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THE GLADIATOR May Be Too Up Close and Impersonal.

Jul 4, 2000 (Updated Jul 3, 2001)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Strong cast, well directed, impressive mis-en-scene: 1st important Roman Epic in 35 years.

Cons:Story loses point, some character meaning, in extreme close ups and cyber action scenes.

The Bottom Line: THE GLADIATOR, 2000 Oscar Winner for Best Picture, is better than many recent choices but nowhere so good as a complete THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE (Mann, 1964).

"Now we are Romans," Mary McCarthy, perceptive American essayist and novelist, announced in reaction to the Kennedy Assassination. She saw us on the course of Empire which had been the inevitable progression of powerful nations from at least Rome onward: Britain, France, Germany, Russia. Each had proclaimed some form of democracy, at least dabbled in some kind of republic. But when the pressures of Empire became too great, each overthrew its government. England's Charles I went to the block in 1649; Cromwell assumed the powers of Lord Protector in 1643. Louis XVI of France was beheaded in 1793; Napoleon had himself proclaimed Emperor in 1803. Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated at the end of World War I; Hitler assumed the role of Dictator in 1933. Nicholas II of Russia was executed in 1918; Joseph Stalin emerged as virtual dictator in 1929.

Granted no jackbooted figure has harangued Americans in the years since 1963, but there has been an uneasy feeling in the populace, followed by rage, followed by indifference to the process of governance, which is damaging to any system of democratic institutions.

The three Big Movies of the summer, GLADIATOR, THE PATRIOT, A PERFECT STORM, all a cut above those of recent seasons, speak to some part of our democratic dilemma. THE GLADIATOR is the most metaphorical of the three, and therefore, potentially the most interesting.

From the initial appearance of the first large financial success of the movies, QUO VADIS, an epic Italian production in 1912, we have been in love with "The Roman's." With each shift in World Power, with each important cinematic technical innovation, we have flocked to BEN HUR (Niblo, 1926), SIGN OF THE CROSS (DEMILLE, 1932), THE ROBE (Koster, 1954), FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE (1964). There is a theory that all these films were more about Modern Empires than Ancient ones.

In a 36 year American struggle for dominance over the Old Empires of the British, French, Russians and (in economic terms) the Germans, no Roman Epic of the heroic proportions of old has emerged. This summer, as we have begun to gloat over our superiority in the World, as cybernetic techniques are taking over our World Economy and The Movies, THE GLADIATOR appears. So technical is it that a read-out of cast and credits takes 20 pages, contrasted with the four or five of another large project like THE PATRIOT. This factor is both its strength and its weakness.

If the Modern Empire theory of meaning in The Roman's has any validity, what does THE GLADIATOR tell us about our New American Empire?

I'm happy to say, without the help of The Sibyl of Cumae, I can't see much to disturb us.

For one thing, the Roman Empire of the Movies is in some ways better known than the History of America. For instance, few movies (scarcely a successful one) have been produced about The American Revolution; and many of us have only a foggy notion of what really went on in our founding act -- or in the rest of our history, for that matter. More of us, on the other hand, have some idea of how Rome developed into a Republic, was rent by a Civil War between Consuls Pompey (the Great) and Julius Caesar. We certainly know that Caius Julius Caesar won, became Dictator, and was assassinated on March 14th, 44 B. C. (on The Ides of March, when not so long ago Americans paid their taxes). Conspirators Brutus and Cassius were pursued to their deaths by a Triumvirate of Octavian, Mark Antony and Lepidus, who in turn, warred, and Octavian won out finally by defeating Antony and his ally Cleopatra of Egypt at the Battle of Actium. All of these facts are taken up in the Roman Plays of Shakespeare.

Octavian established the 1000 year Roman Empire, calling himself the Emperor Augustus, in 27 B. C. Over the next 200 years, Rome extended her power and domain from Spain in the West, to Britain in the North, into Africa in the South, and to Egypt and beyond in the East. And so, as THE GLADIATOR begins, the Empire is about as old as the American Republic 25 years ago.

It is in 180 A. D., the height of the Empire, the last year in the reign of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, when THE GLADIATOR begins. From that point, we are in metaphor. Little in the story is historically accurate. A similar, better motion picture, THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE (Mann, 1964) is a little better history.

True, the three problems which dogged the Empire are touched upon by THE GLADIATOR:

1) From Augustus on, the problem of ascension to power was exacerbated by the inability of Emperors to produce suitable heirs. Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) distrusts his son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) and, like Emperors before him, he searches about for someone else who will be more competent. He turns to the popular General Maximus (Russell Crowe), who later represents a celebrity-appeal, apparent, too, now in America. Increasingly, the acts of the conventional Leader are being questioned.

2) In the background is the Idea of the Republic represented by the Senate, paid lip service, used when convenient (as President Johnson used the Senate in the Vietnam War), but generally disregarded as a group of squabbling fools. In THE GLADIATOR, fictitious Roman Senators like Gracchus (Derek Jacobi), Juba (Djimon Hounsou) and Falco (David Schofield) represent the contending, largely ineffectual factions of "The Republic," in the wings.

