The History Place - Movie Review

The Gladiator

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 sequences.

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 effects.

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.

The Gladiator - Official Website
Return to The History Place - Movie Reviews Index

The History Place Main Page | American Revolution | Abraham Lincoln | U.S. Civil War | Child Labor in America 1908-1912 | U.S. in World War II in the Pacific | John F. Kennedy | Vietnam War | The Rise of Hitler | Triumph of Hitler | Defeat of Hitler | Hitler Youth | Timeline of World War II in Europe | Holocaust Timeline | Photo of the Week| Speech of the Week | This Month in History | Books on Hitler's Germany | History Videos | Send Feedback ]

Copyright © 2000 The History Place™ All Rights Reserved

Terms of use: Private home/school non-commercial, non-Internet re-usage only is allowed of any text, graphics, photos, audio clips, other electronic files or materials from The History Place.