The words “a Ridley Scott film” can mean a lot of things: a science-fiction film, a thriller, or a straight-up drama. One genre in which he seems to be quite at ease is the swords and sandals epic, and his most successful entry in that genre has been his Oscar-winning Gladiator (2000) with his frequent collaborator Russell Crowe. The story is filled with representations of corruption in politics, how entertainment can be used to distract or win the masses, but mostly it is remembered for the fights on the sand of the arena. This is best encompassed by the hero’s signature scream to the audience: “Are you not entertained?”
Most people watching this movie for the first time might probably link it to other similar epics, but the first thing that popped into my mind and the mind of my parents and brother when we first watched it was, “this sounds an awful lot like the French comic book Astérix.” The opening describes how at this point in history the Roman Empire has vanquished all of its enemies except for a rebellious Germanic tribe. If you have read Astérix, you would understand why we half expected a short moustachioed warrior and his big buddy Obélix to defeat the entire Roman army with their fists. That would have been fun, but it is not quite the tone Scott was going for.
Instead we get Russell Crowe as General Maximus Meridius successfully defeating the Germanic tribe thanks to skills, organizations, and a lot of arrows in a bloody and muddy battlefield. Despite the exhaustive battle, Maximus has the respect and loyalty of his soldiers, while Maximus gives his loyalty to the emperor Marcus Aurelius (the late great Richard Harris). The emperor loves his general like a son, which is a major slap in the face of his actual son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) who of course has his eyes on the throne. The battlefield is one thing, but politics is twice as dangerous because there your enemies hide in the shadows
In a true Shakespearean twist, Commodus decides to murder his father after he learns he has offered Maximus the job of emperor in order to reign in the corruption in Rome. The film is remembered for Russell Crowe’s performance, but Joaquin Phoenix is equally great as Commodus and gives a much more nuanced performance. In the scene when the emperor tells him he is not to inherit the throne he seems genuinely hurt and sad, even when he proceeds to choke the life out of his father. Connie Nielsen, who plays Commodus’ sister Lucilla, also has a meaty role since from the moment of her father’s death she is stuck in a life or death situation. She embraces her brother knowing full well what he is what he has done, but only because she also knows what he would do to her son should she get out of line.
Before all the political backstabbing and plotting in Rome takes place, we get to see Maximus go from respected general to slave after Commodus orders his death and that of his family. Captured and sold to Proximo (Oliver Reed, who died during production) a gladiator trainer, Maximus has lost his faith in his gods and his will to live. That is until he learns a gladiator can win his freedom through fame and by being the last man standing in the glorious coliseum in Rome, where the emperor would meet him in person. Freedom sounds nice, but stabbing Commodus on the sands of the arena sounds even better. Maximus’ advantage over the other gladiators is his army training, which allows his to defeat the largest of opponents while rich people are watching him over food and drinks. Now that’s entertainment.
Like many historical films, Gladiator has been criticised for its inaccuracy, and I remember reading somewhere it holds some sort of record for having the most movie mistakes, such as actors still wearing their watches during production. That may be, but once when I see Russell Crowe charging into battle while Hans Zimmer’s heroic theme is playing I am not really thinking about history, I am just thinking this is pretty badass. I will look for historical accuracy in the history books, in the movies I just want to be entertained.