To say that Ridley Scott has made the best gladiator movie in the last thirty years could seem a back-handed compliment — sort of like calling someone the world’s tallest midget. “Sword and sandal” movies, as they call them in the trade, have always been a mixed lot at best. For every Ben Hur there were a dozen poorly dubbed, poorly shot, poorly acted films like The Beast of Babylon Against the Son of Hercules.
But Gladiator is no lip-synched, low-budget parade of pectorals. It is a fantastic film for people who like big, bold historical epics and prefer them — like their steak — bloody and rare. Oh, you know who you are. There is a sufficient amount of hacking and chopping of limbs to satisfy anyone’s cinematic bloodlust.
The story is fairly familiar. A great and popular Roman general, Maximus (Russell Crowe), defeats the last Barbarian horde of Germania (in the fantastic opening scene of the film). The aging Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) sees in Maximus the virtues lacking in his own scheming son, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix). Crowe essentially plays a Cincinnatus or, for that matter, a George Washington for Roman times. He has no love of politics or the decadence that is Rome, which is why he is so popular. He is simply a farmer who has laid down his plow reluctantly but willingly for his Emperor and Rome.
As one might expect, Maximus and Commodus do not play well together. But as I am not one of the reviewers who likes to give away the whole plot, let’s summarize this way: Commodus becomes emperor when he shouldn’t and Maximus becomes a gladiator. Moreover Maximus has very good reason to be angry with Commodus.
What elevates Gladiator above the average slice-em-up is, first and foremost, Crowe’s performance. Crowe, who always seems to be sniffing around the door of major stardom, offers a magnificent performance. But handicappers may be wrong that this will make Crowe a Mel Gibson-stature star. There is something extremely distant and therefore compelling about Crowe that may not translate into box-office loyalty. I doubt he could pull off a romantic comedy, for instance. Instead, I think he is the sort of character actor who will only draw big audiences if he chooses the right roles. The other thing that makes this film better than its rivals in the genre is that it doesn’t bother with much explication. Small details go unexplained, on the assumption that the audience either brings the requisite knowledge or that they will catch on. To take an obvious example, if you know what SPQR stands for (Senatus Populusque Romanus or The Senate and People of Rome) you’ll be fine. But if you don’t, you’re out of luck if you expect the filmmakers to tell you. Call it a Merchant Ivory film for the bloodlusty. Personally, a bloody epic with tiger fights and catapults that doesn’t insult my intelligence is a dream come true.
Indeed, this raises what has been interesting and annoying about some of the reviews of Gladiator; the general ignorance about the topic itself. This is unfortunate, but it could explain the very divergent word of mouth about the film. Many people seem to think that it is wildly unrealistic. The New York Times, for example, derides the film as being “silly” because, among other reasons, the Coliseum in the film is “bigger than the Death Star” in Star Wars. Many who believe that the film is implausible do not realize how bizarre and grand ancient Rome actually was. The original Coliseum, in fact, did seat 50,000 people, and the incredible gladiatorial traps and pitfalls depicted in the film actually pale in comparison to some of the contraptions used in the real Coliseum. For example, there was a time when they flooded the arena with water and actually had naval battles (maybe they’ll do that in the sequel).