. Roman film fans will remember that this was the set-up for the epic movie, “The Fall of the Roman Empire” which was also based around Marcus Aurelius wanting to deny the throne to his son in favor of handing power over to a trusted general. Were the makers of “Gladiator” really at such a loss for ideas that they had to rip off the falsities of past films?

So, Emperor Marcus Aurelius wants to be the last Roman Emperor and he wants Maximus to take charge in Rome during the transition back to being a republic. He says that his own son, Commodus, is pretty much an evil jerk and cannot be allowed to assume power. Maximus, humble and un-ambitious of course as all heroes are expected to be, does not want to take power but the Emperor tells him that is precisely why he is the only man for the job. Forgive me, but this really takes dramatic license way, way too far. Contrary to what they say, Rome was not “founded as a republic”. It had originally been a monarchy. That monarchy was overthrown and Rome became a republic. I am a fan of Roman civilization in general and I don’t like to bash the Roman Republic but I really get tired of the constant over-romanticism of the republic at the expense of the empire. The Roman Republic fell because it failed, it could no longer function and the Romans, who were a very practical people, by and large understood that when one thing doesn’t work you try something else. They also, even after the elevation of Augustus, considered themselves a republic -just a republic with an Emperor who held final authority. Moreover, we know that Marcus Aurelius was not the last Roman Emperor and that the Empire went on for a very long time after him so, who are they trying to fool? Additionally, not only did Marcus Aurelius not want to exclude his son from power he actually made Commodus a sort of partner alongside him some time before he died. The real Marcus Aurelius actually went above and beyond to make it known that his son would succeed him and that the succession would be peaceful.

Well, not in this movie, which in this early scene immediately takes on a decidedly anti-monarchist tone (which is a shame because it is such a well made, entertaining film for the most part). Marcus Aurelius is the “good Emperor” only because he doesn’t want to be Emperor at all (yet he kept the job all these years) and the goal is to see the monarchy abolished and senatorial rule restored. However, when he announces to his son Commodus (played with villainous excellence by Joaquin Phoenix) that he will not be emperor but instead his general will take charge and turn power over to the Senate, believe it or not, Commodus is rather unhappy with the news. In a fit of rage he kills his father and assumes power. Which, we know of course, is pure myth as in actual history Marcus Aurelius died of sickness. In any event, it is done here and other commanders are loyal to Commodus and Maximus is arrested and soldiers are sent to kill his wife and children. The general escapes but is captured by slave traders bound for Africa.

Maximus is bought by Proximo (played by the late great Oliver Reed) who makes him a gladiator, eventually instilling in him a will to live and to use his status as a gladiator to rise to fame, earn his way to fight in Rome and get close to the Emperor. In the meantime, Commodus returns triumphantly to Rome and promptly angers the Senate. He would like to do away with them entirely but his sister, Princess Lucilla (played marvelously by Danish actress Connie Nielsen) dissuades him on the grounds that the people need their traditions. Just to reiterate what a bad guy Commodus is we are quickly shown that he’d like nothing better than to crush his sister’s smokes (yep, a time-honored insult for Roman emperors if ever there was one -incest is best, everything’s relative! Oh boy…) and she also fears angering her brother for the sake of her son Lucius. Commodus decides to overcome the opposition of the Senate by winning over the public which he does with a campaign of generosity and 150 days of gladiatorial games in the Coliseum. I will add here that the soundtrack on the movie is pretty spectacular but my favorite musical note was the fanfare when the Emperor arrives in the ‘royal box’. And, although I couldn’t swear as to the accuracy, the costumes all look magnificent to me. I thought Rome itself was done well though I know some have complained about the CGI. All I can say to that is, if you think the CGI in this movie is terrible -I can only envy you as I have seen much, much, much worse.

Maximus (known as “the Spaniard” in gladiatorial circles) finally arrives in Rome but, being the proper, virtuous republican that he is, cannot resist denouncing the spectacle of blood sports. He says that Marcus Aurelius had a vision of Rome and that the blood sport of the coliseum was “not it”. Well, sorry to burst your bubble there general but gladiatorial combat had been going on in Rome for a very, very long time before Marcus Aurelius was ever a twinkle in his father’s eye. Just as with his condemnation of the empire and glorification of the idyllic republic that never existed, I say again, if the Emperor had a problem with gladiators fighting to the death he could have just stopped it. He was the Emperor. He would have been seen as a wussy, puritanical kill-joy by the Roman people but he could have done it. There are few things that turn me off more than people, real or fictitious, who gripe and moan about things that they have every power to change but for some reason never do so. For a real life example witness Thomas Jefferson and his numerous and vociferous condemnations of slavery and keep in mind that this man owned hundreds of slaves and never gave any of them their freedom. Sorry to digress, but that sort of thing just really annoys me.

