Films

Blood and circuses

Brian D. Johnson May 15 2000
Films

Blood and circuses

Brian D. Johnson May 15 2000

Blood and circuses

The old-time sandal epic gets a new spring in its step

Brian D. Johnson

Gladiator Directed by Ridley Scott

For a certain generation, the thrill of discovering the movies began at the close of the 1950s, with the so-called sandal epics of Ben-Hur and Spartacus—spectacles with monumental sets, casts of thousands and bronzed warriors goring one another in mix 'n' match ensembles of loin cloths, leathers and chains. Since then, the genre has fallen out of fashion, but with Gladiator, the first major sandal epic in 40 years, director Ridley Scott makes an extravagant bid to restore its faded glory.

Gladiator is a blockbuster movie about the culture that originated the thumbs-up/thumbsdown school of reviewing blockbuster entertainment: ancient Rome, city of bread and circuses. Yes, it’s violent, and perhaps too graphic for some, but a gladiator movie without a decapitation or two would seem as inappropriate as The Godfather or GoodFellas without a garrotting. Scott, the visual adventurist who directed Blade Runner,

Alien and Thelma & Louise, has engineered a grandiose spectacle that is not half as smart as it pretends to be. It wields its religiosity, and its democratic morality, with the subtlety of a broadsword. But this is a ferociously entertaining spectacle, with thrilling action sequences, eye-popping art direction and uniformly powerful performances.

Gladiator is a long film about killing— the story of an untarnished hero fighting for truth, vengeance and the Roman way. Russell Crowe stars as Maximus, a devoted general who just wants to go back to the farm and see his wife and family after years of fighting on the front lines. But the dying Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) calls upon him to assume the throne after his death and replace a corrupt empire with a republic ruled by the Senate. The emperors jealous son, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), has other plans. Hastening his father’s death, he proclaims himself heir and orders Maximus and his family killed—Maximus escapes only to be sold into slavery. Groomed as a gladiator, he works his way back to Rome until, as a star contender, he is face-to-face with Emperor Commodus at the Colosseum.

The movie opens with a massive battle between Romans and barbarians in the woods of Germania. Shot in a grey, wintry light, with volleys of flaming arrows piercing the gloom, the scene recalls the opening assault in Saving Private Ryan. There is the same digital grain to the bloodshed, an impression of intimate carnage. And throughout the film, Scott shoots the fighting in close, cutting so fast that the editing and the swordplay become synonymous. It can get confusing—as at a sports event, you want to be able to follow the play —but the visceral excitement of the scenes is undeniable.

Although Scott’s bombastic direction, buoyed by Hans Zimmer’s Wagnerian sound track, constandy threatens to overwhelm the movie, Crowe keeps grounding its realism with the same tenacity and rage that he brought to The Insider, while his co-stars flesh out the script’s stereotypes. Phoenix artfully toys with the campy inflections of his ready-for-therapy villain, an unloved wimp with incestuous designs on his sister—sharply portrayed by Connie Nielsen. Richard Harris and Derek Jacobi add a dash of Brit dignity, which we’ve come to expect from ancient Romans. And Oliver Reed, who drank himself to death near the end of the shoot, uncorks a robust swan song as the farm-team slave trader who becomes head coach to the gladiators. “Win the crowd,” he tells them, “and you’ll win your freedom.”

Gladiator is mass entertainment about mass entertainment. When Scott offers an aerial shot of the Colosseum, it’s hard not to think of the Goodyear blimp drifting over the Super Bowl. And although this is not exactly a movie of ideas, the script likes to draw modern links between politics and marketing. “The beating heart of Rome is not in the marble of the Senate, but in the sand of the Colosseum,” says one character, reminding us that the box office conquers all. At one point, a sarcastic Maximus turns to the mob and yells: “Are you not entertained?” Yes, we are. And we’d prefer not to feel guilty about it.