3) Unrest on the borders of The Empire makes Roman Generals, with the support of Army Legions and the Praetorian Guard, increasingly attractive potential Emperors who know about rebellions and barbarian onslaughts, far from indifferent Romans -- and they know how to deal with these threats. General Maximus (Crowe) is probably an amalgam of Pescennius Niger (135-194 A. D.) and Clodius Albinus (?-197 A. D.). Both from the Army, they contended for power on the death of Commodus, but they did not have such noble names, and both came to ignoble ends, not in the Coliseum. (Another General Maximus, with a similar story, became Emperor briefly much later in 235 A.D.)

And so, we have a story about how the fictitious General Maximus (Crowe), a Spaniard, is robbed of power, and ordered murdered, by Commodus (Phoenix) but manages to escape, wandering for years until he is picked up by a banished team of gladiators led by Proximo (Oliver Reed). Eventually, Commodus reestablishes the Roman Games, and Maximus becomes a kind of Masked Marvel, who gains such popularity that he must be challenged to single combat by the Emperor himself.

There are several subplots involving Emperor Commodus's sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen), a widow with a small son, who must not only conceal her love for Maximus but fend off the incestuous advances of Commodus, and his pedophiliac interest in her son. There is a crushing of any possibility that the Senate might return Rome to a republic. And also, we find, through the prayers of Maximus to his household gods, dreams of his murdered Spanish wife and child, who dwell in Elysian Fields, the Roman Heaven.

Before, after, in the middle, and at the end, we witness spectacular battles against Barbarian tribes in the Second Germanic War on the Danube, and in various gladiatorial combats in Spain, Morocco and Rome. (The film was done in Italy, Spain, Morocco, Malta and Great Britain.)

Director Ridley Scott (THE DUELLISTS, 1978; WHITE SQUALL, 1996), working from a script by David Franzoni (JUMPING JACK FLASH, 1986; ARMISTAD, 1997), handles all these elements well. And yet, in a film where so much was invested in money and talent, something doesn't work. My analysis is that so much of the film is cybernetically manufactured that most of the principals' scenes must be shot in close-up or extreme close-up. It becomes tiring in the intimate scenes, and vitiates a number of the action spectacles. As a cheeky young Epininioner observed: "Why should I pay nine bucks to see the pimples and zits of some actress I've never heard of?" (There's one smart alec in every set of movie reviews, I'm afraid. I've been one myself.)

Good as Nielsen, Crowe and Jacobi are, I found my sympathies and interests drawn strangely to Richard Harris, the late Oliver Reed, and Joaquin Phoenix. We have more scenes of them in medium shot, perhaps. Harris resembles Marcus Aurelius as he comes down to us on coins, as did the last man to play him, Alec Guiness (FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE, 1964); and he has a ruined grandeur, as does Reed. Like our own Mickey Rourke, Reed was an actor of considerable skill and star quality who drank it away. He died in a Maltese pub during the shooting of THE GLADIATOR, and the film is dedicated "to our friend Oliver Reed."

Finally, we have the Commodus of Phoenix. His character is actually the most fully drawn. He is shown to be a man, like Prince Charles of Great Britain, who has had to wait many years to take his place in the Sun. Unlike Charles, he has grown older feeling unloved and festered -- to the point that he smothers his father to death. That desire for love, and to connect, drives his character throughout the film. He resembles one of those impatient Democratic or Republican politicians, putting on weight, full-faced, so swollen with ambition that he is breaking out with it.

One of the best exchanges in the film comes early, on the Banks of the Danube, between the frail, old Aurelius and the bumptious, sanguine Commodus:

"Did I miss the Battle?" Commodus inquires, breathlessly.

"You missed the War!" The Emperor replies.

In fact, Commodus was with his father throughout the Second Germanic War, and hopes were high for him when he succeeded his Father, but he seems indeed to have felt unappreciated. He quarreled with his Sister Lucilla Verus, and increasingly, except for overseeing Gladiatorial Games, turned the running of The Empire over to supernumeraries. In his last years, as suggested in THE GLADIATOR, he went a bit insane, believing himself a reincarnation of Hercules, fighting gladiators and wild beasts in the arena. After Lucilla took part in a plot to depose him, he had her banished to Capri where she was murdered. He himself was murdered on December 31st, l92 A. D. His immediate successor Pertinax, a former soldier, was killed by mutinous guards after 86 days. One Didius Julianus bought the Office of Emperor from the Army at that point, but amid the first collapse of The Empire, he was beheaded on the 66th day of his reign, June 2nd, 193 A. D. The long Fall of the Roman Empire had begun.

Whenever we celibrate our Independence, let us hope a similar fate does not await our Republic and Empire.

Recommend this product? Yes

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