Gladiator (2000): There Was Once a Dream That Was Rome

"Gladiator," a 2000 epic by Ridley Scott, revived the sword-and-sandal genre, featuring Russell Crowe's acclaimed performance, with rich visuals and historical liberties.

The film Gladiator, directed by Ridley Scott, marked the successful revival of the sword-and-sandal epic genre after over 30 years. Scott’s extensive production involved multiple international crews, elaborate set designs, and significant use of CGI. The narrative, structured in three acts, follows General Maximus from his betrayal and enslavement to his rise as a renowned gladiator, culminating in his confrontation with Emperor Commodus. The film blends historical and fictional elements, emphasizing violence and spectacle over accuracy, and received critical acclaim, particularly for Russell Crowe’s performance as Maximus. It remains a financially successful and visually striking film, despite some criticism over historical inaccuracies.

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Versions. The 2.35:1 theatrical version of Gladiator runs 155 minutes. The 2005 extended version runs 164 minutes and includes 17 minutes of material which was previously available only as DVD extras. The Blu-ray edition includes both versions. The added material is generally redundant and, it might be argued, retards the narrative.

The genesis and filming of Gladiator have been well documented in Gladiator: The Making of the Ridley Scott Epic. Gladiator was a successful attempt to reestablish the large-scale sword-and-sandal epic after more than a third of a century. Four separate crews were coordinated in the shooting of Gladiator, one in London, one in Malta, one in Morocco and one which moved from location to location. Scott, ever concerned with giving his films a realistic but striking look, is said to have had four hundred acres of Surrey woodland burned for the opening battle in Germania, two thousand sets of armor constructed and twenty-six thousand arrows prepared. Numidian scenes were shot in Morocco, and Roman scenes were shot in Malta. (See the Gladiator book for details and illustrations.)

As usual with Scott’s epic films, the basic conflict is elemental, but the working-out of the plot is complex and involves a large supporting cast. Gladiator has a basic three-act structure. The first act begins with the battle in Germania in the winter of 180 AD and the murder of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius by his son Commodus, who learned that his dying father wished to disinherit him in favor of General Maximus, whom he has charged with the reestablishment of the republic. Maximus returns home to discover that his estate has been ravaged and his wife and son murdered. He is captured and sold into slavery as a gladiator. The second act tells of Maximus’ training as a gladiator, his growing fame in the hinterlands, and his eventual return to Rome as a gladiator slated to perform in the Coliseum. (The chief influence here seems to have been similar scenes in Stanley Kubricks Spartacus [1960].) Meanwhile, the new emperor, Commodus, has decided that the way to win the love of the people is by presenting elaborate gladiatorial games and by occasionally appearing himself as a gladiator.

The long third act narrates the growing fame of Maximus and the growing political opposition to Commodus, who decides that the way to gain popularity would be to kill Maximus in the arena. Commodus wounds Maximus the day before he is to fight him. In one of the best touches in the film, Commodus, in dire straits during the fight to the death, begs Quintus, who is apparently a kind of umpire, for his sword. Quintus is an old officer of Maximus whom we met at the beginning of the film where he asked the general why the Germans they are fighting do not know when they are beaten. Quintus has survived in uncertain times, but he feels a certain loyalty to Maximus, or to fair play, or to both, and he ignores the request, tells the guards to sheathe their swords, and allows Maximus to kill Commodus.

The crowd is silent. There is a shot of what is presumably a pagan tomb. In a vision of his life after death, Maximus pushes open the gate which leads to his home. Dying, he tells Quintus to free his team of gladiators and for the Senate to reinstate Gracchus as leader of the Roman republic. The dream that was the wish of Marcus Aurelius shall be realized. (The cynic might respond, “Good luck to that.”) Maximus runs his hand through the ripe grain, tells Lucilla goodbye and goes down the path to greet his son and wife. The body of Maximus is borne from the Coliseum in triumph, and Lucilla says: “You’re home.” The African says that he is free and will see him again, “But not yet. And the film concludes with a memorable shot of the sun setting over the now empty Coliseum. All in all, despite a variety of trite elements, the conclusion is the most memorable ending of any sword-and-sandal epic. The exterior of the pagan tomb is a particularly striking image, a vision of a cold, rather remote, but still hospitable other world as imagined by a non-Christian.

Although Gladiator was the first large-scale film on Roman history in more than a generation, it trod a well-worn path and borrowed heavily from earlier films, particularly in the sets and in the relationship between the characters. As might be expected for such a huge film, the screenplay (by David Franzoni) blended many familiar elements with a few themes which, if not absolutely new, were at least unusual. The presumed audience for the film, if not more sophisticated, was generally more knowledgeable than earlier audiences had been about Roman history, and many of the references to earlier films cited by various critics would have been spotted by viewers familiar with VHS and DVD versions of classic Hollywood and foreign films.

