Thursday, October 14, 2010

Glory of Rome: Synchronization in Battle (Gladiator)

Synchronization in combat
Gladiator (2000, Ridley Scott)

In our review of Gladiator, we reserved most of the discussion for the impact of the drama and the weighty sense of history driving much of what the characters do in the story.  The film is more than just an example of how good writing carries the overall plot and themes of its story however. Ridley Scott’s ambitious effort balances rich drama and epic spectacle with deft, but upon closer inspection one might notice how the emotional evolution of Maximus’ character filters into the action sequences, thus enabling them to fully resonate with the advancement of the plot. There are five gladiatorial fight sequences which play out in the movie, and each one, be it through the stakes at hand, their outcome, or the opponents the protagonist confronts, is extension of where Maximus sits, emotionally that is, at a given time in the adventure. The film therefore not only satisfies the viewer with rousing fights, but consistently remains faithful to the stakes and drama at hand. Let us explore each one in some detail.

First gladiator battle: First Zucchabar battle with gladiators chained two-by-two.
Maximus’ state: apathy, emotionally dead, reckless towards his well being. Lacks direction
The battle: Hectic, a bloody and confusing mess. Lacks coherence.

At this, the earliest stage of our hero’s journey after the murder of his family, Maximus shows little no emotion towards those around him. An example of this is when he is called upon to demonstrate some sword fighting skills for Proximo with the rather butch German gladiator. Maximus grabs a short wooden practice sword, takes a few steps forward, looks the German straight in the eye and drops his weapon. Proximo gives his German warrior a nod, indicating that the former may proceed to pummel a defenceless Maximus with some vicious hits. The former gladiator, having lost everything dear to him, is now a shadow of his former self with barely anything to live for. He’ll go through the pain, he practically wants it. What exactly matters anymore when one’s purpose has been squashed? The character is now aimless and his emotional state is muddy. The character, for perfectly understandable reasons, lacks focus and direction.

The battle itself is a messy ballet of blood, limbs and screams. Proximo’s warriors are attached two-by-two and must confront some decidedly bizarre looking opponents (such as one fellow who isn’t wearing a legitimate helmet, but rather the head of an ox or some animal of that nature). There are some rather pitiful gladiators are forced to take part in the bloodshed but who do not possess the skill nor the will to draw swords. These people are literally cut down to size. All in all, the battle is a strange, almost other-worldly massacre, with the awkwardness and confusion of having to be closely chained next to a fellow combatant heightening the complexity of the challenge. The battle lacks cohesion and structure.

Second gladiator battle: Zucchabar massacre
Maximus’ state: frustrated with his lot. He’s told that he must win the crowd, not merely be a cold blooded killer. Stuck in a rut.
The battle: quick, efficient, bloody. Throws his sword towards the crowd an asks them if they are entertained.

Maximus has now entered a stage of anger and frustration. His lot in life is miserable, being asked to enter combat against several nameless foes. For a warrior of his stature and with his experience in fighting, his challenges resemble more executions than true contests. With time to muddle and think over what has happened to him, Maximus has a much grimmer outlook now. After this particular fight, when Proximo summons Maximus to his quarters, there is a clear tension in Maximus’ voice as he replies to his owners queries (‘I’m asked to kill. So I kill’ he coldly replies at one point). There is no joy or even the most remote hint of satisfaction in Maximus. He is vicious towards those who waste his time.

Just prior to entering the ring for the second time in the film, Proximo explains to Maximus that the latter cannot be a mere killing machine in the arena, but must earn some extra credit in order to win over the crowd. They must be entertained by a performer. This sounds completely silly to the general, who then marches confidently into the ring and proceeds to hack and slash with terrifying precision. In a matter of seconds his challengers are lying on the ground, each surrounded by a puddle of their own blood. The final opponent receives two swords in his chest, but before having the luxury of falling to his death, Maximus yanks both blades away, swipes them with an animalistic ferocity, thus decapitating the sorry sap. Angry, tired, confused, our protagonist tosses his swords into the luxury suite of the arena and yells ‘Are you not entertained!?!’

Third gladiator battle: entering Rome
Maximus’ state: opportunistic in that he sees his opportunity to confront Commodus. Wants to win the crowd. A chance to change his history and that of Commodus.
The battle: tactically brilliant. ‘Cool’ to watch unfold.  A simulation of the battle of Carthage. The story is re-written.

The plot has thickened. Proximo has brought his troop to Rome, with an opportunity to perform in front of fifty thousand screaming people at the Coliseum and the Emperor himself, a man Maximus would love to crush like a bug. He has slowly begun to form some friendships among Proximo’s band of warriors and now has a better understanding of how exactly to win a crowd. One must not only emerge victorious from the contest, but the performance must also be something of a show. Demonstrate skill and some personality through combat. When it is learned that Maximus and his colleagues are acting out the battle of Carthage (and playing out the part of the side who lost), the challenge is a tall one. They must not only win the crowd, but rewrite history itself. The battle may not end up being accurate, but Maximus is determined to give the crowd one heck of a show, which should earn the Emperor’s attention…

This third contest is arguably the most ‘epic’ in scope and in execution. Maximus calls upon those with military experience to work together, to develop defensive and offensive strategies quickly as the battle unfolds. Maximus guides his band through the way, despite the onslaught of chariots carrying armoured women and men tossing spears and launching arrows from their bows. Working in as good a harmony as they can given the particular conditions, Proximo’s team demonstrates intelligence and bravery in the arena, out thinking the opponents when taking defensive postures and proving to be much more precise and ruthless when on the attack than their counterparts. Maximus even takes over one of the horses and engages in a pursuit with the chariots, but on his own terms. The crowd is loving every minute of the event, despite that things are, theoretically, not going as they should if one followed the history lessons. By the battles end, Proximo’s group, under the guidance of Maximus, have prevailed and the crowd are ecstatic.

Fourth gladiator battle: Eye of the Tigris
Maximus’ state: possible rejuvenation of hope, of a more virtuous purpose following his meeting with Lucilla (challenged).
 The battle: Maximus, the popular gladiator, fights another popular gladiator. A mirror of himself. He spares Tigris’ life in the end. He rekindles with his noble self. Tigers make the fight tighter, just as the plot thickens.

Maximus now knows of a plot to overthrow Commodus and restore genuine pride, as well as some sanity, to Rome. He has recently been awarded a visit by Lucilla, a former lover, who has pleaded with him to help her and Senator Gracchus. Their encounter ended bitterly, but a challenge thrown by Lucilla has stayed in his mind. She wonders where the man Maximus used to be has gone. Where is the man she once loved, the man who once loved Rome? Is Maximus’ only true purpose now to avenge the murder of his family at the hands of Commodus, or has a window been opened to finalize the wishes of the previous emperor, Marcus Aurelius, and bring Rome back to the light?

A special challenge is thrust upon Maximus this time. A Former gladiator, the gigantic Tigris, is called into the ring following a few years of retirement. This mighty specimen went undefeated during his gladiatorial career, and clearly has the respect and admiration of most of the crowd, just like Maximus at this point in time. Tigris has never lost, neither has Maximus. The crowd cheers Tigris as they cheer Maximus. Both have or will go down in history as exceptional contenders in the arena. In a sense, Maximus is now physically fighting a version of himself, just as he is wrestling with his interior thoughts and emotions about what to do regarding the machinations that would hopefully dethrone Commodus and put Rome back on the right path. Commodus, no fool about the reality that people around him are planning the end to his reign, as begun to tighten his grip on power with his own strategies to counter-attack his challengers. This is reflected in Maximus’ current contest, which has been fixed with tigers released from trap doors in the ground. Much like the room Lucilla and Gracchus have to manoeuvre and execute their plan, Maximus himself has very limited space to withstand Tigris’ terrible blows, with tigers lashing out every time the general gets too close. The old Maximus is reborn when, having Tigris lying on the ground for the killing, opts to spare the man's life.

Fifth gladiator battle
Maximus’ state: the final challenge. The future of Rome, light of the Empire, is blocked by Commodus, who happens to be his challenger.
The battle: decisive blows and swings. Power struggle at the end. The death of Commodus opens up hope for Rome. Maximus’ death leads him to his now dead family awaiting him in Elysium.

There is only one hurdle left preventing Maximus from freeing Rome from Commodus’ clutches and hopefully re-uniting with his family in the after –life: Commodus himself.
The final battle begins…

Admittedly, this cohesion between the evolution of the Maximus character and the nature of the gladiatorial fights went unnoticed during the first few viewings of the film. It was perhaps only by the fourth time I watched the movie that this synchronization of the protagonist’s personal journey with the physical and contextual elements of the battles became clear to this reviewer. As is the case with almost any discussion relating to film, readers may disagree and claim that I’m thinking far too hard about the details of Gladiator, but I wanted to make my thoughts known to the Between the Seats faithful. I do think there is a huge chunk of intelligence and cleverness that went into the fabrics that make up the film.  

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