by Alexandre Paquin
"Gladiator" won the Oscar for Best Picture, but pales in comparison with other epics of this type. Most of the supporting cast is good, but with too little to do. Russell Crowe's performance is average, there is no sense of the grandiose except in a few sequences, and audiences have to deal with an extremely conventional plot, which director Ridley Scott attempts to make look deeper than it is.By far the most famous awards in the film industry, the Oscars have fascinated the movie-going public ever since their creation in 1927. While in the first years the ceremonies were mere banquets, their appeal was increased across America through radio, and eventually, through television. Today, the Oscars ceremony is the best opportunity for glamour which Hollywood has, with hundreds of millions of viewers riveted to their television screens, waiting for the opportunity to discuss which celebrity is wearing the most awful dress, or better yet, which films should have been honoured with this year's statuettes.
"Throw This One to the Lions: 'Gladiator' (2000)"
There have been years for which the Best Picture winners have been strongly contested, for example 1941, when "How Green Was My Valley" won over "Citizen Kane", or 1980, when the highest honour went to "Ordinary People" instead of "Raging Bull", but in most cases, the winning picture at least had some merit. There have been very few Best Picture winners which had not deserved their victory, but this trend has become more and more common in the 1990's, in which films such as "Titanic" and "Shakespeare in Love", and the twentieth century has ended with yet another inflated success crowned as Best Picture: "Gladiator", produced by DreamWorks and released by Universal in 2000.
In a society which demands shorter films because it is incapable of keeping interest in a feature which lasts more than a hundred minutes, any film with a box-office success and grandeur, both in scope and length, is rewarded with tons of awards, generally without consideration for the originality of the plot, and the overall quality of the production. The "epics" to which the modern movie-going public is accustomed are below-average copies of old films which indeed thrilled their audience in olden days. This is not to say, however, that there was nothing wrong with the epic genre a few decades ago. At their best, epics are rousing and breathtaking; at worst, slow-paced, pedantic, superficial, and pompous. But it is worth remembering that Cecil B. DeMille made a career out of them, as the vast majority of his films were tremendous successes with audiences. As well, a few epics featured magnificent photography and included a deeper-than-usual story, and were acclaimed both by audiences and by critics ("Lawrence of Arabia" comes to mind).
While "Gladiator" was generally very well received, it is by no means among the best epics ever made.
"Gladiator" begins in the year A.D. 180. Maximus (Russell Crowe) is a Roman general leading an army against barbaric hordes in Germania. After a resounding victory, the battlefield is visited by the Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris), and his son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix). Marcus Aurelius, discouraged by his own son's reluctance to risk his neck in battle, decides to appoint Maximus as his successor. Commodus however murders his own father before the appointment is official, and becomes Emperor. Maximus is condemned to death, but successfully escapes. After finding out that his wife and child are slaughtered by the Emperor's troops, Maximus falls unconscious, is captured by slavers, and is sold to Proximo (Oliver Reed), an ex-gladiator who now runs a gladiator training school. With revenge in mind, Maximus becomes the best gladiator of the school, in order to have the privilege of fighting in the Colosseum in Rome, before the Emperor. In the meantime, Commodus's regime becomes more oppressive; while trying to obtain the sexual favours of his sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen), and possibly of her young son, the Emperor pursues his opponents in the Senate with vigour. The chief opponent to Commodus, Gracchus (Sir Derek Jacobi), agrees to help Maximus in order to further his own cause. Thus Maximus -- who soon enough became the hero of the masses -- can finally exercise his revenge on Commodus in a duel taking place in the arena.
