(SPOILERS) Ridley Scott’s Oscar glory. It must have left him feeling a little peeved, since he went away without the Best Director statuette. Was Gladiator’s winner deserved? How often are the Oscars actually deserved? Gladiator is solid, populist entertainment, the kind of picture that would have been wholly ignored if it hadn’t put bums on seats (which in some respects is a point in its favour).
It wastes most of the ripe potential it has for commentary and self-reflexivity, as suggested by Russell Crowe’s general turned slave when he demands of the crowds “Are you not entertained?” Such lofty notions are never more than lip service. This is far too linear a movie for hidden depths. Gladiator works for two simple reasons. Firstly, there’s Russell Crowe, lean and matter-of-fact in his charisma; he hasn’t found a role that suits him so well since. Secondly there’s Scott, by this point a no-nonsense director who had long since forsaken artsy shit for processed, production line, and nuance-free visualisations. But nevertheless, one more than capable of adding the necessary thrills to those gladiatorial contests.
As noted, Gladiator was an example of the Academy stepping in line with the public opinion. This had been seen over the previous decade in both its basest form (Titanic) and most unlikely and potentially mould breaking (The Silence of the Lambs). More than the kudos, Gladiator opened studios’ eyes to the potential for the historical epic the way The Lord of the Rings (and the trilogy’s eventual Oscar endorsement) would for the fantasy film a year later. It’s probably not co-incidental that neither genre has seen success quite on that scale since. Troy actually made a bit more than Gladiator globally, but had none of the cultural impact. Mostly studios have just been grateful to break even, despite the high cost, low rewards nature of the genre; the likes of Kingdom of Heaven, Robin Hood, Exodus: Gods and Kings (all from Scott), Noah, King Arthur, Pompeii, Alexander, and even 300 on the comic/historical crossover point. You’d be lucky to claim two of those as unqualified box office champs.
It’s significant that, amid its Oscar splendour, Gladiator didn’t received an award Best Original Screenplay. That it was nominated is perhaps most surprising. Not unusually for the furious pace of movies Scott would churn out over then next decade and a half, the script is its least auspicious element. David Franzoni (credited only with other less than superlative historicals Amistad and King Arthur) had the original-ish idea, owing not a little to 1964’s The Fall of the Roman Empire (Livius there occupies a similar position to Maximus, just without becoming a gladiator). The spine of the movie is identified succinctly by Commodus, pretty much doing the ad men’s hard work; “The general who became a slave. The slave who became a gladiator. The gladiator who defied an emperor”.
It wasn’t as smooth sailing as that sounds. John Logan (Bond, Aviator, Rango, The Time Machine, Star Trek: Nemesis; a mixed bag, basically) was brought into finesse Franzoni’s work, improving the dialogue and rewriting the first act by slaying Maximus’ family and so giving him added motivation. Then in came William Nicolson (First Knight, Shadowlands, Les Mis, Unbroken; more mixed bags) to make Maximus more sensitive, improve his friendship with Juba (Djimon Hounsou), and develop the afterlife elements. While I don’t think Maximus has been made too heroic, neither of the latter elements work especially well. The friendship with Juba feels grafted on without any real substance, while the afterlife theme is Scott at his most typically heavy-handed.
Crowe was instrumental in the changes, being a right pain in the arse and telling Nicholson he’d written a big pile of shit. Perhaps he was right, certainly he had the certitude and understanding to add weight to perfunctory/ improvised dialogue (“Unleash hell!”) and he is the movie, basically (first choice Gibson could have done it, no doubt, but he’d have done entirely familiar Mel things with the role). It may have done wonders for his bankability, but it didn’t help Crowe’s rep any. Certainly, if the reports of him screaming he was the best actor in the world are unvarnished, it sounds like was a right prima donna. But he looks, great, with his little hair curls and manly skirt, spinning his sword, sometimes two-handed. Most importantly he lends the proceedings utter conviction. He grounds the picture where it is (frequently) wafer thin, or pulls off lines that simply sound corny now (“My name is gladiator!”)
One might, if one were generous, see the picture’s arrival as prescient. A reflection of the need for heroes with a righteous cause in an age when leaders are waging wars for their own nefarious ends and seizing public feeling through the most bare-faced of manipulations. One such would be “elected” only months after Gladiator was released. It’s appealing to have some one noble and righteous and good to look to in such times. But, of course, we had a not dissimilar historical (although it’s abiding criticism arises from its inaccuracies) reminder of sticking true to one’s beliefs in the martyrdom of Braveheart only a few years before. This sort of thing is sweat off a warrior’s back, if it lands at all.
And it isn’t really Sir Ridley’s thing. Because, as simple as the premise is, it’ s rendered in a manner that is so unfinessed as to be almost perfunctory. This approach ultimately reins in its designs on being an epic. It’s a rudimentary affair, dressed up and polished. There’s not much going on, and the attempts at court intrigue via reliable British thespian royalty can only go so far. This is great art direction, and CGI work, but in a city with about five speaking parts. It feels undernourished, and to carry off political machinations there needs to be nourishment. Accordingly, it’s easy to see why aspects such as the shades of Elysium were added, Crowe’s double running his hand through a field of corn at intervals on his path to death. There are movies where such portents feel fitting and of a piece, but here it is merely mock poetic.
