Bread and Circuses
Is Gladiator an action movie? Is it an historical drama? Is it a sweeping epic? Yes. Like The 13th Warrior, this is a thinking person’s action movie. Like Braveheart, this is a story of a brutal era told with stunning realism. Like Terminator 2, this is a violent movie that indicts our appetite for violence. Like The Matrix, this thrills on both a visceral and cerebral level.
This is the kind of movie that I love the most, one that leaves my brain reeling with so much to say about it that I could write a book.
This is the kind of movie that movies were invented for.
In AD 180, the death of Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris: Grizzly Falls, Unforgiven) leaves a void at the summit of power. Aurelius had told Maximus (Russell Crowe: The Insider, Mystery, Alaska), “Rome’s greatest general,” that he, Maximus, should hold the emperor’s power in trust after the ruler’s death until the Imperial Senate can take the reins of command. Aurelius relied on Maximus thus because he is a simple soldier, unskilled at lying and uncorrupted by politics. And Maximus, who loved the emperor like a father, agreed, but reluctantly — after years of defending the far-flung reaches of the empire and conquering new territory, he just wants to go home to his farm and his wife and son.
But the emperor’s son, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix: 8MM, Clay Pigeons), seizes control before Maximus even knows the emperor is dead, and the son has very different plans for the empire than his father did. He wants to “save Rome from the politicians” — in other words, from the Senate his father had so much faith in — and when his attempt to enlist Maximus’s help is rebuffed, well, Maximus has to be removed from the scene. Maximus, clever and well-honed soldier that he is, escapes his own execution and travels the classic hero’s journey. Captured by slavers and trained as a slave-gladiator in a distant desert province, Maximus is then sent to fight in the Colosseum in Rome, where he at last has the opportunity to avenge both his emperor, Aurelius, and his family, slain by Commodus’s troops.
Gladiator is visually magnificent, absolutely stunning to look at — and to listen to, with its haunting, stirring score. Photographed in the muted earth tones of rust, flesh, flame, gold, and stone, and with a gritty, dirty realism obviously influenced by Saving Private Ryan and Braveheart, this is a brutally gorgeous movie. The battle sequence the film opens with — as Maximus leads his troops against Germanic tribes — as well as the many savage scenes of gladiatorial combat are shot in the method that Spielberg used in Ryan: the camera runs at double speed and then every other frame is removed from the exposed film, resulting in jerky images that seem to simultaneously slow down and speed up the passage of time, replicating the chaos of battle and the heightened awareness of an adrenaline rush. And as in The 13th Warrior, religious imagery is used to striking effect: Death beckons Maximus throughout, through dreams and glimpses of the Elysium Fields, the paradisal afterlife of Roman mythology.
Without a doubt, Gladiator would not flatten you back into your seat the way it does without some ferociously intense performances. Joaquin Phoenix, one of the finest actors of his generation, gives the term “one sick puppy” volumes of new meaning as he slinks around as the cowardly, sunken-eyed Commodus, making oozing threats against his sister, Lucilla (Connie Nielsen: Mission to Mars, Soldier), whom he suspects of conspiring with Maximus against him, and her son, Lucius (Spencer Treat Clark: Double Jeopardy, Arlington Road), now heir to the throne and hence a threat to Commodus’s power. Nielsen and Clark are very good as well, she at balancing Lucilla’s smarts and ambition with the deference to men a woman of her time would have needed to survive, and he at projecting the imperious air of a royal child.
But this is Russell Crowe’s movie. His slow burn as the vengeance-fired Maximus is not a revelation — Crowe has always demonstrated this grim fervor, this superconcentrated energy. Ironically, though, what he has been doing all along in smaller films is precisely what is going to make him a worldwide star now — Gladiator, I have no doubt, will be heading to $100 million at the box office with a bullet, and then will keep going.
The irony is that Gladiator is nothing if not director Ridley Scott’s (G.I. Jane) subversive indictment of summer action movies, and of how the moviegoing public turns actors into stars. After Maximus’s first victory in the gladiator arena, the camera wheels around him, conveying his dizzy shock as he stares at the crowd in the stands who are cheering maniacally. Later, after another bloody bout, when he yells in disgust at the crowd, “Are you not entertained?” he might as well be talking to the audience in the movie theater who are riled up by the action onscreen. And if Maximus is to be a hit in Rome at the Colosseum, he — a soldier who has previously killed only out of necessity and not enjoyment — has to learn to draw out his killing to make it entertaining. The former slave-gladiator and now free trainer Proximo (Oliver Reed: Oliver!) tells Maximus, “Win the crowd and you’ll win your freedom” — one has to wonder whether Crowe’s agent told him something similar. The “mob that is Rome” wants its bloodlust indulged — and so does the mob that is moviegoers. In a just world, Crowe would be celebrated by more than just egghead critics like me for films like The Insider. But it’s millions of teenage boys and young men saying, “Dude, Crowe kicks ass!” — and paying $8.50 multiple times to bask in the ass-kicking of this big, bloody action flick — that will make him a megacelebrity and an actor with the ability to name his price.
Bread and circuses are still with us — today, it’s Jerry Bruckheimer films and “Would you like to try our value combo popcorn and soda?” At least all the blood is corn syrup now, and actual injuries or deaths are rare, accidental, and no longer the whole point of the endeavor.