Ideologically, the two chief differences between Gladiator and, say, the two versions of Ben-Hur, silent and sound, are the greater level of violence and the fact that the hero is a pagan who does not convert to Christianity. Although the improvement in digital effects in the closing years of the last century had once again made such an film financially possible, Gladiator is clearly as much a product of its times as earlier sword-and-sandal epics were of theirs. From the earliest days of the silents more than a hundred years ago, Roman epics were predominantly stories of Christian heroics ending in conversion and martyrdom. Italian films of the teens regularly showed the Christians being fed to the lions. A few Italian films of the period, such as The Last Days of Pompeii (1913) and Cabiria (1914), showed the full decadent splendor of paganism, but Christianity held sway at the end.

General Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur (1880) was one of the most popular American novels of the 19th century, probably second only to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, it became the basis for a popular stage production which debuted in 1899 and ran for twenty-one years. The chariot race featured eight horses on a treadmill with a moving cyclorama as a background. The first filmed version, done by Kalem in 1907, was the subject of a famous Supreme Court decision giving an artist the exclusive rights to possession of his subject in a new medium.

The spectacular 1925 MGM version of Ben-Hur does not include Christians being fed to the lions, but it features almost all of the other standard ingredients. Judah Ben-Hur might have been born a Jew, but he ended as a Christian after, of course, achieving his revenge against the evil Messala. Although the 1959 version, directed by William Wyler, has several memorable scenes, it is not a notable advance over the silent version, and in at least one sequence, the sea battle, is clearly inferior.

Films of today, however, especially big-budget epics, must appeal to a world-wide audience which has little interest in seeing films about Christian martyrs being fed to the lions. Scott filmed scenes of persecuted Christians, which are included as extras, but did not include them in the released version, presumably because they would distract attention from the main story. In Gladiator, Maximus, our heroic protagonist, is a pagan, but his vision of life after death will hardly offend anyone. Paganism is, of course, a catch-all term for a large number of religious beliefs. Since all the varieties of paganism are now dead, or underground, Gladiator is perhaps both historically and politically correct and can play anywhere throughout the world without controversy.

A second difference between Gladiator and earlier sword-and-sandaf films is the level of violence. Earlier epics, up to and including Anthony Mann’s The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) — usually considered the last of the great sword-and-scandal epics before Gladiator — contained much action, but none of the hacking-off of limbs, splitting of skulls, beheadings, etc., which have become the cinematic coin of world-wide cinema today. Mann’s Fall had been advertised as “launching a new epoch in motion pictures,” but in actuality its financial debacle ushered in a forty-year hiatus in the making of epic films.

The gladiatorial arena was a staple of the Italian epics of the teens, but the emphasis seems never to have been on the gladiator himself, but on his journey toward Christianity. Kubrick’s Spartacus was different. It centered on a slave revolt led by a gladiator and was widely and reasonably interpreted as an allegory attacking the anti-communist repression of the Cold War period led by Senator Joseph McCarthy. The script was the first screen credit in some ten years for Dalton Trumbo, a blacklisted novelist and once highly paid screenwriter.

Gladiators were professional fighters who battled to the death in the arenas. Although gladius means “sword,” the contests involved a variety of weapons. They are said to have originated in Roman funeral rites. It was apparently believed that the losers would serve the dead man as armed attendants in the afterlife. The first known competition was in Rome in 264 BC. The contests became popular and lasted for some six hundred years before eventually being abolished by Emperor Constantine in 325 AD, only to be revived before being permanently abolished by Honorius a century later (Carnes, 41). Although the famous revolt by Spartacus and seventy other slave gladiators lasted nearly two years (73-71 BC), it was eventually a failure and the games continued.

One of the reasons that Gladiator is successful is that it allows the villain Commodus a chance to speak for himself. In his conversation with his sister and in his last conversation with Maximus, he tells how he yearned for the love of his father, but that it was denied him. Maximus loved Aurelius and the love was returned, but Commodus, his own son, could do nothing to please him. They both loved him: “That makes us brothers.”

