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Review: Gladiator

By C. Antonio Romero


Russell Crowe as Maximus Decimus Meridius  in Gladiator

Russell Crowe as Maximus Decimus Meridius


Oliver Reed as Proximo


Connie Nielsen as Lucilla



Djimon Hounsou as Juba in Gladiator

Djimon Hounsou as Juba


Joaquin Phoenix as Commodus

Photos courtesy of Dreamworks SKG

SAN FRANCISCO, 25 January 2001

"There was once a dream that was Rome. You could only whisper it. Anything more than a whisper, and it would vanish - it was that fragile. And I fear that it will not survive the winter.".

- Emperor Marcus Aurelius Caesar, in Ridley Scott's Gladiator

Winter settles over "the light of the world," and a nation teeters on the knife-edge - republic? or empire? Wisdom, justice, decency, and the voice of the people are smothered in secret; a self-serving coward usurps power for himself. Black-clad praetorians secure the triumph of blood over merit, bread and circuses over strength and honor. A ruler's unworthy son assumes his father's mantle, mouthing pious platitudes of family and country; behind his noble-seeming face lurk ambition, fear, willful stupidity. A people crave - and deserve - a better ruler; their champion falls - for a time, at least - into an obscurity whence few return.

But the modern praetorians have spoken, and America's election is long since over. The republic will survive the winter, and the three more that will surely follow - it has seen darker days than these, though not in some time. Some champion will surely rise and set things right. And in the meantime, with the Oscar season and Super Bowl Sunday upon us, we can turn our attention to our own bread (or nachos), Hollywood media circuses, and modern gladiatorial games.

Which brings us to the action blockbuster Gladiator - a film perhaps destined to chop its opponents to bits in the coming awards-show combat, but whose one profundity, it seems, we have already heard. Ultimately, Gladiator is much less than the great film that the hype machine would have us believe - in many respects, it's not even a particularly good film. But for meaning well, and for doing quite a few things well (and for providing an opportunity for a neat political allegory), it deserves a fair look.

The plot, in broadest terms, is straightforward. Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris), emperor of Rome, is dying on the Germanian frontier of the Empire. Upon his death, he means to install his loyal general, Maximus Decimus Meridius (Russell Crowe), as reluctant emperor, with the charter to restore Rome to the republic it once was. Maximus wants no part of power, preferring to return to the farm where his wife and son await him in golden fields of grain, ripe for harvest. Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), the power-hungry, degenerate scion of the imperial line, has long seethed against Maximus for winning an affection from his father that he himself never enjoyed; desparate, he kills his father in secret, claims the throne for himself, and orders Maximus and his family in Spain slain. Maximus, wounded, escapes from his would-be assassins, and tries to ride to his family's rescue. Too late, he collapses from his exhaustion and his wounds, and is captured by slavers. Sold to gladiator-turned-impresario Proximo and made to fight as a gladiator, he quickly makes a name for himself; when the new emperor Commodus calls for gladiatorial games to honor his father's memory, Maximus returns to Rome, where he schemes with the Senate (led by Derek Jacobi's Gracchus) and Commodus's sister, Lucilla (Connie Nielsen), to avenge his family's death and realize his emperor's republican dream.

In many respects, the execution in Gladiator is impressive. The battle scenes are for the most part terrifically well-staged - especially a "re-enactment" of the fall of Carthage in which a group of gladiators on foot face off against chariot-mounted archers and make it believable that they should win through superior tactics and discipline. (Unfortunately, excessively busy editing at times distracts from the flow of the fighting.) Killing machine Russell Crowe shows off his unstoppable action-hero form in battle after battle, giving full rein to the lurking capacity for explosive physical violence he showed flashes of in L.A. Confidential. The computer-generated ersatz Rome is quite an eyeful, the costumes are suitably lavish (the black-armored Commodus and his Praetorian imperial guard looking particularly terrific), the sound is impressively vivid for the requisite visceral impact. No expense, no effort was spared in these aspects of realizing the film; if Gladiator eventually takes awards for these technical achievements, it will probably have deserved them. There are clever cinematic touches as well - for instance, Commodus' "triumphal" entry into Rome is cleverly shot in muted colors that reverse history, recalling black-and-white footage of a fascist Italy itself striving to echo Roman imperial pomp. (The film is clearly meant to draw a political allegory about the importance of and fragility of democracy in the face of such imperial power.).