Maximus triumphs in the arena against all odds and finally comes face to face with the Emperor. Commodus is shocked and horrified to find him alive but Maximus had won the crowd over and so the Emperor cannot kill him without angering the mob. Maximus, meanwhile, enters into a conspiracy with Lucilla and some senators to have the Emperor assassinated after which time Maximus will be able to carry out his last order and have his revenge against Commodus all at the same time. A great plan right? Well, it would have been except that for some reason some idiot seems to have let the little boy Lucius in on their plan to have Maximus “save” Rome and overthrow his uncle who just happens to be the most powerful man on earth and holds all of their lives in the palm of his hand. Again, Emperor Commodus is rather upset by this and in a very chilling scene lets his sister know that he is on to them and that if she does anything to displease him her son will be the first to die. Well done to whoever told the kid, brilliant move there.

The only other problem I have with this is that we are just supposed to take for granted that Emperor Commodus is an unpopular and terrible tyrant. Yet, we never actually see him do anything to the people to warrant that judgment. We see him be perfectly evil of course but only to his own family and to Maximus who was standing in the way of his inheritance and knew the truth about the fictional last wishes of his father. We never see him tyrannizing the people, being cruel to them or advancing himself in any undue way. The real Commodus was considered more odd than anything else, more of a nut job than anything else, naming months after himself and walking around wearing a lion skin and carrying a club -totally unlike the Commodus in this movie. On the contrary, as far as the Roman people are concerned all we ever see is the Emperor being good to them, feeding them, entertaining them and worrying over how well the people love him. From what we see on screen, so long as you did not cross him or were not related to him you would probably think he was a pretty great monarch. But that doesn’t seem to matter. He is the bad guy, Maximus is the good guy and Commodus has to find some way of getting rid of him without just executing him which would upset the public.

Finally, Emperor Commodus decides that the only way to deal with Maximus is to kill him himself in the arena in gladiatorial combat (after stabbing him in the side of course to ensure his victory). A wounded, bleeding to death Maximus against the wicked Emperor Commodus, yes, we all know how that is going to end. That’s right, they both die. Maximus kills the Emperor, has his revenge and then promptly drops dead. The Praetorian Guard does nothing, the crowd does not react -nothing. One would think this sort of thing happened every day. Someone just killed the Emperor of Rome in front of thousands of witnesses and absolutely no action is taken. Maximus is given all the honors of death while the Emperor is just left to lay there in the dirt. Did I miss something? Seriously, THAT was the end? That is what we have been building toward all this time; they both die, end of story, roll credits? Huh?!?

At the end of the day I could not figure out just exactly what the point of “Gladiator” was supposed to be. The hero does not really ‘win’ other than accomplishing the fact of killing the ‘bad guy’. However, as we have already seen, we never see the ‘bad guy’ do anything that bad in the grand scheme of things beyond how he ruined the lives of a few individuals. I know we are led to believe that the farcical last wish of Marcus Aurelius was fulfilled and the Roman Republic was restored -but we all know that did not happen. The Roman Empire marched on for a long, long time to come after the actual death of the real Emperor Commodus. So, again, I wonder what really was the point of it all? What is this movie supposed to be telling us? The only moral I could find was that if someone does you wrong, don’t give up, just be patient and wait until the time is right to take your revenge and even if it kills you it will still be worth it if your enemy dies with you. Not exactly uplifting I suppose. However, I will say again though that the movie is very entertaining, the fight scenes are realistic and exciting, I thought it looked spectacular, the actors all gave first rate performances (I loved the announcer by the way), the sound was good and it was pretty well paced. It was, on the other hand, very inaccurate, rather absurd at times regarding the story and did not really have any depth to it. That and it was very anti-monarchist from where I was sitting.


  1. Pace, MM, but when it comes to Rome I tend to lean Republican. Having said that, these sorts movies still annoy me because they all seem to forget that all pre-modern republics and democracies, from Athens to Venice, were rather aristocratic affairs by our standards. Unless you were a middle-aged man with a significant amount of family history, property, or military service behind you, you were probably not enfranchised.

    Quasi-historical films like Gladiator seem to all think that historical republics were like the anarcho-syndicalist commune from Monty Python & the Quest for the Holy Grail. The truth is that they were more like the monarchies of the day than they are like our modern political systems.

  2. I like the Roman Republic, I just like it best when it had an Emperor. Augustus, Hadrian, Trajan, Antoninus Pius, Constantine the Great, Theodosius the Great -I don't want to think of a Rome without them.

