Saturday, January 07, 2006


I took another look at Gladiator, the 2000 Ridley Scott movie that won five academy awards, including Best Actor for Russell Crowe.

I didn't care for the film when I first saw it. In fact, I fell asleep halfway through it -- not in the action scenes, mind you, but during the political mishmash. Since everyone that year raved about it incessantly, I knew sooner or later I'd spend the time to try to see what they saw.

Roman General Maximus is a hero to his men and to his leader, Marcus Aurelius, stellar in battle but politically ignorant. When Marcus Aurelius' son, Commodus, kills the old man and assumes the throne, he has Maximus arrested and condemned to death. Maximus escapes only to find that his wife and son are murdered upon Commodus' orders. Maximus is captured by slave traders and trained to be a gladiator, fighting for his life.

The fight scenes are simply astounding. The opening sequence where we watch Maximus in battle with his men is carefully crafted to show us what kind of man Maximus is, what an amazing leader he is. We see why his men follow him. When later on in the story Maximus says about his men, "They fight for Rome," Derek Jacobi's senator points out, "They fight for you."

And the gladiator scenes are the best we've ever seen. Just when you think Maximus and his band of untrained fighters won't get out of this one, they show us how they do. It's shot perfectly, convincing us that we're there in the arena with these gladiators. The scenes with the tigers taking swipes at our gladiators are breath-taking. And the story shows us each of these characters, what they're like, who they are. We begin to root for them to survive.

One fun piece of trivia is that when director Ridley Scott visited the real Colosseum in Rome, he declared it "too small." He had his designers expand the arena to look massive.

Gladiator has an epic sense about it, following this man's journey from complete command of his life to a place where he's lost everything, to his eventual and painful rise out of these ashes. It's a story we follow easily because we care about this man.

The performances are excellent. Yes, I did get tired of Joaquin Phoenix's moaning as Commodus, and I do wonder at the motivation of Connie Nielsen's Lucilla. But Russell Crowe was the perfect actor for such a physical role. It must not be easy to play the perfect hero, but he manages to do so without forcing the character into a one-sided box. The late Oliver Reed is almost unrecognizable, if you remember his younger, physical roles, as the gladiator-training Proximo, but he sure can act up a storm. And Richard Harris is so smooth as Marcus Aurelius. One of the perfect lines of this movie is when he says to his daughter, Lucilla: "Let us pretend that you are a loving daughter, and I am a good father." She replies, "This is a pleasant fiction, is it not?"

It is, indeed. Thumb's way up for Gladiator.


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