After an absence of 35 years, the Roman Empire makes a thrilling return to the bigscreen in “Gladiator.” A muscular and bloody combat picture, a compelling revenge drama and a truly transporting trip back nearly 2,000 years, Ridley Scott’s bold epic of imperial intrigue and heroism brings new luster and excitement to a tarnished and often derided genre that nonetheless provided at least one generation of moviegoers with some of its most cherished youthful memories. But risky as this undertaking was at a budget well north of $100 million, the unfamiliarity of its trappings look likely to work in its favor with modern audiences, who should flock to this exciting entertainment in large numbers. Overseas haul promises to be even bigger than the domestic take for a picture that will have the incidental effect of making Russell Crowe a major star.
From roughly 1951 with “Quo Vadis” through the mid-’60s, the ancient historical/biblical/war spectacle represented one of the mainstays of world cinema. Revived on the widescreen as a way to lure audiences into theaters with something they couldn’t see on TV, these extravaganzas, which ranged from Oscar winners such as “Ben-Hur” to so-called sword-and-sandals potboilers like “Hercules” and far worse, were among the biggest commercial attractions of the period. But the costly and overlong “Cleopatra” and “The Greatest Story Ever Told” hastened the genre’s demise.
The last of the full-blown, old-fashioned imperial epics, “The Fall of the Roman Empire,” a vastly underrated end-of-the-cycle flop in 1964 that remains stupendous in many respects, provides “Gladiator” with its historical point of departure, four of its principal characters and numerous plot points: Both films’ first acts are set in 180 A.D. in the forests of Germania, where the army of Marcus Aurelius finally subdues the barbarian hordes but where the aging emperor is eliminated by his treacherous son, Commodus; they also place in opposition Commodus and a great general who was the late emperor’s favorite, with Commodus’ beautiful sister torn between them. The stories subsequently move to Rome and conclude with mano a mano combat between the two mortal enemies.
In treatment, look and feel, however, there is a world of difference between the two movies; although shot through with an intelligence rare for the genre, Anthony Mann’s film was stately, formal and, for its detractors, slow, while Scott’s is vital, visceral and pulse-quickening. And at its center is a great hero, a “real man” who will inspire both male and female viewers, a fellow of few words who speaks plainly and can handle himself in any situation, especially physically.
Jagged and impressionistic in a way clearly influenced by “Saving Private Ryan,” 10-minute opening battle is a savage spectacle, as General Maximus (Crowe) commands his troops to “unleash hell” on their overmatched adversaries with a deluge of arrows and flaming canisters that set the barbarians’ protective woods on fire.But as external conflicts are put to rest, internal trouble is only beginning. The arrogant and unbalanced Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) arrives at the front, along with his beautiful older sister, Lucilla (Connie Nielsen), just in time to learn that his ailing father (Richard Harris) has named the triumphant Maximus his successor as emperor. For his part, Maximus, a Spaniard who has never seen Rome and, far more important, has been separated from his wife and son for nearly three years, wants no part of this plan.But Maximus makes the mistake of spurning Commodus. After killing his father in a fit of jealous spite, the insecure new emperor orders the execution of the popular general. The resourceful Maximus escapes this fate but reaches home too late; when he arrives, he finds his wife and son dead, his farm torched. In the poetic manner of Sergio Leone, Scott uses a man of action’s bitter and idealized memory of his lost family as a motif and a motive for the single-minded pursuit to which he devotes the remainder of his life.
At the 45-minute mark, action shifts to a distant North African outpost of the empire, where the captive Maximus is taken as slave. Purchased by gladiatorial entrepreneur Proximo (Oliver Reed), Maximus conceals his true identity but, when thrown into the arena for the first time, he fights well as a team with the African Juba (Djimon Hounsou), who will become his closest confidant.