    I will agree though that if most people today saw how the Roman Republic or the Republics of Genoa or Venice operated they would likely think they were monarchies. Most do not even realize that the common people were not represented by the Senate at all. Can anyone name the assembly that represented the common plebs of Rome? (crickets chirping) Didn't think so, most probably never heard of it. That is why I do tend to get a little upity over historical errors in movies -after time they get repeated so often as to be taken for fact.

  3. I quite liked the movie myself when I first saw it, but since realized it was inaccurate. Being the pro-authority person that I am, I rooted for the Emperor the whole time.

    Although you know, it's a lot like saying I liked the French Republic, when it had an Emperor.

  4. I liked it as far as being well made, well acted and entertaining -just not beyond that. And I am also quite used to going to movies and rooting for the 'bad guys'.

  5. Such as the Empire in Star Wars, I imagine?

  6. I wrote quite a long post on that in the past. I'm not very "in" with the Star Wars stuff but I did recognize that the empire was at least competent whereas the republic was so ineffective as to be criminally negligent.

  7. I never saw this movie, but Ridley Scott tends to incorporate the same general themes into all of his movies, drawn from my usual whipping boy the Enlightenment. I know I talk a lot of it, but, it is a major influence. Scott’s primary influence, in fact, aside from Humanism, which itself came about as a development from the same ideals. His other films like Robin Hood or Kingdom Of Heaven have basically the same perspective. (I’ve only seen Kingdom of Heaven of the above, and read reviews of the others.) He’s simply promoting the usual Mythos, and the inherent contradictions that you listed are all familiar with anyone reading about these sorts of narratives.

    In a way, though, it highlights another problem I find has always happened in Humanity. We tend to rewrite and retell History according to our own Ideals and beliefs, projecting backward onto bygone ages our thoughts, our dreams, and our ideal order, and expecting people to actually have held those same beliefs.

    Combine this with the fact that the Human Animal is a storytelling animal, and the stories generally conform to overarching stories, or themes as it were, and you get movies like this.

    Let’s face it, the story of how Republics are sterling examples of Greatness, in which Freedom exists for all in society and in which all thrive, VS a Monarchy in which a decadent ruler serves only himself and is enriched at the expense of others, or at least Freedom is lost in some way, and how the Revolutionaries stand firm filled with Valour as they struggle to win that grand prise of Freedom is a pretty normative theme, and even the aforementioned Star Wars tried to work that in by making Amidallah an Elected Monarch (at age 14, and with a Body Double raised with her at Birth, even though her family was middle class) whilst Palpatine is an evil Userper.

    Star Wars is in that way much like this film: It shares many of the inherent contradictions, and yet wants to begin by assuming we Start off as a Republic then degenerate into a Monarchy, which is somehow Tyranny and bad, only to fight to restore our True and Natural order.

    It adds a layer of legitimacy if the world was originally somehow a Republic, and the hero strives to restore it, rather than to simply overthrow the Monarch, though I’ve had some dealings in that too.

  8. Lets face it, they could have had Cammodus do nothing evil aside from inherit the Throne and still had him as the bad guy and people would have bought it. I’ve had numerous talks with people about this, one even with Burt Perlinsky who, when I asked why Louise the 16th was bad, told me he was bad simply because he was a King.

    As most people have decided that Republicanism (Or no Democracy) is self evidently good, simply being an Emperor makes Camodus evil.

    So it doesn’t matter that he never hurts anyone, he’s an Emperor thus bad.

    After all, we all know that Monarchy is bad, right?

    And again, people love to project onto the past their own version fo events, and infuse them with their own Ideals. That’s why America’s founders are all Deists who hated Religion according to many Ardent Atheists these days, who swear they’d have been Atheists if alive today after Darwin, or Devout Evangelical Christians by many on the Religious Right. One will say they anted a thoroughly Secular Society, having seen how Religion mixed in Government leads to Tyranny. They will say they wanted to protect the Government form Religion as they knew if Religion gained power it would use that power to oppress. Others would argue that they created a nation based on Christian principles, following the Bible as their guide, and setting up a system mirroring Ancient Israel.

    The same principle is always at work, using historical figures as a way to gain credibility and authority for your own argument, and rewriting History, reading into it your ideals and values and putting them into those long dead how lived in a radically different society, in order to lend support for your own beliefs and principles.

    I learned long ago most do not want the Truth, they ant to see themselves and heir Ideals repeated back to them. Scott is a Humanist, and thus all events in History are retold via a Humanist Lense, and Historical storytelling is done in a way as to promote the Values of his Humanism.

    He doesn’t want a Real Rome, he wants a Rome that holds his own Values, and a Hero that’s just like an idealised version of man from his Values. He wants to tell a story in which the hero represents his Ideals, and embodies them for the audience, and for the bad guy to simply embody the opposite.

