Gladiator is a spectacle in the Ben-Hur
vein remade in the noveau historical style of Braveheart
with a dash of Dances With Wolves.
Russell Crowe plays Maximus, the commander of the Roman Legions fighting
the Germanic tribes in 180 AD. His Emperor, Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris),
tells Maximus that he is to succeed him. Unfortunately for Maximus, the
next person with whom the Emperor shares his plan is his son, Commodus
(Joaquin Phoenix) who promptly murders him, becomes Emperor and sentences
Maximus to death. Maximus escapes (otherwise this would have been
a very short film) but arrives home too late to save his family from death
and is sold into slavery. He now becomes the title character as he
is bought by an impresario of Gladiators played by Oliver Reed. Here
the plot becomes very similar to Ben-Hur
as Maximus plots to kill Commodus in front of 50,000 screaming fans in
the Coliseum in Rome. Like any good Emperor, Commodus is in love
with his sister (Connie Neilson) who, needless to say, is in love with
Maximus. Some of the plot is historical. Marcus
Aurelius was a philospher-king Emperor until his death in Germany in
180 AD whereupon he was succeeded by Commodus
who by all accounts was a nasty bit of work. The real Aurelius did
not ban Gladiators as suggested in this movie but he did force them to
fight with blunt swords. The rest including Crowe's character are
fictions overlaid on this background. Ancient Rome is re-created
very spectacularly by computer for this movie. The violence, which
is continual, is very graphic a la Braveheart.
Crowe is stolid but good as Maximus. He lacks the passion we see in Charlton
Heston in Ben-Hur or Mel
Gibson in Braveheart. In
fact, the whole movie is a bit lacking in this area mainly because the
characters are never more (and sometimes less) than two dimensional.
Commodus, as played by Phoenix, is just nasty and evil. He and Maximus
have only a few seconds together on the screen at the beginning of the
movie so they don't have time to build up any chemistry. There is a good
bit of chemistry between Commodus' sister and Maximus, and their scenes
together are more interesting although we only get one little kiss out
of the whole movie! The emphasis is definitely on the violence and,
in particular, on the action in the Coliseum. This is all very well
done as directed by Ridley Scott (Alien,
Runner, Thelma and Louise)
and we get an eyeful of Bread and Circuses. The supporting cast is
good, particularly Reed who died during the filming and Derek Jacobi who
plays one of the Senators. It's nice to see Jacobi back in a toga
but it also reminds us just how good a story about ancient Rome can be.
Gladiator is no I Claudius.
The characters in Gladiator pale in comparison to Sian Phillips as Livia
or John Hurt as Caligula. Right about now, you are thinking to yourselves,
``Ben-Hur, makes sense,
Braveheart, I can see that
but Dances With Wolves?"
Yes, it's true! There are several scenes in Gladiator in which Maximus
is seen standing in a field holding his hands over the wind wafted grain
to show us that he is a back-to-the-land kind of guy who just wants to
be home on his farm in Spain. I've only seen something like that
once before. It was Kevin Costner and Graham Greene holding their hands
over the prairie grass in Dances
With Wolves showing their bond with the land. It made a big impression
on me at the time and apparently also on Ridley Scott.