Films, like all works of art, are clearly products of the age which produces them. Gladiator is particularly so, and not just because it is a film set in a determinate historical past. Jon Solomon notes that the film “enjoys the economic and visual advantages not just of computer-generated special effects but of an entire generation’s worth of developments in film technique” (93). These include the entire four tiers of the Roman Coliseum, aerial shots and sweeping eye-level views. Strangely, however, the development of digital effects was moving at warp speed, and the special effects, in spite of a reputed budget of over $100,000,000, were antiquated almost as soon as the film appeared. There is presently no reason to believe that the released version of Gladiator, unlike that of Blade Runner, is not Scott’s preferred text; however, considering the way that the versatility and popularity of DVDs and Blu-ray has destabilized the idea of a definitive text and considering Scott’s tendency to reshoot, revise, and “tweak,” it is probable that the film addict will eventually see a new and improved version of Gladiator. Indeed, there is a suspicion that one or two of the shots of the Coliseum may already have been tweaked.

The reviews for Gladiator were generally enthusiastic, with only the occasional naysayer among them, most notably an unusually grumpy J. Hoberman. From his perch in The Village Voice, the generally affable Hoberman laid waste not only to Gladiator, but collaterally to James Cameron’s Titanic, which had appeared recently. Hoberman called Gladiator “a fearfully expressive high tech revival of deeply retro material … complete with sentimental love story and otherworldly palaver” and sarcastically lamented that the concluding fight was not staged ‘in old Pompeii the day Vesuvius blew its stack.”

David Sterritt called the film “150 minutes of non-stop spectacle and violence … a movie to rush out and see.” Like others, he considered it a satisfying return to a type of film not seen for forty years. Peter Rainer liked the film but puzzled over exactly what Scott was selling, claimed quite rightly that it was not “the Roman-epic revisionism” it had generally been taken to be, and ticked off its similarities to earlier sword- and-sandal epics: the loyal Roman soldier who wants only to serve Caesar and to return to his wife, the son Great Caesar always wished he had; the evil, scheming heir eager to send the old fellow on his way; the gladiator ringmaster, and the noble African yearning for freedom (Dijimon Hounsou standing in for Woody Strode of Spartacus). Although Rainer’s review is somewhat marred by his addiction to low tropes (“Joaquin Phoenix’s Commodus — think commode”), he is correct in believing that Gladiator is not “terribly revisionist.” His only criticism of the film is its “terrible percussiveness,” and he skirts around the idea that Scott has somehow sold out. Scott “treats his audience alternately like epicures and like a vulgar, bloodthirsty mob not dissimilar to the one that crowded the Coliseum.”

Jonathan Foreman, in the New York Post, hailed the film’s set scenes as “equal in excitement to the classic arena contests in Ben-Hur and Spartacus.” Foreman, like other reviewers, praised Russell Crowe’s performance extravagantly and writes that unlike its ancestors, the film contains “no Christian message and, more surprisingly, no sex.” (Actually, there is perhaps a hint — it is no more than that — that Commodus and Lucilla have had a relationship at some time in the past. He also once speaks of marrying his sister so that there could be no possible doubt that the resulting heir would be the unquestioned legitimate heir to the empire.)

Among the reviewers, only Foreman seems to have complained much about the film’s historical anachronisms, specifically the use of artillery in a siege, the use of heavy broadswords for slashing, and the cavalry charge (impossible due to the lack of stirrups, which are first recorded only in the 4th century AD). Quite apart from the difficulties of having a cavalry charge over the uneven, forested terrain in the snow, Hans Delbruck’s masterful history of ancient warfare discusses no example of a cavalry charge until hundreds of years later. The fireballs also come from a later period, and in any case would have been impossible in mud and snow. T he enormous number of arrows unleashed here — and a decade later in Robin Hood — is quite impossible. Both the long bow and the arrows it required were difficult to manufacture, and skill with them required constant practice (Santosuosso, 135).

Even a cursory examination of the complex popular antecedents of Gladiator — especially the sword-and-sandal and biblical antecedents, the space operas and science fiction films, including the Star Wars films — should give the critic pause before making any large claims to historical accuracy. And yet the popularity of the film guaranteed that the subject would be examined in detail, as indeed it was. An entire collection of essays entitled Gladiator: Film and History, edited by Martin M. Winkler, a professor of classics, and written by historians and classicists (not a film critic among them), examined the historicity of the film in fascinating detail, and the viewer of the film interested in the topic should seek out a copy. Professor Kathleen Coleman of Harvard University served as historical consultant on Gladiator, but was so unhappy with the results of her labor that she asked that her name not appear in the credits.

In the commentary upon the film and the extra features included on the DVD and Blu-ray editions, the multitude of people who worked upon the film laud the search for historical accuracy in the artifacts — costumes, architecture, paintings, indeed anything having to do with the look of the film — and generally ignore the known historical happenings and the details of the battle with the barbarians at the beginning of the film.