    He certainly doesn’t want Pagan Romans reading entrails of birds, or Emperors being good and just, or a Hero who supports Monarchy, or for that matter Christianity.

  9. All true, going back to my last review, I would say that is why "The Patriot" could be a brutal killer but not a slave-owner and all his people had to be against racism even though someone in that time and place would not have thought twice about slavery being immoral or races being equal. As you say, "Kingdom of Heaven" was much the same: the devoutly religious are ignorant fanatics and the heroes are basically agnostics. Similarly, Marcus Aurelius must have been a closet republican and Maximus must denounce the games.

  10. We must keep in mind that Scott was making a movie, not a documentary. Although substantial license was taken with the facts, the movie had a more realistic feel to it than perhaps any other epic of its kind. And it was thoroughly entertaining. The historical characters were all real people and they were depicted in a more or less realistic sense so I had no problem with it generally. The ending was simplistic and could have been done better.

  11. I doubt people would be so forgiving if some more popular figure was distorted out of all recognition in the name of dramatic license. I agree it was entertaining but there is a big difference, for me anyway, in changing minor details or leaving things out for time and completely changing the character of real and extremely significant historical figures. Emperor Marcus Aurelius a republican? It is silly and makes no sense in the story.

  12. It's actually interesting. I've just started reading Ben Elton's Dead Famous, and I'm not even 50 pages in before I realised how stupid the entire concept is. Basically, it's murder in the Big Brother house. All you do is say "Who's accounted for on camera, and who isn't?" You'll have two in the latter group. One will be dead, the other will have killed them.

    A load of bunk and bull.

    As for Gladiator - fair points on all fronts. And in particular, the character myopia that you point out (those who condemn something not realising they can change it). That's why I brought up Dead Famous - it's all because if the characters were smart, the big budget blockbuster couldn't come out.

    It's called fridge logic because you don't really notice it until later.

    Incidentally, I do disagree on the point of the "unambitious" being something designated to the hero. I just recall in Prince Caspian that Caspian confesses to Aslan that he wasn't ready, which was how Aslan knew he was. Yes, I know, Aslan is Jesus, but I'd like to see how you feel about that (especially since such characters are the reason Lord Acton only suggested a tendency between power and corruption, not a definite link).

  13. Mark me down as for once having no opinion as I have not a clue who Prince Caspien or Aslan are (have heard of Jesus though!). I point out the 'ambition' part here because a) it is generally considered a sin (not that I would entirely agree with that), b) because Commodus later tries to argue that his ambition could be considered a sort of virtue -so whatever the villain is the hero must be the opposite and c) it is certainly not uncommon to celebrate those who at least pretend to be reluctant to take power. Like when politicians win an election and say they feel "humbled". BS alert! BS alert!

  14. Oh, with politicians, of course it's BS - they get elected by going out nd being ambitious. It's the nature of the system (and why I am in preference of hereditary powers).

    And I'm astonished you haven't read the Narnia books! Yes, Lewis goes a bit bananas at the end and rips off wholesale from Revelations, but they're still pretty decent.

    And I must ask - have you read The Lord of the Rings? More monarchist series than these two would be hard to come by.

  15. Narnia then, I was wondering if it had something to do with "Rings". No, I've read none of the books, I think I saw part of one of the Ring movies but no more than that. Alot of people have recommended them but, for the most part, anything with talking animals, fairies or trolls I have a hard time taking seriously. Those who like it -great, I'll leave the analysis to them, and if someone ever got me to sit down and watch them I might be properly impressed but until then I'll just have to take your word for it.

  16. Marcus Aurelius as a repressed republican raises ridiculous to uncanny heights. He received the Empire at its height (not just territorially, but in the institutional configuration of the Principate), and was well aware of its use. And yes, he absolutely wanted Commodus to succeed.

    I enjoy Gladiator immensely, but it has to be taken for what it is: a fictional story in a historical backdrop. I'm sorry that some people have seen in it any pretense of historicity, because it has distorted their view of history. I have even heard people telling me that the Colosseum was called Circus Maximus (never mind that the Circus is a completely different building used for chariots) because of Maximus!

    And, as you say, what most people don't know is that it isn't an original movie, but a remake of "The Fall of the Roman Empire". Greatly enjoyable too, and more historical than Gladiator, though still largely fictional.

  17. I had problems with this movie as well. The Helmets were all wrong, first off. Commodus, while a gladiator, was much less clumsy than Joaquin Phoenix. The Republic failed because in my opinion it became a democracy. You had Sulla and Marius fighting for control.. Not for Rome, mind you.. Certainly,(Though they would deny it) not for the people. They wanted Rome for their own ends.


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