#79: Gladiator [2000]

About halfway through a film, if it’s a good one, a sort of shivering sets into my bones and I continue shaking pretty much until I go to bed. I get a bit overwhelmed. With Gladiator, the shivering set in during the first, explosive scene, the Battle of Vindobona in Germania, and the shakes wouldn’t relent. The sheer scale of the thing blew me away. At its climax, the scene slows as we pan over the heaving slaughter and then focus in on individual tragedies. I can’t believe I never noticed the genius of it before, how perfectly the emotion is balanced and the tension sustained. As I said, it’s overwhelming.
Understandably, director Ridley Scott snapped up this opportunity to bring historical epic back onto the big screen, and rightly so. There’s so much to play around with! It’s set such a long time ago that historical fact is hazy and is often indistinguishably interweaved with legend, leaving the scriptwriter a heck of a lot of room. Actually, there were at least three scriptwriters who put in a hand for Gladiator, and yet the dialogue and simplistic plot is still considered questionable by many critics. For me the excellence of the film is in its more physical aspects and the power of the emotions evoked, the ‘story’ being something I always accidentally overlook in both film and literature.
I’m not familiar with the period and I’m sure purists will deplore the historical inaccuracies, but you can’t say Gladiator isn’t a thing of beauty. The natural settings, the artificial sets, the jaw-dropping CGI, the clothing and armour, and the general mise-en-scène all blew me away, constantly. Again and again, I’d find myself staring at an intriguing candle and missing the conversation between senators. Serious consideration went into the design of Gladiator and it shows, especially in the Colosseum scenes. The gladiator battle scenes are the most exciting to be seen on the big screen, awesome in blood and violence. These in particular are really impressive works of cinema, as significant amounts of time, effort and money were put into the recreation of the ancient arenas and their occupants, all amounting into terrific bloodbaths of brutality.
As I expect you already know, Russell Crowe gives an impressive performance as protagonist General Maximus Decimus Meridius. He fights with desperation for the honour of Rome, democracy and his family, as Maximus, rather than poncing about on screen as so many ‘heroes’ do. But, the star of the show is undoubtedly Joaquin Phoenix as the Emperor Commodus. Incestuous, for a start, and then just generally evil, it’s impossible to like him. He becomes increasingly repulsive as he falls further into his pit of jealously, greed and cruelty; his death cannot come soon enough. For this rather one-dimensional character to become so completely believable, not to mention abhorrent, is all the work of Phoenix. Simply put, he brings Commodus to life. How did he not get that Oscar?
Sure, this is a manly film, but primarily it’s good. So often, similar movies focus too much on appealing to their masculine audience and forget to focus on just being a good film. While the ‘themes’ and characters are all fairly simple in Gladiator, the cinematography is interesting and the action seriously enjoyable. But, as a girly aside, check out some of Lucilla’s (Connie Neilsen) earrings. Yes please.

            I watched this film with my dad and thirteen-year-old brother. Referring to Maximus’ outburst against his audience’s applause, my dad’s summary: ‘We were entertained’. My brother’s was ‘Cooool!’, but that’s more me summarising his general facial expression during the film.