Gladiatorby Ealasaid Haas
Aaaaaah, summer. The time of terrific action flicks, machismo, and epic tales of the human struggle for freedom/revenge/self-government/etc. This year, the best film of the summer opened the first week of May, making every other film something of an anticlimax. "Gladiator" is an epic action flick that manages to ooze machismo without becoming overly ridiculous. It is historically inaccurate (don't go see it with a student of Roman history, or you'll have to listen to them tear their hair out for the entire film), but it works as a tale of one man making a difference in the course of a nation's history.
In case you have somehow missed all the previews, "Gladiator" can be summed up rather succinctly for a two and a half hour long film. It is the story of Maximus Decimus Meridius (Russell Crowe), the general who became a slave, the slave who became a gladiator, the gladiator who defied an Emperor. To be a little less concise: Maximus begins the film as Rome's greatest general, a loyal servant of the aged Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris). When Marcus asks Maximus to become the protector of Rome after Marcus' death and give power back to the Senate, Maximus asks for time to think. Unfortunately, Marcus dies before Maximus has time to decide, and Marcus' immoral son, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), seizes power. Maximus refuses to swear fealty to him, and is ordered to be executed. He escapes, but is seized by traders and enslaved, then sold to a trainer of gladiators named Proximo (the late Oliver Reed). Proximo was himself once a gladiator, but he was freed by Marcus Aurelius himself because he was so good at it. Maximus tells Proximo that he too "wants to stand before the Emperor," and sets about becoming the best gladiator around. When Commodus announces 160 days of games in the Coliseum in Rome, Proximo takes his gladiators to the capital to fight, and Maximus has his chance.
Of course, things don't go quite as smoothly as he hopes.
The greatest strength of "Gladiator" is its acting. Maximus is a great general, but a straightforward and relatively simple man. Crowe holds the screen completely, whether he is lopping off heads or listening calmly, and is as natural in his movements and speech as if he weren't acting at all. His accent wavers in one or two spots, but his performance is otherwise flawless. As Commodus, Phoenix gives an equally impressive performance; possibly even more so because where Maximus is simple, Commodus is complicated. The young Emperor is remarkably unstable mentally, and descends deeper and deeper into dementia as the film progresses. His greatest wish is to be loved and respected by those he cares about most - his father, his sister Lucilla (well played by Connie Nielsen), and the Roman people. Unfortunately, he has no real idea how to go about winning that love, and so he fails utterly. Phoenix brings Commodus' misery across without making him too pathetic. Reed's Proximo is a cynic, but still feels the draw of the games: "the silence before you strike, and the noise afterwards... it rises up ... like a storm, as if you were the thunder god himself." Reed shifts between his character's cold-heartedness and nostalgic passion with ease, and makes the crusty former gladiator someone the audience can care about.
The grand, sweeping views of Rome are impressive, although it is somewhat disappointing to special-effects connoisseurs to see that Scott chose Computer-Generated Imagery for a number of shots which would have looked a great deal better if they had used models instead. The CGI Coliseum looks like CGI was used, which detracts from some of its impressiveness if one is accustomed to high-quality model work. Those who don't care much either way will probably be impressed with it regardless, and it must be admitted that, for CGI, it's not bad.
"Gladiator"'s greatest flaw, if one is a scholar, is in its historical accuracy. Whole essays could be written about the things the film got right versus the things it got wrong. Lucilla's jewelry could have come straight from an archaeological dig, but she wears a corset (complete with boning) near the film's end. The statuary in the film is omnipresent and elegant, but in 180 A.D. it would have been painted, rather than bare, marble. Oxen were the heavy draft animal of the ancient world; the horse collar and the draft horse were not even "invented" until after the fall of Rome, yet are seen repeatedly in the film. The impressive battle sequence which opens the film has some wonderful details in it, including the Romans' deadly precision and their use of shields to form protective barriers against arrows, but Roman saddles did not have stirrups and their shields had interlocking edges. The pronunciation of Roman names has been thoroughly Americanized by the film (Lu-sill- la, rather than Lu-keel-la, for one), and the thumbs-up/thumbs-down indication of whether or not to kill someone in the arena was not used until much later in the Empire's history - in 180 A.D., it was either a closed fist or a down-turned thumb. Most importantly, the fights between gladiators in Rome were dangerous but rarely purposely to the death. Gladiators were like the professional wrestlers of today - they were highly trained and highly paid professionals in a potentially hazardous sport. Indeed, the historical Commodus fought as a gladiator in his youth!
Most of these errors can be attributed to making the film more accessible. Painted statues and Classical pronunciation would probably confuse modern audiences, and the idea of a fight to the death is necessary to the plot, but the other details give it an aura of sloppiness to those in the know. Getting those little things right would have given the film a less Hollywood feel and made it even more powerful.
If, however, one simply takes the film for what it is, an epic tale rather than an educational treatise, it is an excellent work of art. The characters are three-dimensional people the audience can care about, the pacing of both the quiet and the violent scenes is exquisite, and the actors' ability to use more than dialog to show what their characters are thinking is brilliant. Overall, "Gladiator" is the best film this summer. It combines the excitement of "Gone in 60 Seconds" with the attention to character of "Frequency" and manages to be the moving story of one man's struggle that "Battlefield Earth" wanted to be. Even in its eighth week on screens, it is playing to sold-out theaters, and it is more than deserving of such status.
Ave, "Gladiator!" We who are about to watch salute you.