"What if the WWF had existed during Roman times?" Wednesday, 18 May 2000
Want both your bread and circuses? You're in luck, Gladiator brought plenty for everyone.
With this being our triumphant return to the theater, it seemed right that we begin with the first summer blockbuster. Thankfully, above that, it was a GOOD movie. Just the kind I like, too -- well-written, well-directed, in-depth, and Roman. The later usually doesn't crop up in movies (though often, neither do the other three, sadly), so all the better when it does.
I'm fascinated by ancient Rome. An entire nation with a Napoleon complex, and the greatest empire the world has ever known. What's not to like? Admittedly, I know very little of the fall of the Roman Caesars, but perhaps that was for the best. As such, I was able to watch the movie with just enough knowledge to appreciate it perhaps a little bit more, but not enough to get in the way of the fiction.
For those who have yet to catch anything about the film, here's the skinny: Rome's greatest general, Maximus, scores a victory over the only remaining tribe of barbarians, who have yet to realize that they're conquered. The reigning Caesar, Marcus Aurelius, wants to reward Maximus with Rome itself, since he's dying and all and his son, Commodus, is a snot-nosed little punk. But Maximus is a simple farmer at heart, and all he wants is to return home to Spain and his wife and son.
Of course, things don't work out that way (hard to stretch that out to the film's 2h 45m length), and Maximus finds himself without much reason to carry on ... making him the perfect reluctant saviour.
Now you'll have to forgive me a little here, I'm horrendously out of practice with movie reviews and it'll take me a while to get back in the swing of things. And, of course, it's always easier to pick than to praise. There's precious little to pick on with Gladiator. My biggest gripe is, in fact, a huge nit-pick, which I'll rant about in a bit. But as far as plot and my own eye for production goes, this movie is flawless. It even gets grand kudos from me for being strong and refraining from most of the movie vices in the theater today; nowhere in Gladiator will you find overt sexual themes, inappropriate nudity (indeed, much to my surprise, there is nary a naked breast to be seen), foul language, or anything I typically consider to be unnecessarily excessive in many of today's movies.
What about violence? you may be asking. Well, I won't lie to you, Gladiator IS a bloody movie. If scenes of people getting decapitated and stuck in a variety of places with swords bothers you, then this movie could cause you difficulty. However, I said "unnecessarily excessive," and though violent, I do not at all consider Gladiator exceeding those boundaries. To start, this is ancient Rome. Historically speaking, it was a bloody and brutal place. The mere fact that the Colosseum thrived is proof of that. Secondly, the name of the file is a huge clue that there will be deaths, and lots of them. So yes, it's a violent movie, but well within acceptable limits given the setting and context of the film.
So what was done right? To start, the hero is compelling. He has the sort of "everyman" quality necessary for us to relate to him, and he confronts his destiny reluctantly, but with a locked jaw and firm resolution. Not to say that he is perfect, but he accepts and deals with his stumbling blocks and still emerges victorious -- we respect that in our fellow man and hope to be as good in our own lives. Who doesn't like a bit of inspiration now and again?
Maximus was not the only character done well, but as the main focus of the story, his triumphs are ours, and we can't help but follow his actions more closely than the rest of the cast. Still, most of the major characters exhibit change and growth, and that in and of itself is an achievement: Lucilla comes to know the value of sacrifice and what it means to stand up for what's right. Commodus ... well, he may not have learned any lesson that I can actively put my finger on, but he DOES gain a touch a courage (of a sort) at the end. And I suppose he learns that even being the most powerful man in the world won't make people love and respect you. Proximo learns to care again, at least about something more than money. But perhaps most impressively would be Maximus' commander, Quintis. I would've bet money on that character's fate, and I would've lost a bundle. It's rare that a movie can surprise me when I'm that certain, and I'm always tickled when it does.
Equally as pleasing are some of the themes touched on throughout the course of the movie. Ignoring the more commonplace ones dealing with heros and all that, there are two that I found to be particularly compelling. The first is societal in nature, dealing with the impact of the mob mentality on a country's government. It's every bit as evident today as it was in ancient Rome -- if the people want it, give it to them. It keeps them fat and happy and in return, they completely ignore what it is you're up to. "Win the people and win your freedom," Proximo councils Maximus. How true, how true.
The second theme is along a similar vein, specifically dealing with the entertainment industry. There's a frightening crossover between politics and entertainment (don't believe me? Check out how many celebrities our current presidential candidates like to tote). Perhaps even more terrifying is that while watching some of the scenes in Gladiator I was actively reminded of various television shows broadcasting today, perhaps specifically, that most banal of "sports," professional wrestling. Watching Maximus kick ass, insult the crowd, spit at them, and then strut off to their enthusiastic cheers, the similarities were haunting. It makes one wonder just how far we've progressed from these supposed barbaric forms of entertainment.
Speaking of progression, I find I can no longer hold it in -- it's time to deal with the nit-pick and greatest flaw in the movie. There is a scene, in the arena, where Commodus must decide whether to kill Maximus as he wants (and needs) to do, or whether to keep the favour of the Roman people (as their love is what he's truly seeking) and spare the Spaniard's life. This was not an uncommon situation during the games. When one combatant had the other at his mercy, he would look to the emperor to see whether the killing blow should be delivered. Here's the thing: Contrary to popular belief (and the movie), A THUMBS UP IS BAD! Yes, that's right, if you saw the emperor's thumb go up, it was likely the last thing you ever saw. Why? The answer may make more sense than you thing. A thumbs down meant to sheath the sword. Thumbs up, unsheath it. The next step from there is obvious. So it was with much groaning and protesting that I saw Gladiator use the erroneous signal, and am left to wonder why.
I can come up with two possibilities. The first: they did not know better. Possible, but unlikely, given the attempt at accuracy they creators strove for elsewhere. Option two: it was intentionally wrong so as to avoid confusion in the audience. This is most likely the case, and a disappointing one at that. I'm never fond of things which are "dumbed down," and in this case, it seems particularly unnecessary. The astute viewer would have picked up that the thumbs down was a good thing by judging the reactions of the audience and Commodus. For further clarification, a single line of dialogue could have cleared everything up -- "They demand a sheathed sword ... they demand life!" or some other appropriately dramatic phrase uttered by a senator, Lucilla, or even a fellow gladiator. To really drive the point home, have the crowd chant "Life!" or something. These are things I'm pulling off the top of my head, but they prove that historical accuracy could have been maintained and the viewer would not feel ostracized by lack of comprehension. Why they did not go this extra step is beyond me. I can only assume that they didn't feel it worth the trouble and that their audience would know no better. Mildly insulting and highly irritating as I saw it, but no where near enough to ruin my overall enjoyment of the film, especially in this day and age of such masterpieces as American Pie, High Fidelity, and Road Trip (which has the potential to launch me into another rant altogether, but I'll be nice and spare you).
Finally, in the "nice touch" department, I applaud the casting of Derek Jacobi as Senator Cracchus. Any fan of Roman history is likely to be familiar with the man, although in a more stutteringly foolish role.
In summation, Gladiator is sort of like starving yourself for a week and then going out to dinner at an all-you-can-eat buffet. You leave feeling comfortably full, with all your tastes well satiated.