After returning to a Rome that looks as much like Hitler and Albert Speer’s plan for Berlin as it does the Forum as it really ever looked, the new emperor orders 150 days’ worth of games at the Colosseum in an attempt to win the favor of the people. Bringing Maximus and other top fighters to Rome, Proximo, an old gladiator himself, advises his new stars to “win the crowd.”The gladiators’ entrance into the Colosseum has inspired Scott’s most staggering visual coup; after their detention in dark, confusing bowels of the great stadium, they are suddenly rushed up and out into blinding sunlight before thousands of crazed spectators waiting to see their blood flow. Drawing upon his army expertise, Maximus makes sure this doesn’t happen, turning the tables on the intended victors of the entertainment (a “re-creation” of the second war of Carthage) and earning the immediate attention of the emperor as a result.
Commodus is aghast to learn that the man whose death he ordered is still alive, and alarmed that this slave is suddenly more acclaimed among the people than he is. Also inspired by Maximus is Lucilla, his long-ago lover who dares to suggest a meeting with a rogue senator, Gracchus (Derek Jacobi), who would dearly love to use Maximus’ popularity as a political weapon against Commodus. Convinced by Lucilla’s desire to rid the empire of her neurotic brother, Maximus joins the dangerous plot, agreeing to an escape after which he will lead a waiting army into Rome against Commodus and help restore a republic.
In the meantime, of course, Maximus must survive arena combat that is heavily rigged against him. The gladiatorial contests are tense, dynamic and brutal, to be sure, and probably no less or more violent than most viewers would want them to be. Less fetishistic about the weaponry and modes of fighting than “Spartacus” and some other Roman combat pictures of yore, “Gladiator,” with its fast flurries of action and jump cuts, emphasizes the ferocious speed and urgency of every move in the arena, to the slight detriment of spatial unity and action continuity; in terms of the classical building of tension in a one-on-one fight, the standard is still the Anthony Quinn-Jack Palance battle in Richard Fleischer’s “Barabbas.”
But “Gladiator” enjoys a solid foundation in the strength of Maximus, the vividness of its evocation of the Roman world and the integrity of the story arc. Script by David Franzoni, John Logan and William Nicholson shrewdly appropriates touchstone moments from previous epics, just as it also cuts down the talk to a minimum when possible; there is none of the windy speechifying that ground many an epic to a halt in decades past. The action is presented in strictly Roman terms, with none of the Judeo-Christian angle so common to the genre in the ’50s.
The film revels in both the glory and the horror that were Rome. Proximo’s luminous description of the Colosseum to Maximus beautifully conjures an image of what was then the center of the universe, and the games themselves are presented in context as gaudy, lowbrow entertainment. Countless details in Arthur Max’s brilliant production design and Janty Yates’ highly diversified costume design are offered up in wonderfully offhand fashion.
Crowe is simply splendid, every inch the warrior with his image of a tranquil domestic life an emblazoned but irretrievable memory. Phoenix makes for a more neurotic, internalized Commodus than the gleeful maniac created by Christopher Plummer in “Roman Empire,” a coddled youngster literally in love (and lust) with his sister. As the latter, Nielsen has a consummately regal beauty and bearing; when her father says, “If only you would have been born a man, what a Caesar you would have made,” it’s instantly credible. Harris is excellent as the philosopher emperor (played by Alec Guinness in 1964) who rues having spent most of his career making war, and supporting players Jacobi, Hounsou and a corpulent David Hemmings as the clownishly bewigged emcee at the Colosseum make distinctly favorable impressions.
But the scene stealer, in his last role before his death on location, is Reed, who hadn’t brought such relish to a performance in years, and to whom the film is dedicated. Proximo’s excitement over being able to return to Rome brings out the old man’s boyish delight in his profession, which he insists is just “entertainment,” and Reed clearly reveled in both the physicality and the modestly hammy opportunities the part presented. Pic reps a great sendoff for him and a fine way to be remembered.
Production represented a gargantuan undertaking in four countries; even if the film is a big hit, it’s unlikely that the genre will come back in any significant way due to the costs involved. CGI effects have allowed numerous sets, notably the Colosseum, to be enhanced in size and spectacle value; the stunts, fights and battles are as forceful and realistic as anyone could want, John Mathieson’s widescreen cinematography is magnificent, and the pacing across 2½ hours is well modulated.