The Roman theme in films is of course almost as old as cinema itself, and this historical setting has proved very popular in epics, starting in the silent era. The story of "Gladiator", therefore, is really a patchwork of elements on a Roman theme used here and there: the political background of "The Fall of the Roman Empire" (1964), the fall into slavery of the protagonist of "Ben-Hur" (1925, 1959), and the gladiator themes of "Demetrius and the Gladiators" (1954) and "Spartacus" (1960). If there had been any mention of Christianity in the film (and quite inexplicably, there is none except for one deleted scene), references to "The Sign of the Cross" (1932), "Quo Vadis" (1951), and "The Robe" (1953, first widescreen film) could have been made. But the main problem with this film is that every theme was better the first time around. "Gladiator" appears to be little else than a pot-pourri of various ideas on a Roman theme, held together by some inevitable developments in the story line.
Consider, for instance, the concept of rebellion against an unjust form of government mixed with the objective of personal revenge, which has been used in countless films in the last few years. A rule in this type of films is that when the hero's true love dies in the film, he will also die at the conclusion of the picture, after successfully avenging the true love's death, to provide audiences with a half-sad feeling of the nature of "now he is happy... at last". This is how "Gladiator" ends; this is also how "Braveheart" (1995), "The Mask of Zorro" (1998), and even "Titanic" (1997), ended: with the happy reunion, in death, of the true lovers. They are, as such, mere variations on the "Romeo and Juliet" theme, without the grace and artistic merits of the works of William Shakespeare.
In recent years, there have been very few entirely tragic endings, where such topics as the inevitability of fate, the defeat of righteous ideals because of the flaws inherent to human nature, or the full magnitude of the loss of a single life, were treated in a credible, non-superficial manner. Instead, the "tragic" ending has been softened by the fact that the dying hero, having fulfilled his objective of revenge, no longer had any reason to live, with the result that it has become bittersweet, for purely commercial reasons. People have a tendency to dislike endings that do not cheer them up. In the words of screenwriter William Goldman, "You can be Bergman if you have the talent, you can tell sad human stories -- but do not expect Mr. Time Warner to give you $100 million to make your movie" (which is, incidentally, the approximate budget for "Gladiator").
Apart from these obvious themes and plot developments, "Gladiator" manages to stick very closely to certain historical facts while completely inventing others for the purpose of the story. There, of course, never was a Roman general-turned-gladiator named Maximus, and even though Commodus was indeed assassinated, the event took place not in the arena, but at night. From the picture, it would appear that Commodus's reign was incredibly brief; in fact, it lasted thirteen years, during which he consolidated his power and eliminated his opponents, real and imagined, including his sister Lucilla, who had plotted against him. What is more accurate is the fact that, as incredible as it may seem, Commodus indeed entered the arena as a gladiator, more specifically as a secutor, with a helmet, sword, and buckler, and according to Edward Gibbon's masterpiece The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, "the emperor fought in this character seven hundred and thirty-five several times". However, the profession of gladiator was not glorified by Roman society, as in the film, but was in fact frowned upon, and Commodus's reputation suffered because of his interests in the entertainment of the masses. Therefore, seeing "Gladiator" is not a substitute for reading Gibbon's masterpiece as a history lesson, and is also not a substitute for older films on the Roman Empire as an example of an galvanizing epic. "Gladiator", in comparison with earlier efforts, is drab and flat, lacks a dominant central presence, and action scenes are used throughout to keep the viewer interested rather than to advance in the story.
Director Ridley Scott does whatever he can to make audiences believe that the story is actually deeper than the Nile in the dry season, but with such an artificial plot, any effort in this direction would be not only done in vain, it would also appear insulting to viewers who know better. The film has a particular tendency to play with the pace through editing, slowing down some takes and juxtaposing them to scenes which appear to have been accelerated. While this approach is quite adequate for the battle scenes at the beginning of the film, as it conveys the confusion that may exist on the battlefield, it is occasionally used throughout the film without as much success. Shots of clouds moving quickly, the background behind the unconscious Maximus's head moving faster than the rest of the image, various unrelated shots at different points in the film and the strange palette of colours in one particular dream-like sequence (after Maximus's final fight with Commodus), suggest that Ridley Scott tried, for a few brief moments, his hand at surrealism. It is, however, the poor man's surrealism, as the motive of it appears obvious -- that Maximus seeks to avenge his wife and child, and then join them in death -- and is therefore reduced to visual effects for the sake of them rather than psychological insight. Most of the production, in fact, suffers from an extensive use of close-ups to hide the technological gimmickry used in the battle sequences, and there are very few scenes of true splendour, as is expected of an epic. The only ones that come to mind are Commodus's arrival in Rome, and Maximus's first view of the Colosseum.
