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.