Unfortunately, technical skill and occasional cleverness are about all the movie has going for it. Frankly, it's impossible to care what happens to Maximus, or Commodus, or anyone else in this thing, when they're not actually in the arena. It's not that the actors themselves aren't up to the task-- for the most part, they get done what they have to, and Harris, Phoenix and Nielsen all do well with their roles. Ultimately, though, shortcomings in the writing and the direction that hack this movie off at the legs. In places the script strains credibility: a wounded man, even a paragon of Roman strength and honor, with no provisions, no money, and no support along the way, would be hard-pressed to ride on horseback all the way to Spain from the Germanian frontier, even with love of family as his motive. And gratuitous sentimental gestures set the viewer's teeth on edge - how many times can we see Maximus' wife and son waiting for him in the fields, in Spain or Elysium? Was it really necessary to give our hero a black (okay , Numidian) gladiator sidekick (Juba, played by male model Djimon Hounsou)? And then there's the cliched American tic of giving all 'imperial' types British or faux-British accents, presumably the product of Britain occupying the place of Rome in the American imaginary. (When this was done for I, Claudius, it made sense - after all, what's the B in BBC for? But here? Why? And America being the closest thing the 21st century has to an imperial power, perhaps American accents all around would have made more sense.).

What makes it so hard to work up an interest in Maximus? It's more likely Ridley Scott's direction and the script than Crowe's execution, but however noble Maximus may be, however many golden-hued glimpes of his family in the afterlife we get, however Hans Zimmer's relentless score may throb, Maximus just doesn't engage viewers' sentiments. Maximus is so virtuous from start to finish-strength, honor, family, grim efficiency, that's about it--that all of his obstacles are external. Maximus is boring, a psychological one-trick pony. Oddly, much the same could be said of Virgil's Aeneid-pious Aeneas is surely the weak link in a virtuoso poem; but it's hard to imagine that Scott is deliberately reproducing this element of Virgil's style.

Commodus is the other major psychological false note in the movie. Cowardly, paranoid, ruthless, and driven by incestuous yearnings, he seems at first suitably perverse and degenerate, and he looks terrific in black armor. Joaquin Phoenix does deserve credit for bringing to the screen what the director and writer seem to have had in mind. But Commodus seems to have been imagined as a petulant overgrown adolescent, whose craving for the throne springs from the all-too-visible neediness of his inner child, spurned by a disapproving father in favor of Maximus as surrogate son. Does the twenty-first century need to reduce the degeneracy of the Roman emperors to this shallow pop-psych rationalization? Even Nielsen's Lucilla, forced to humor her brother to preserve her own life and her son's, is utterly unchanged by the events of the film; her agony is palpable, but her motives, impulses, inclinations scarcely waver. Only Harris' Marcus Aurelius seems to really undergo any interior agony, any growth, as he questions his life - what, really, has he done for Rome? What kind of children has he inflicted upon the world? Is imperial rule a plague upon the people of Rome? - and his psychological evolution is essentially over before the film begins. Is it anachronistic to expect well-rounded psychology from the characters of this modern epic? No more so than the pat little speech on freedom (by our Numidian sidekick) that rounds out the film.

So there are neither solid ideas nor real characters to anchor all the spectacular technical goings on and even the skilled performances. And the political gesture is iffy-are we to conclude that democracy is better than empire? Or that "democratic" republican rule at home and empire abroad is somehow better than empire at home? What's left after all that is summer blockbuster-cum-circus, and for bread a box of popcorn, puffed as full of hot air as the movie. The strategy seems to be working - Gladiator has taken major awards at the Golden Globes and threatens to do so at the Academy Awards. From here, though the judgement can be summed up in two words: Thumbs Down.

Best moment: Carthage routs Rome, in an unexpected rewrite of history.

Two stars

C. Antonio Romero is a writer and engineer based in Silicon Valley. He is the Nouveau editor of

Related article: Gladiators and Caesars, the Power of Spectacle in Ancient Rome

BOOK TIP: Romanization in the Time of Augustus
by Ramsay MacMullen; Yale University Press, New Haven 2000; $25.00

Exhibitions of gladitorial combat and wild beast fights in the old Roman manner were public entertainments adopted in important Romanized urban centres in Africa, Spain and Gaul. In a short, but excellent book, Ramsay MacMullen draws on archaeological sources to describe the process of acculturation in Roman colonies overseas during the lifetime of Augustus (from 63 B.C. to AD.14). MacMullen's vivid investigation reveals the ambition, prestige, wealth and politics of Roman military veterans, their settlements and the eventual adoption of Roman ways by conquered populations.

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