2000, DreamWorks/Universal. Directed by Ridley Scott. Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen.
Decent Films Ratings
Content advisory: Bloody violence and gore; a scene of warfare and several arena combat scenes; incestuous themes.
By Steven D. Greydanus
Like its hero Maximus — the squinting, beefy, unassuming, indomitable Roman general-turned-gladiator — Ridley Scott’s film Gladiator is brave, impressive, ambitious, confident, competent, and commanding. Maximus’ story is epic in scope and expertly told; the world he inhabits is convincingly realized and vividly photographed; his enemy is unsettlingly dissolute and depraved; his defeats and setbacks are tragic and daunting; his struggle to overcome is heroic. If he has never heard of the Christian theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity, he is at any rate an embodiment of the classical cardinal virtues of fortitude, prudence, temperance, and justice; especially contrasted with his contemptible opponent, who explicitly avows lacking them all.
Unfortunately, also like Maximus, Gladiator isn’t especially interesting. The makings are here for a great epic spectacle in the tradition of Spartacus and Ben Hur, but Gladiator, while it honors this tradition, doesn’t live up to it. All the pieces are in place, but somehow they just don’t come together. In spite of this, it’s still pretty decent entertainment, and worth seeing in theaters for its immense set pieces (never mind if most of them are computer-generated; the illusion is pretty convincing).
Director Ridley Scott made his name with the groundbreaking science-fiction films Blade Runner and Alien, both of which, like Gladiator, were triumphs of set design and visual style, memorable more for the haunting worlds they created than for any engaging character development or moral interest. In these earlier films, Scott had the advantage of showing us worlds we had never seen before. Gladiator takes us to familiar territory, though new computer effects and Scott’s strong direction make it worth seeing anyway.
What’s missing from the story is an emotional center, a point of connection for the audience: a problem that manifests itself right from the start, as the film with the armies of Rome poised to vanquish the barbaric hordes of Germania. One of the barbarians approaches and contemptuously tosses a single decapitated Roman head — doubtless a herald or messenger — toward the Roman army. Moments later the two armies are engaged. Scott directs this battle sequence not with the directness of Braveheart or the disorienting chaos of Saving Private Ryan, but with an impressionistic camera that runs colors and shapes together like a living Monet. It’s a nice exercise in style; yet the film has given us nothing of the nature or context of the quarrel between the two sides, so we aren’t emotionally invested in the outcome; we have no reason to root for one side against the other (I suppose the barbarians do lose sympathy points for ignoring the civilized tenet of allowing messengers safe passage).
After the battle, we learn more about the general who engineered the Germans’ defeat. Maximus (Russell Crowe, last seen in The Insider) has served Caesar in many campaigns, but wants no greater reward than to return home to his farm and his wife and son, whom he has not seen in over two years. (He prays for them to the gods in touching words: "Whisper to them that I live only to hold them again.") The aging Caesar, however, has other plans for Maximus: Rome is beset by corruption within as well as barbarians without, and Caesar’s ambitious son Commodus is ambitious but morally unfit to rule. Caesar wants to bypass his son for the succession and name Maximus protector, hoping that he can restore the tarnished glory of the Eternal City.
This scene establishes both Caesar and Maximus as sympathetic figures. You can’t help liking a politician with a conscience or a soldier who cares nothing for his career but only for his family. Then, however, Caesar does a foolish thing of the sort that comes from not having seen enough movies: without having yet shared his plans with anyone but Maximus, he reveals them also in private to Commodus; who in a moving and disturbing scene is as much appalled and dismayed at this final rejection of his father as by the crisis to his own aspirations. I trust I will be spoiling nothing when I reveal that Commodus kills his father and claims the mantle of Caesar for himself.
Maximus immediately realizes that the old Caesar did not die of natural causes, but has no time to regroup: he finds himself branded a traitor, and is sentenced to execution along with his family. Maximus’ escape is sudden and daring — so sudden that I missed his first move; I’ll have to watch for it on DVD — but he returns home much too late to save his wife and son. Grieving and exhausted, he buries them before collapsing on the blackened earth of the burned-out farmhouse. When he awakens, he is a prisoner, not of Commodus’ minions, but of slave traders who sell him for a gladiator.
