Set in that most Hollywood of eras, A.D. 180, Gladiator is an attempt to make a lavish Roman epic on the scale of Spartacus or Ben-Hur while at the same time providing us with a hero, Russell Crowe’s Maximus, who is all simmer and scowl. It’s a spectacularly over-the-top production starring a monumentally indrawn protagonist. General Maximus, who begins the movie massacring Yeti-looking barbarians in the forests, doesn’t suffer fools gladly. He doesn’t suffer anything gladly, not even suffering. He’s the archetypal strong, silent type, and when he speaks, his words are as blunt as his knife blade is sharp. But Crowe, unlike, say, Clint Eastwood, knows how to make all that strong-silent masculinity expressive; as he also demonstrated in The Insider, he can play a character in a state of near stasis and still create a force field of rage and longing and hurt. Whenever Maximus the brooder moves into action, it’s as if everything coiled inside him automatically springs to life. Readiness, for him, is a state of being.
Ridley Scott, directing from a script by David Franzoni, John Logan, and William Nicholson, is a filmmaker who likes to create worlds, and the world he has created here is a coming-together of Kubrick and Sergio Leone and the World Wrestling Federation, all of it heightened by Scott’s inimitably stentorian style. Scott is the moviemaking equivalent of a writer who types everything uppercase. He’s a hard-sell visionary, and maybe that’s why parts of Gladiator, particularly the fighting parts, resemble nothing so much as his specialty, the ultimate Super Bowl halftime commercial.
But what is Scott selling, exactly? It’s a bit much to claim, as some have, that Gladiator is a breakthrough example of Roman-epic revisionism. What, after all, has been revised? Many of the film’s plotlines and tropes are readily familiar, not only from Spartacus and Ben-Hur but also from The Fall of the Roman Empire and Barabbas and Cleopatra and the whole sweaty Hercules ilk. Marcus Aurelius (an impressively restrained Richard Harris) is that most standard of all Caesars: the ailing philosopher-king who laments his warring years. Maximus is the loyal soldier who, having done his duty for Rome, wants only to return to his wife and young son and live a quiet country life among the poplars. But Maximus is also the son Caesar wishes he had (another well-worn Roman-movie trope). Alas, the regal coot is saddled with Joaquin Phoenix’s Commodus – think commode – who smothers the old man when he discovers that Maximus, whom he subsequently dispatches for execution, has been tapped to restore the Republic.
Then there’s Commodus’s sister, Lucilla (Connie Nielsen), another mainstay of the toga party; her father actually says to her, “If only you would have been born a man, what a Caesar you would have made.” When Maximus is made a slave, and then a gladiator, we’re presented with yet more Roman-epic stalwarts, including the gladiator ringmaster Proximo, played with ripe relish by Oliver Reed in his last screen appearance, and Juba (Djimon Hounsou), the noble black man and fellow fighter whose sinews are strung tight with a yearning for freedom. He’s Woody Strode redux.
Actually, I’m glad Gladiator is not, to my way of thinking, terribly revisionist. It’s been years, after all, since the last Roman epic, and the genre has always been a personal guilty pleasure: all those chariots and amphitheaters and centurions and sandals and mincing cutthroats. In terms of sheer flamboyant nastiness, Roman epics give you more bang for your buck than just about any other kind of movie. The biggest problem with Gladiator is not that it’s timeworn but rather that it’s not old-fashioned enough. The genre’s kitsch pleasures are overridden by Scott’s periodic attempts at grandiosity. The Forum looks like something out of Triumph of the Will, and the battle sequences, especially the opener, suffer from tour-de-force-itis. The sheer percussiveness of it all, along with too many close-ups of flailing limbs and bits of bodies, are enough to make one break out in hives. Scott does occasionally pull off a whopper, like the first, sweeping, can’t-believe-our-eyes glimpse of the Colosseum (partially re-created with computer-generated imagery), but I’d gladly sacrifice most of these moments for more like the one in which the incestuous, thin-lipped Commodus, in full eyeliner appliqué, mutters to himself, “I’m terribly vexed.”
Halfway into the movie, Proximo tells his prize gladiator, Maximus, “Win the crowd and you win your freedom.” Winning the crowd at all costs is also the mantra of Hollywood, and Ridley Scott places his film squarely in that tradition. He treats his audience alternately like epicures and like a vulgar, bloodthirsty mob not dissimilar to the one that crowded the Colosseum. Whatever it takes to bring down the house. Without Russell Crowe’s dynamism holding it all together, Gladiator might have devolved into a rash of overblown pandering. Crowe plays a character with a genius for survival, and he saves the movie, too.