As breathtaking action and hair-raising violence are increasingly the sine qua non of summer box-office success, it comes as no surprise that Ridley Scott looked to the meatier side of the Roman Empire for the focus of his latest blockbuster, Gladiator. However, while the film by no means neglects these movie fundamentals, it earns its laurels for such indulgences as character development and a well-written storyline that convincingly animates the ancient world.
In the opening scene, General Maximus (Russell Crowe) commands Emperor Marcus Aurelius’s (Richard Harris) legions of clean-cut Roman soldiers as they square off against a frightful band of Germanic barbarians badly in need of a shower and a shave. After a torrent of flaming arrows decimates the Huns (and an old-growth forest kindly supplied by the British government), the soldiers charge, the cavalry thunders in, and the slashing and stabbing are captured in a collage of glorious scenes worthy of a Virgilian epic.
Crowe’s action-hero credentials having been certified, the plot thickens when the emperor’s impish son, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), arrives from Rome with his sister, Lucilla (Connie Nielsen), expecting to be named his father’s successor. Instead, Harris delivers a moving confession about his failures as emperor and secretly asks Maximus—the son, he says, he should have had—to take power and return it to the Senate and the people of Rome. Maximus is reluctant and longs to return to his farm and family. Crowe’s voice quickens marvelously as he remembers the vines and olive trees, and the pears, on the slope up to his house (and the black soil and his wife’s black hair). Our brief glimpse of the beautiful stone homestead across a field of waving grain amply justifies his longing.
When the emperor breaks the news to Commodus, he takes it badly. In a brilliant scene, Phoenix and Harris tearfully explore their disappointments as father and son, before Phoenix takes the matter of imperial succession into his own hands and squeezes.
Maximus, sentenced to death for refusing to recognize Commodus as his father’s successor, escapes but too late to save his family and farm. He is captured and taken to a fabulous North African casbah (filmed in Ouarzazate, Morocco), where he is sold as a gladiator to Proximo, a second-century Don King chillingly portrayed by Oliver Reed, who, alas, died while filming the movie. After a string of gory rounds in the arena make the ex-general a superstar (called the Spaniard), he is taken to Rome and the Colosseum for the new emperor’s inaugural games. Lucilla—apparently an ex-flame—devises, with the help of Senator Gracchus (Derek Jacobi of I, Claudius fame), an unsuccessful plot to free him. In a final confrontation, Maximus and Commodus engage in mortal combat for the future of Rome.
While the script’s historical embellishments would make Al Gore proud, the story does have a surprisingly recognizable historical basis. Marcus Aurelius, the wise, philosophical emperor, did in fact die in his military headquarters fighting the Danubian wars in 180 A.D. Though no evidence suggests that Commodus in any way hastened his father’s transfiguration from this world to the next (in fact, he had been named joint emperor by his father three years before), it is true that Commodus was anything but a chip off the old bust. Not only was he vicious and a tad insane (he renamed Rome “Colonia Commodiana” and had the Senate formally recognize him as the god Hercules), but he truly had a weakness for the Colosseum and indeed fought in the arena in person.
Lucilla, with a group of senators, did try unsuccessfully to assassinate her brother in 182. But it was not until 192 that Commodus was successfully dispatched by a wrestler sent by his advisers after he alienated the public by announcing his intention to assume the consulship, dressed as a gladiator. (Sorry, Virginia: there is no real-life Maximus—although Septimus Severus, who became emperor several months after Commodus’s timely demise, did command the Danubian army and claimed to be Marcus Aurelius’s son.)
Be that as it may, Gladiator’s commercial success is obviously not founded on its historical pretensions. The spectacle no doubt explains the lion’s share of it. And why not? The modern public enjoys a good bloody fight as much as its forebears—more so, probably, since it can have its cake and eat it, too. The costumes are splendidly lavish; the scenery is dramatic; the sets, particularly the computer-generated Colosseum, are a wonder to behold. (Can you pick out the 2,000 real fans among the Colosseum’s 35,000 enthusiastic spectators, or tell which sliver of the structure is genuine?) Finally, nostalgic speeches about the glories of the Roman Republic understandably resonate with the good citizens of the American Republic.
However, part of Gladiator’s appeal may derive from its religious aspects, which, though by no means central to the story, are more than gratuitous. Before the opening battle, Maximus inspires his men with what seem predictable, casual references to Elysium. But after the battle, we see him praying at an altar in his tent, as we see him praying numerous times during the film. In an awkwardly intimate scene with Lucilla, she confesses to him that, oh yes, she still prays. The movie is peppered with dream sequences about the afterlife, not to mention introspective conversations between Maximus and a fellow slave about what they might find there.
Finally, the little figurines Maximus keeps on his altar (lares and penates of a sort that represent his wife and son) are a constant motif. As he is leaving the Colosseum after a successful bout, his faithful servant Cicero (Tommy Flanagan) tries to hand him something. Is it a dagger or perhaps gold coins to bribe the guards? No, it is the tiny symbols of his faith.
To be sure, as befits a modern film, the faith is amorphous, like the Force in Star Wars. This is partly historical: the Roman religion of the age was a bit ambivalent about its basic tenets concerning, for example, the afterlife, which is one reason why Christianity, which was not, seemed so appealing. Partly, it is in deference to the modern tolerance commandment. Nevertheless, it is intriguing how, like the Force, even this cardboard, movie-prop faith somehow manages to ennoble the hero and enrich the film.
It is worth noting that there is not a single obviously Christian character or reference in the entire movie. While Christians were hardly ascendant in the Rome of this era, they were certainly a presence, and as Sheldon Vanauken once wrote, the real ones were being eaten by lions. (N.B., Gladiator has tigers.) A film of an earlier era would surely have included at the very least a reference to the Christian minority or a small vignette, if only to charm the audience who would know how the story came out.
But times have changed, and the film satisfies its multiculturalist obligations dutifully with other nods, some of which are mischieviously incorrect. Arab slave trader (Omid Djalili) haggles with Proximo before offering him a very good price on the gladiators, which will annoy the same groups who objected to Disney’s depictions in Aladdin. Proximo chastises the trader for having sold him queer giraffes that won’t mate, though he redeems himself later by offering to reward the Spaniard with a girl—or a boy.
But these asides pale beside the terrific performance put in by Djimon Hounsou as Juba, an African slave whose honest friendship with Maximus is a model of interracial harmony, which, who knows, in a small way may help to promote it. Juba first treats a gash in Maximus’s arm with an exotic African balm and then attends to the general’s psychological wounds. Philosophizing with Maximus, he encourages him to press on, against the odds, and assures him that he will see his family again—but not yet.
As Marcus Aurelius himself might have told him (quoting his Meditations), “To go away from among men, if there are gods, is not a thing to be afraid of, for the gods will not involve thee in evil; but if indeed they do not exist, or if they have no concern about human affairs, what is it to me to live in a universe devoid of gods or devoid of Providence. But in truth, they do exist, and they do care for human things.”