Politics & Policy

Is Gladiator a Conservative Movie?

It's tempting to read our political views into works of art.

We call it the “Tequila Sunrise Effect,” and it is inspired by what John Leonard, writing in The Nation, called the Tequila Sunrise Paradigm. He can be forgiven for the use of the word “paradigm,” as it was very much in the air back then (“Brother, can you paradigm?” was a serious knee-slapper in the Bush White House).

But before I can tell you what the Tequila Sunrise Effect or the Paradigm are, you need to know about the movie. Tequila Sunrise was a mediocre flick starring Mel Gibson, Kurt Russell, and Michelle Pfieffer. That’s all you really need to know.

So here’s how he described the paradigm:

“In the movie Tequila Sunrise, Mel Gibson and Kurt Russell are high school buddies who grew up on opposite sides of the law. They compete for Michelle Pfeiffer. If not to them, what’s clear to us is that Gibson and Russell really want to go to bed with each other. Since they can’t, they go to bed with Pfeiffer. She’s the go-between, the trampoline, a universal joint, a portable gopher-hole, a surrogate and a Chinese finger puzzle. Once you have seen it in the movie, you’ll see it everywhere.”

Now, my friends and I saw the movie both before and after we read Leonard’s analysis, and this buggery-by-proxy (in other spheres this is known as “paying taxes”) went completely over our heads. But, since then, what we have seen “everywhere” is the tendency of reviewers to find their own political messages in the films they review. The allegedly high-brow academic film journals are drenched with theories about how popular film is packed with homosexual imagery. Supposedly the hoses in the firefighter-flick Backdraft were intended to do more than put out fires, and Rambo’s name is a quasi-pun for what white American men want to do to the Vietnamese.

Such projection is what my friends call the Tequila Sunrise Effect. Reviewers want to find great meaning in films and so they simply impose that meaning even though the average intelligent moviegoer as well as the producers of the film wouldn’t have the foggiest idea what the reviewer was talking about (George Lucas: “Golly, I had no idea that the Jedi mind trick represents the ruling class’s desire to impose Marxian false consciousness on the lumpen proletariat. No wonder other races are immune to such retail propaganda from the racist wealthy, male, Jedi establishment”).

What’s got me thinking about all this is my review of the film Gladiator. No, no. I didn’t find the sweaty cleaving and hacking to be a metaphor for the Gingrich Congress or anything like that. No, instead, I got a lot of e-mail from people pointing out the various political messages I “missed” in the film. The film is chock-a-block with asides, declarations, observations, and tantrums about the natures of Republics, mobs, and tyranny. I didn’t miss them, but I should have written about them.

What I wrote about instead was the fact that so many reviewers thought the movie was unrealistic and unbelievable. This could be a fair criticism, but too many of the examples reviewers cited were in fact evidence of their own ignorance. The New York Times didn’t like how big the Coliseum was, comparing it to the Death Star. And yet the real Coliseum did seat approximately fifty thousand people, which is about right in the movie. The reviewer for Slate, David Edelstein, writes that “Commodus” is a ridiculous name for the new emperor, “the name sounds like Latin for ‘of the latrine.’” But that was actually the real name of Marcus Aurelius’s son. Also, according to Edelstein, Commodus “absurdly” enters the gladiatorial arena to fight Maximus. But the real Commodus did exactly that, hundreds of times.

Salon liked the movie, but they suggest that such things as tigers in the arena make this film too preposterous to be a great film. It certainly may not be of the same stature as Lawrence of Arabia, but gladiators did fight animals all the time, including lions and tigers. Indeed, Anthony Lane — writing an odd, but accurate, review in The New Yorker — points out that Commodus himself once fought an unarmed giraffe in the arena.

Several readers want Gladiator to be a call to arms for present-day conservatives. “Maximus for President!” one cheers. It is, they argue, a heroic tale of Republican virtues versus a centralized tyranny; a Braveheart in togas and codpieces. Maybe. Braveheart did touch the soul of many conservatives as it upheld a notion of Freedom distinct from the whatever-floats-your-boat individualism that reigns supreme these days; and I wish I could have reviewed it.

Still, I get squeamish when people talk about “conservative movies.” Very often, what people mean by conservative movies is really just movies that conservatives like. It’s sad that conservatives are the only ones who have bothered to put any good faith into the concept of republicanism or even the benefits of classical political science as defined by the Founders (I can’t wait for The Patriot, which looks like a Mel Gibson remake of Braveheart in colonial America). But that doesn’t mean that if a film discusses such things with a modicum of intelligence that the intent is necessarily conservative. Indeed, just because a film scores a few points against liberals generally doesn’t make it conservative either; call it the Forrest Gump Paradigm. Conservatives too often think that a movie is right-wing if the left wing doesn’t like it. If only that were so.

So I don’t know if Gladiator is a conservative movie. But it does feed a conservative cause — and not just keeping the flame of republican ideals barely flickering in the popular culture.

As has been repeated here often, conservatism is defined by the idea that human nature has no history (which is why I still believe that A Simple Plan is the most conservative movie in the last decade). Today — just like Gladiator’s skeptical reviewers — so many people assume that civilization moves ever upward. It doesn’t. When he was first exposed to the classicist political scientist Leo Strauss, Irving Kristol observed that we look at Western politics through “the wrong end of the telescope.”

Because human nature has not changed since man stood upright, those who studied it in the past are at least as expert as those who study it today. And the ancients took the regulation of human nature, i.e. politics, more seriously than the moderns. Sure, science has helped our understanding quite a bit, but mostly by confirming what the ancients said all along. In Gladiator, modern sensibilities are offended because we see toga-wearers talk in sophisticated terms about “democracy,” “republicanism,” and politics generally. They may not be the best conversations on the topic, but, still, they remind us that civilization doesn’t always move uphill. And they are bookended with a lot of really cool fight scenes.


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