Scott is said to have gotten his initial inspiration from Jean-Leon Gerome’s famous 1872 painting Thumbs Down, depicting a helmeted Roman gladiator standing over a conquered foe and receiving a “thumbs down” verdict from the crowd on the fate of a conquered foe. Although Gerome is said to have done extensive research, we must remember that all the visual representations of warfare in the period come from a much later age, and the covers on the paperback volumes of Delbruck’s History, among many other visual representations, are hardly models of historical accuracy. And when CGI is added into the equation, there is always an additional loss.

It is, however, fair to say that, by the standards of sword-and-sandal films, Gladiator is generally accurate in visual details, but much less so in historical facts. During the period of the Roman Republic, gladiators were always slaves, but during the Empire period, free men and even some aristocrats participated. Frank McLynn calls the participation of Commodus the “ultimate absurdity.” Clearly, the enormous number of contests in which Commodus is said to have competed and emerged victorious is impossible, even with the “advantages of superior weaponry and perfidy of the type depicted in the film which shows him wounding Maximus the day before the contest.

There is a nearly universal belief that the so-called trinity of gladiatorial combats, chariot racing and animal fights were regarded as “compensation” to please the populace and to make up for the curtailment of political rights during the Empire. One need not be cynical to believe there is a certain amount of truth in this belief. According to all accounts and to Clint Eastwood’s film Invictus (2009), Nelson Mandela used rugby to unite the peoples of South Africa. Whether modern audiences to such contests are more sensitive than the audiences of earlier times is a delicate question, but not beyond all conjecture.

Russell Crowe received nearly universal praise and an Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of Maximus. At the time Gladiator was filmed, however, his casting was hardly obvious and must have seemed a risk. The young Australian was clearly a talented actor on the rise who had done excellent work in L.A. Confidential and The Insider, but he lacked the chiseled features and noble mien thought appropriate for such a role. He also seemed plebeian. What he did have, and the reason he was chosen was the intensity he could project on the screen. It was a quality that no one could have predicted from his performance only five years earlier in the western The Quick and the Dead, and although he had matured rapidly and had shown evidence of it in The Insider (1999), Crowe’s casting as Maximus must surely have required a great deal of faith by the producers of Gladiator. Joaquin Phoenix was also highly praised for his role as the evil Commodus and duly rewarded with an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

In his masterful biographical and critical study of Marcus Aurelius, Frank McLynn furnishes a photograph of Richard Harris, describes him as an “Irish hellraiser with a roistering ‘feedback image,’ ” thinks him an unfortunate choice to play the emperor, and insultingly omits his name. Perhaps, but in his old age Harris had a decayed physical presence and a gravitas far removed from his testosterone-laden youth in Sam Peckinpah’s Major Dundee (1965) and other films. Of course, no one knows what the Emperor, who spent most his adult life as a soldier, actually looked like, but the highly stylized sculptural representations show an impressive figure, and McLynn’s “feedback image” would hardly bother most reviewers, even if they had read Marcus Aurelius. Hollywood knows what a warrior looks like, but nobody has a representative visual image of a philosopher or sage. Who knows? He may even have looked like the aging Richard Harris and have written philosophical essays in a tent in Germania.

While McLynn admires the “dignity and gravitas” of Alec Guinness, who played Marcus in Anthony Mann’s The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), he has only scorn for the differing ways in which the emperor is dispatched in the two films, smothered to death by his son in Gladiator and assassinated by a poisoned apple in Fall.

Gladiator is a wonderful film which easily surpasses its considerable competition with its visual splendor. Scott’s original inspiration was Gerome’s famous Victorian painting and any number of the scene-paintings of the film are nearly, if not actually, its equal. The closing shot of the twilight of the Coliseum is particularly memorable, as is Maximus’s screed when he unmasks before Commodus and promises his revenge “in this world or in the next.”

Scott’s main interest, here as elsewhere, is in advancing the story visually rather than dramatically. He does not slow down enough to develop complex relationships of sex, race, and ethnicity. In both the silent and the sound versions of Ben-Hur, there is a wonderful scene in which an Arab, “a coarse gambling man,” played by Hugh Griffith in the sound version, goes into a Roman bath house to wager a large amount of money on his “own poor horses.” He has helpfully brought along a bushel of money to show his sincerity, and he taunts the Romans into giving him highly favorable odds. The tension of the scene is almost visceral and clearly presents both the basic conflict of the film — the revenge story — and the competing ideologies involved in a dramatic fashion that Gladiator never manages.

Gladiator was a box office monster. According to Box Office Mojo, it earned $187,705,427 domestically and $269,935,000 around the world for a total of $457,640,427, and continues to earn residuals from television, DVD and Blu-ray receipts.

William Parrill, Ridley Scott: A Critical Filmography, 2011


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