Tony gets in the ring.
The Roman empire was a place of contradictions: savagery and civilisation; representative government and corrupt chicanery; popular weakness and military strength; the greatest city state that became a dictatorship.
Gladiator is nothing if not ambitious in its scope, aiming to show all these sides of Rome and more, to lay bare ‘the dream that was Rome’ under the canker of the corrupting influence of godlike power that an emperor could wield. To show all this and much more besides, like many of the best stories, it focuses on just two main players. One weak, and cruel, and paranoid, born to power but never to the greatness of mind that we would hope always to see in its exercise. The other, with that nobility of mind, a man who embodies the simplest virtues of Rome – a farmer, a soldier, a general – but too simple to play politics beyond the end of a sword. Neither of them have what it takes to be the man they would or could replace – Marcus Aurelius, the philosopher-general, the balancer of the civic and the martial virtues in the single heart of the empire. Gladiator shows us all the glory and the tragedy of Rome through the journeys of Commodus, son of the emperor, and Maximus, the emperor’s favoured general.
The word ‘epic’ is overused these days, but at the turn of the millennium, Hollywood had lost touch with and faith in the kind of classical epic that had once made stars of its actors while depicting great figures from or stories set in remote history – Cleopatra, Spartacus, Quo Vadis and the like had been many decades earlier, and there was a feeling that that level of grand human storytelling no longer connected with modern audiences.
Ridley Scott, the man who had brought the world Alien, Blade Runner, Legend, and Thelma and Louise, knew a thing or two about ‘epic’ storytelling, bringing the grand themes of human life down to clashes of fundamental importance, often while filling the screen with spectacle. If you were going to breathe life into what has been called the ‘sword and sandal’ genre again, Scott would be where the smart money would go to get the job done.
Whether it was Scott, the money, or the sheer scale of the script, people could smell the potential of Gladiator early. How else do we explain seasoned Hollywood legends like Oliver Reed and Richard Harris signing on for roles in the film, which would be anchored by Russell Crowe, a man who, although having been in movies for a decade, had never tackled anything of this size or scope before. Joaquin Phoenix, the other side of the anchoring coin, had likewise been around for a while but had yet to absolutely knock audiences out of their seats. Gladiator would ensure both younger actors had Hollywood eating out of their hands.
Gladiator poses all kinds of intertwining philosophical questions, mostly to do with the nature and exercise of power. Does familiarity with power necessarily tend to corrupt? If so, are only those who do not want power fit to generally wield it? What is the nature of power? Is power a physical thing, or a mental? Can the power to command be inherited like a bauble, or must it be earned in order to be exercised? All these questions and more are raised when the ageing emperor, Marcus Aurelius, decides to buck the trend and not name his immoral son Commodus emperor, but to pass power instead onto Maximus, to hold in trust until the Roman Senate can be purged of its corruption and self-serving men. Commodus kills his father and seizes power in a way copied from that ancient stranger to sanity, Caligula. Maximus is ordered executed, his wife and son burned to death at his home. Escaping execution, he arrives in time to bury them, but not to save them. From this state of utter despondency, Maximus is captured and sold into slavery, but his integrity and his generalship allow him not only to stay alive as a gladiator in the provinces, but to make a name for himself, keeping his fellow gladiators alive by first working as a duo with Djimonn Hounsou’s Juba, and eventually as a squadron, to upset the plans of would-be slaughterers. As more and more people come to hear of this gladiator, it raises another question of power – where does it ultimately lie? In the talking-shops of senators, in the palaces of emperors, or in the sand of the arena, the yells of the mob, the expressed popular will of a generally de-clawed populace?
When Maximus and his troop arrive in Rome for the games to honour the life of Marcus Aurelius, there’s a stunning, shiver-making face-off between the two men that puts the point explicitly. Commodus insists Maximus reveal his face and name, and Maximus does so, swearing vengeance for his murdered wife and son. Commodus looks sick, as though he’s seen a ghost, or the spirit of Nemesis herself come to torment him, but when his guards draw weapons against the gladiator, the crowd chants ‘Live! Live! Live!’ – cowing the very emperor himself for the life of a slave.
From the moment Commodus knows that Maximus is alive and in Rome, there’s a Shakespearean scale to the drama, as when Macbeth sees Birnam Wood coming towards him. Any goodness in his nature, any hope that his better angels might win out against his inner corruption is poisoned by fear and paranoia, matched with increasingly grandiose god-fantasies involving his sister, who he wants to sleep with, and the senate, with which he wants to dispense entirely. In a way, the movie seems to say that power is actually entirely notional if one does not have control over oneself – the palace of a Caesar a far less quiet bed than that of a gladiatorial slave.
Maximus of course cannot avoid the politics that is the lifeblood of the Roman state, and struggles to find allies that have his purity of spirit, but gets involved in a plot to take Commodus down. Ultimately though, it’s Commodus’ own fear that drives the action, knowing that with Maximus alive and ruling his own miniature empire of the crowds, he can never be secure in his palace. He has to destroy both the man and his reputation, and he has to do it personally, leading to what might feel like a contrived ending, Maximus and Commodus duelling to the death, the emperor and a gladiator trading blows until not one but both of them lie dead on the sand. Perversely, this most far-fetched element of the story is based in truth – the real emperor Commodus is recorded as having gone personally into the arena to fight against gladiators. But even at the end, which drips with Hamlet-like significance, their deaths as intertwined as their lives have been, Scott pushes home his message – for Commodus, death is just oblivion, his misery and paranoia dying with him in a pool of blood-soaked sand. But to Maximus, Scott grants an afterlife, a homecoming to his home beyond this life, his wife, his son, his ponies and his grapes all waiting for him as the reward of a noble life well lived, for power justly earned and justly used. Scott’s conclusion is that ‘what we do in life echoes through eternity’. Power over all the world is not as important as the character with which we face whichever world we find ourself in.
In the story of these two men, Scott renders the grandeur and the squalor of Rome on screen in a way and on a scale that had all but been forgotten by Hollywood. By mixing grand philosophical questions with personal, character-driven drama, he captivates audiences who key into both thematic levels at once. He gives Oliver Reed a fitting role for his final performance, and allows Richard Harris one final historical role to round out an illustrious career. Crowe gives the part of Maximus a stature and a quiet intensity that is entirely believable from frame one, elevating him to a new level of stardom, and Phoenix, as the cripplingly insecure but cunning Commodus, eats quite enough scenery to make us mark him as an actor to watch too.
Gladiator does almost everything right – the philosophical questions, the intimate character drama, the scale and scope of Rome in one of her eras of crisis. In a way it tells a Shakespearean story that Shakespeare never told: the fate of a nation when an extraordinary leader has two ‘sons,’ one pure-hearted but simplistic, the other complex but tainted by politics and self-interest (a story still highly relevant in 2016). Gladiator, like the sword and sandal epics to which it was both an homage and a reinvigoration, has become a must-watch piece of classic cinema, a soaring ‘epic’ that speaks to something fundamental in human life at both a personal and political level.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk