The great debate: Gladiator

Art & Lit Screen

For: James Mackay sings the praises of this Roman classic

With Gladiator, Ridley Scott revived the ailing sword and sandals genre through a thrilling combination of epic and personal storytelling.

Scott’s skill as director is evident from the very first moments of a film in which he successfully mixes spectacular action set-pieces with moments of quiet contemplation.
Gladiator also marked Scott’s first collaboration with Russell Crowe, who in his role as Maximus is rarely off screen.

Epic in scale and scope, Gladiator triumphs not only because of the brilliant visualisation of Rome and a computer-generated Colosseum, but thanks to compelling performances from the likes of Joaquin Phoenix as the power-hungry Commodus, Connie Nielsen as the emperor’s conscience-wracked sister and Oliver Reed in a poignant final performance as Proximo, gladiator turned gladiatorial impresario.

Sure, the film’s grasp of Roman history is a little shaky to say the least, some of the grandiose dialogue is unintentionally hilarious and a plot strand about the abuse of power is left undeveloped, but to say so seems to miss the point. The story of “the general who became a slave, the slave who became a gladiator, the gladiator who defied an emperor” is so compelling, and Crowe’s performance so go far wrong by keeping his camera firmly fixed on the hero’s quest for vengeance.

The much-lauded opening sequence, the battle in Germania, sets the tone for much of the movie. Maximus tells his men, “At my signal, unleash hell,” and the visual imagery Scott conjures up is certainly of the apocalyptic variety as blood is spilt, mud is splattered and fire balls rain down.

But away from the carnage of the battlefield and the arena, Gladiator frequently strikes an elegiac tone, an effect aided by Hans Zimmer and Lisa Gerrard’s majestic score.

The film’s enduring influence is evident from the numerous movies which have sought to imitate it, by and large without success: just think of Alexander and King Arthur. A decade on, watch Gladiator again and, like Commodus, you’ll be left terribly vexed as to why anyone would dispute that this is a great film.

Against: For Alex Harvey, Scott’s epic is all a bit dampus squibbus

Gladiator is a fine piece of entertainment, chock full of fights; it’s the perfect revenge tragedy. But that’s all it is, and as such it’s a stunningly shallow affair.

The story has the problem of being set in a barbaric era but being made in a more civilised one, and one (pre-9/11) which forbids moral uncertainty meaning the ‘good guys’ must be wholly pure.

Russell Crowe’s Maximus is driven by revenge, which is gruff and manful and entirely justifiable – his wife and child are murdered in a postcoup reshuffle by nasty Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), who is so clearly damaged, he’s almost sympathetic. But naturally shades of grey are verboten, and the story which links the succession of fights is just the usual Hollywood wank about freedom and democracy.

Commodus wants to rule without the Senate, making him anti-democratic and evil, which is laughable as the Imperial Senate wasn’t elected anyway.

And as this is a film, the villain can’t just be a power- hungry tyrant; he also has a weird attraction to his sister and has great fun informing Maximus of how his wife was raped before the imperial hit-squad killed her. And he literally squeezes his dad to death. So, he’s a villain then.

After two and a half hours of fighting and stilted dialogue, Maximus has saved the democratic Roman Empire by killing Commodus, dying in the process himself and going to heaven. It’s genuinely moving when his body is borne from the arena, and as entertainment, Gladiator is good, populist pap.

But closer examination pulls apart the paper-thin plot – Maximus wants to avenge his family, okay, but he kills literally dozens of more-or-less innocent people in the arena in the process.

Furthermore, it’s the Roman Empire which Maximus saves, an Empire founded on slavery and conquest, which watches these damn games for entertainment – and at no point does anyone question this.

Tack on the obligatory stereotypical black guy (“You wi’ see dem again”) who quietly follows Maximus for no reason, and you’ve got pure Hollywood balls.