Even though in epic films, stars have a tendency to be upstaged by the scenery (for instance, "Lawrence of Arabia") or by the multitude of extras, the star of "Gladiator" is clearly intended to be Russell Crowe. While Crowe's performance is adequate enough to keep the film together, one wonders whether any actor in the part would have done the same. While Maximus is pivotal to the story, the role lacks depth, and the picture could very well have gotten along without a strong performance in the part, because the main appeal of the film is, as is often the case in epic films, visual -- the opening battle, the fights in the arena, and the occasionally interesting photography. Was Crowe's performance worthy of the Oscar he received for it? Not really, as any actor, regardless of talent, would have done the same. Joaquin Phoenix does a much better job as Commodus, a character with more depth than the rather unidimensional Maximus. Phoenix perfectly portrays every flaw of the emperor, and Commodus comes across as a paranoid and incestuous individual who is both weak and wicked.
The casting of the smaller roles is also interesting. Proximo, the ex-gladiator who knows every secret about his former profession, is an intriguing character, perfectly portrayed by Oliver Reed, and could have accommodated more depth without taxing the viewer. Unfortunately, the death of Reed during the production of the film has undoubtedly limited possibilities. Connie Nielsen is virtually useless to the film, as her character, the only female character of some importance in the movie, is constantly relegated to the sidelines.
In virtually every epic production on a Roman theme, some renowned actor had to be cast in a smaller part, mostly for prestige reasons. Consider, for example Sir Alec Guinness in "The Fall of the Roman Empire", Charles Laughton in "Spartacus", or Sir John Gielgud in various films. "Gladiator" is no exception, casting well-known, prestigious names in lesser parts: Sir Derek Jacobi as Gracchus, and Richard Harris as Marcus Aurelius. That Jacobi should be included in a film on the Roman empire after the triumph of the BBC television series "I, Claudius" is by no means surprising, but this great actor is completely wasted in a rather unnecessary part whose purpose is never fully explained. While Richard Harris never played any part in a Roman epic, he is here again typecast as a prestigious head of State, following performances as King Arthur in "Camelot" (1967), the title role in the notorious "Cromwell" (1970), and King Richard the Lionheart in "Robin and Marian" (1976). Nevertheless, Harris is surprisingly sympathetic as Marcus Aurelius, but the screen presence of the character is limited to two noteworthy scenes (one with Maximus, the other with his son), and is assassinated by Commodus too early in the film to make much of an impact. At least, he does not sing this time around.
That "Gladiator" has been a major commercial success in the year 2000 is not surprising, given the fact that there had been no major epic of this sort made after the 1960's, and that the younger generation's exposure to such works may have been limited to the broadcasting of DeMille's "The Ten Commandments" (1956) on Easter Day. And probably this generation thought that it was too stilted and too long (nearly four hours) for their own taste. Any film which would incorporate a sense of the grandiose (nevertheless missed most of the time here) and a large quantity of bodily fluids is almost certainly the next big success to hit the screens. While "Gladiator" is about an hour longer than the average production made today, it is, with a running time of slightly above two hours and a half, shorter than most epics of its kind. And it is inferior to nearly every one of them in quality, mostly because of its conventional plot. The music score has a tendency to go over the top a few times too often for its own good, Russell Crowe is not particularly outstanding in the central part, and the direction by Ridley Scott is very average indeed.One of the most overrated films of the last few years. 5/20.
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originally posted: 11/07/01 08:51:55