I first saw Gladiator in 2000 along with about 20 of my college classmates. The movie had not won the Oscar yet and I never thought it would. All through the 90s, the Academy had kept out popular movies, instead picking films for their grey matter. I did not think Gladiator had what it takes to be critically acclaimed. Seemed like just an action flick back then. Since then I have watched the movie a few times, the last of which was on Saturday.
From the days of the Spartacus, the Stanley Kubrick film made in the 60s, the Roman epic has been a favourite Hollywood sub-genre. Mention any year since then and movie pundits can easily throw a film back at you. Not all of these great epic movies were great. Cleopatra, rather notoriously, was very poorly made. Ben-Hur, on the other hand, was loved and wildly watched.
Ridley Scott, I have learned since then, did something different with Gladiator. Notice the darkly lit sets. Consider if incest is a subject closely associated with the epic movie? And what about Maximus's (the lead character) obsession with the afterlife? Hollywood tackles most of these issues only in film noir, the name the French gave for a certain kind of dark movies made in the US after World War II.
Maximus (Russell Crowe) is the general who became a slave who defied an Emperor. "Striking story," says Joaquin Phoenix, who plays Emperor Commodus, son and heir to Marcus Aurelius, whom we all know in present days as the great philosopher. Richard Harris, who played Dumbledore in the first two Harry Potter movies, plays the Emperor who is killed by Commodus after Maximus is entrusted with job of protecting Rome. It's a simple story.
"My name" as Crowe most famously says, "is Maximus Decimus Meridius, commander of the Armies of the North, General of the Felix Legions, loyal servant to the true emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife. And I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next." That in a nutshell is the story. But Scott can do wonders with the movie. The dialogue (the above lines were, however, made much fun of) is crackling. Consider what Maximus tells the army in the beginning of movie just before the war on the Barbarians in Germania: "What you do in life echoes in eternity".
The Emperor Marcus Aurelius wants Rome to be made a republic and his most skilled general Maximus to protect it until such time it is ready to be given back to the people. But the people of Rome are not a crowd; they are a mob. In what is a very touching scene in the movie, Commodus kills the Emperor and crowns himself. Maximus is ordered to be killed. But he returns to Rome as a Gladiator and takes his revenge.
What made the difference to that story was Scott.
Phoenix played a career-defining role of Commodus and contrary to tradition is given as much screen time as Crowe, who went on to win the Oscar for best actor.
I doubt if the facts in the movie are historically accurate; Hollywood always sacrifices truth for drama. Commodus's fascination and love for his sister is a major theme in the movie. So is Maximus's obsession with the afterlife. The opening shot itself reveals this. Crowe walks on wild ground, the brown grass gently touching his fingers.
I have severe problems with the action sequences. They were sensational back then for their reality and editing methods. But for me the editing serves as a distraction from the action. But they were famous and I leave you to decide how good they really were. But the movie is definitely worth watching and if you have seen it already I recommend you to see it again.