With the death of his family, the screenplay brings the hero as low as he could go, as well as further establishing the villainy of Commodus. But there’s a dramatic and emotional tradeoff: Now that his family is dead, Maximus cannot hope to have the one thing for which he lived — except perhaps in the afterlife; a point worth returning to later. His life, at any rate, is from this point on directed toward two interrelated goals: (1) avenging himself on the man responsible for his family’s murder, and (2) realizing the murdered Caesar’s intentions for setting Rome on the road to reform.
The problem with this is that neither of these goals provides much of a moral or emotional center for audiences to care about. While revenge-scenes at the climax of a film are hugely popular with audiences (however morally problematic they may be), revenge as the driving force of an entire story is rather thin and uninvolving.
As for the fate of Rome, this is something the film never gives us any more reason to care about than we had in the initial battle-scene with the Germans. Characters talk a great deal about "the glory of Rome" and corruption and so forth, but we are never shown the practical consequences of these notions in the lives of Roman citizens. In my capsule review of a completely different film, The Mask of Zorro, I praised that story for the way it wove the evil effects of the villains’ oppression of the Californian people inextricably into the mechanics of the film’s plot. I don’t say that Gladiator would have had to go this same route (though it would have been one way to improve the story). But even a minute or two at the beginning of the story where we see the concrete effects of Roman corruption in the lives of Roman citizens, combined with a minute or two at the end that illustrates how Maximus has made a real difference, would give us something real to care about. As it is, I was impressed by the spectacle, but felt curiously detached from all the characters.
There is, however, one further issue: Maximus hopes to be reunited with his family in the afterlife, a hope that is intriguingly conveyed through juxtaposed flashbacks of real or imagined homecomings and footage of a sequence in which his wife and son went, as they thought, to meet the returning Maximus, but were met instead by Commodus’ executioners. The hoped-for reunion that did not occur then, Scott suggests, may yet be coming in another world. This is sensitively and thoughtfully handled, and could have been genuinely moving. Yet somehow it isn’t.
Maximus is a decent and pious pagan. His faith is, we trust, sincere, and according to the Church’s teaching it is indeed possible that such a person might be reunited with his loved ones in paradise, redeemed by the grace of a Savior whose name he never knew. Yet Maximus’ faith, however sincere, is not one we share; nor is it one that he himself in any way grows in, questions, struggles with, or nurtures. We watch him labor to attain his goals regarding avenging his family and fighting for the fate of Rome; but his unbaptized faith is both static and alien, and therefore, at least to me, somewhat uninvolving. It may even be admirable, but it isn’t very interesting.
A complicating factor is that the story takes place in 180 AD, at a time when the Christian church in Rome was well over a century old. Christianity was still suppressed, but was popular nevertheless, especially among the slave population — of which gladiators were a subset. I don’t know if Christianity was popular among gladiators, especially since the early Christians were so united in their condemnation of killing for spectacle; but I couldn’t help wondering why there was no Christian presence whatsoever in this film.
The point here is not that Maximus ought to have been, or become, a Christian, but that the Christian faith was available as one possible catalyst by which Maximus’ hopes for the afterlife might be thoughtfully engaged; and the film perhaps lost an opportunity here. Perhaps Maximus could have been depicted as having doubts about the afterlife; as struggling with the fear that his family was simply gone and that he too would be when he died. Perhaps he could have had a conversation with one Christian slave — like the actual conversation he had with an African heathen gladiator — in which Maximus might have asked a few questions about the new religion and its teaching on the afterlife: not as a spiritual seeker looking to convert, but simply as a man in the dark interested in as many different points of view as possible. And perhaps the Christian’s reassurances that, yes, he did believe that Maximus could hope to see his family again could have helped Maximus grow in his own pagan hope. Again, not the only way to go, but one way the afterlife theme could have been more thoughtful and involving. Gladiator is a good film. It could have been a great one.