Likewise, the machinations of Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) are clodhopping. Phoenix goes right over the top, giving Commodus a lisp and a violent temper. His choices are probably shrewd ones all told, recognising the limitations of the part; his problem is partly one of design that cannot be surmounted. Commodus is a petulant child, cowardly, vain and given to fits of instability. It’s this that leads Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) to pass him over for Emperor; he instruct Maximus that Rome should become a republic again, giving power back to the people and ending corruption. Why couldn’t he have done that while he was alive, eh? And it’s this that leads Commodus to kill his father. But the consequence is, Commodus is never a match of personality for Maximus, despite Phoenix’s attempts to compensate by going bigger. He’s a weasel rather than a snake.
The real Commodus was assassinated, eventually strangled by his personal wrestler Narcissus (who, with Claudius Pompeianus, formed a very loose basis for the Maximus of the movie), but only after 12 years of rule (and having also co-ruled with his father). He was given to fighting as a gladiator, charging a million sesterces a time for the privilege, always winning because his opponents always submitted to their emperor. He built up an endemic level of unpopularity by the end (he was subject to a failed poisoning before he was strangled) and was widely known for his cruelty. Commodus would kill his practice opponents. He was also given to posing as Hercules in the arena, where he would kill the wounded and amputated, clubbing them to death.
So the movie makes the Commodus appear almost benevolent in comparison. Even knowing such “truth is stranger than fictions”, the final arena showdown translates as overly contrived, particularly when the assorted nobles gather on the Colosseum floor and Gracchus asks, “Who will help me carry him?” There’s no final note admitting a republic wasn’t restored, as that might have been considered even more of a downer.
Still, Scott delivers with the action. The opening battle is overtly indebted to Saving Private Ryan with its suddenly fashionable use of high shutter speed. This creates a choppy, stop motion effect. It’s something that, like shakycam, can get old very quickly, but does create a certain visceral immediacy. It’s in the arena bouts that Ridley really comes into his own, though. They do indeed make you entertained (it probably would have taken a Verhoeven to really revel in the debasement, however), with the expertly calculated move from Maximus shunning sparring during the training to suddenly battling for his life; he and Juba turn the tables completely, leading to a Spartacus-inspired spear hurled into the gallery.
The chariot sequence obviously has a fair bit of Ben-Hur in there, and the strategic commander (“If we stay together, we survive”) leads to a surprise rout. Scott, despite my preference for the mad Dutchman, doesn’t stint on the limb lopping (he even cuts a woman warrior in half). This sequence is easily the highlight of the picture, even though the tigers follow (I can never not see the bit where a fake tiger flopping on Crowe’s back), and includes the picture’s best line as a slightly amused Commodus comments “My history’s a little hazy, Cassius, but didn’t the barbarians lose the battle of Carthage?”) It shows how long ago I’d last seen this, as I managed to credit the best line in Pompeii, where Keifer Sutherland says almost exactly the same thing about a gladiatorial upset, as original. Paul W Anderson, acting the hack? Say it ain’t so.
The supporting cast can be relied on to do what they do well. Harris is old and wise and sad (he and Crowe got on together). Oliver Reed (he and Crowe didn’t get on together), his performance as Proximo curtailed in The Crow or Furious 7 fashion and CGI-enhanced at key moments, makes for a coarse and funny slave owner. He’s just what the picture needs (“You sold me queer camels. I want my money back”) and gives Maximus a fair helping of X-Factor advice (“I wasn’t the best because I killed quickly. I was the best because the crowd loved me”).
Jacobi’s a past master at playing Romans, so looks like he’s merely been exhumed after two millennia of idling. Connie Nielsen is (as always, it seems) excellent in an underwritten and reactive role. A very youthful looking Tommy Flanagan (Sons of Anarchy) is the loyal Cicero. David Hemmings gives good eyebrows.
The problem with Gladiator is that it’s merely good when it could have been great. This isn’t the modern day Ben-Hur, even if it has been proclaimed as such. It’s a greatest hits package of Roman epics with modern technical flair, when it should have been its own thing entirely. Ridley was now in the frame for providing the same kind of prefab sheen to any material to which he attached himself (invariably with a solid but underwhelming Hans Zimmer score). He knew to tell Crowe not to try an Antonio Banderas accent, but being actually inspired was now beyond him. This was the point where he decided to stop spending years trying to get projects made and leapt from picture to picture. In one sense it’s an admirable repositioning, approaching your mid-60s (and, now approaching 80, he’s maintained his regimen), but are the results fruitful? He hasn’t quite made a terrible film since, but the majority have been mediocrities albeit with unfailing technical flair.
Perhaps The Martian will change all that. Perhaps he should have directed Nick Cave’s screenplay for Gladiator 2: Christ Killer. I don’t really think he should, of course (Maximus travels to the afterlife, is reincarnated, sent to kill Jesus and the Christians and meets his nipper, who he kills, and is then condemned then to forever gladiate through the centuries). But at least it wouldn’t have been as pedestrian as most of his script choices. It might even have ended up as likeably mad as The Counselor.