By Fred Harvey
The History Place
Hollywood has ventured back into the Colosseum
for the first time in forty years and produced a very interesting but slightly
eccentric film about the bad old Roman Empire.
The Gladiator, directed by Ridley Scott
and staring Russell Crowe, provides us with better looking, more realistic
sets than its chariot predecessors, including the interior of the Emperor's
palace and the Colosseum in Rome. The sets are the real star of this film.
The story is familiar and somewhat similar to
Ben Hur, or Spartacus, in that it centers around the struggle
for power and the desire for revenge by those who have been wronged by
Roman rulers. This time it's a Roman general from Spain named Maximus,
played by Crowe.
Maximus desires early retirement after a grueling
career of blood and gore including his latest victory over the Germanic
tribes. That victory is witnessed first-hand by the aging Roman Emperor,
Marcus Aurelius, played nicely by Richard Harris. After the victory, Maximus
is told that he has been chosen to be the next Emperor, in place of the
actual heir to the throne, Commodus, beautifully played by Joaquin Phoenix.
Well, it's pretty easy to figure out that young
Commodus isn't going to be too happy about losing out on his big promotion.
Indeed, he takes matters into his own hands literally and winds up as the
new Emperor after all - which leaves Maximus out in the cold, again literally.
We know from this point onward that it's all heading
toward a big showdown in the Colosseum (two popcorns later) between the
dirty rotten Emperor and our beloved man of honor, Maximus. Meanwhile,
we get to see what it's like to work your way up as a gladiator. There's
no workers' compensation or paid vacations, but the crowds really love
you if you're a winner.
There are lots of super-realistic fights in this
flick featuring spurting blood and flying severed heads. The sword-play
and hand-to-hand combat is speeded up a bit at times, so as not to bore
present day theater audiences which are quite used to watching people getting
killed as entertainment, just like the Romans.
The weirdest thing about this film was the apparent
injection into the soundtrack of chants from Zulu warriors during the first
battle sequence involving the Germans and Romans. If you listen closely,
you'll hear the battle chants from the 1964 epic Zulu, just before
the Zulus attacked the British outpost.
Which led me to wonder, were Zulus actually present
in Europe in 169 A.D. during the battle between the Romans and Germans
or was it some kind of (in-joke) tribute to the previous epic? Only the
sound people know for sure.
Speaking of sound, the music soundtrack for The
Gladiator varied wildly from Wagner-like themes to Hollywood Schmaltz
to New Age and all kinds of stuff in between. My advice - pick one style
and stick with it. Changing styles abruptly results in awkward mood changes.
Another eccentric thing, and a prerequisite for
historical films these days, is the cutaway to the rock-video fantasy sequence
in which we get to visualize the hopes and dreams and past and future lives
of our main character. See also: Joan of Arc. Directors are worried
that historical themes might bore today's audience so they use all kinds
of visual tricks and de-emphasize dialogue.
This means we are often cheated out of the opportunity
to get to know our main character and thus have less interest in what eventually
happens to him/her. That is the big flaw in this film compared to Ben
Hur or Spartacus. Either of those films, if made today, would
likely have severe reductions in the amount of dialogue in favor of action
In the days of the Colosseum, Roman audiences,
after a while, had seen it all. Producers of those ancient spectacles therefore
emphasized faster action, bigger and bloodier events, and even added special
In the days of blood-soaked video games, Hollywood
producers do the same. Films like The Gladiator, although quite
entertaining, are in reality dumbed-down versions of the great and more
complicated epics from earlier days when people actually had the patience
to figure out the meaning.
Rated R for lots of blood and gore.