Sunday, October 10, 2010

Glory of Rome: Gladiator

Gladiator (2000, Ridley Scott)

Friday, May 5th 2000. That is day that will long live in my memory. Ten years onwards and it is still more than fresh in my mind. My high school mates and I had that day off and, having seen the television ads for Ridley Scott’s Gladiator in recent weeks, decided that it would be ‘cool’ if we saw the movie on opening day. I recall that we went to see a relatively early screening, but the theatre room was nonetheless packed to the brim. One could detect that there was a unique sense of anticipation hanging in the theatre room air. An epic adventure movie at the time of the Roman Empire was something we hadn’t seen in quite some time (and something I myself had never seen at that age). 2 and a half hours later, me, my friends and almost everyone other ticket owner left the room with a buzz of exciting. My, oh my, had it ever been worth the wait.

We all have our favourite films. In some instances, we openly recognize that they fail to attain perfection. Some things could have been done better. A scene could have been left on the cutting room floor here, another could have been added over there to flesh out a particular plot element, an actor or two didn’t give his or her best performance, etc. But they remain our favourites, so we don’t really care in the end, because they have perfect in our own minds and hearts. Looking back at all of the reviews I have written for Between the Seats during the past 2 years plus change, very rare has it been that I’ve written about movies such as Gladiator, a film I a) had already seen, b)unabashedly loved before watching it again before a review at this blog and c) still unabashedly love after re-watching and went into said review walking on sunshine. Readers who enjoy objective critical analysis, you have all been warned. 

It is the year 108 A.D. and Caesar Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) is concluding Rome’s expansion campaign in Germania. One last stand by the region’s warriors is all that stands between complete success. The Roman army for this battle is led by general Maximus Meridias (Russell Crowe), one of the most respected, determined, noble and experienced men in the army. After a crushing victory, Marcus Aurelius, old and dying, summons Maximus to his tent to discuss the future of his best general and of Rome itself. Corruption, sleaziness, a legacy tarnished in bloodshed and the loss of what Rome should be in the minds of many are what concern Marcus. A loving wife and a beautiful 8 year old son are what concern Maximus. Marcus' wish is to see Maximus as Rome’s new leader and restore credibility to the empire and gives the general until sundown to arrive at a decision. This wish is much to the displeasure of Marcus’ son, Commodus (Joaquin Pheonix), who, in a fit of bitter sadness and rage, murders his father and, automatically becoming Caesar, orders for Maximus’ execution. The now former general escapes his fate, but with his family having been butchered at the hand of Commodus and his status down neutered to ‘supposedly dead nobody’, Maximus eventually finds himself as a gladiator slave owned by business man Proximo (Oliver Reed). The only path to revenge is through the gates that lead to the battle arena…

There are a great number of aspects of Gladiator that have me gush in movie buff  heaven, from the performances, to the story and of course of the grand scope of the picture. Those are the reasons why I instantly fell in love with Ridley Scott’s film upon that fateful initial viewing over a decade ago.  Those are some of the movie more obvious, but no less essential, characteristics that I adore. As is often the case, it is on repeated viewings that makes new discoveries and embellish one’s appreciation of a given, and Gladiator is no exception. One thing that I’ve grown fonder of throughout the years is how tragic its story and themes are, and more specifically how good is born out of said tragedy. Tied into this pervasive tragedy is the sense of back story that Ridley Scott imbues the film with.

Rome, what it represents and what it should represent are brought up numerous times throughout the story. Rome is the light, Rome is ambition, Rome is an idea that can be manipulated and twisted into whatever those who wield power want it to be in order to secure their position. Gladiator sees some very important people the likes of Marcus Aurelius, Commodus and his close allies in the Senate, his sister Lucilla (Connie Nielson) and Senator Gracchus (Derek Jacobi) are vying for something specific that would define Rome for years, decades and possibly centuries to come. The wild card is Maximus, who has less at stake with regards to Rome’s future but due to his influence, even when reduced to a gladiator, holds a lot of power.  Marcus’s last wish is to see more power restored to the Senate, whose members represent the citizens of the Empire, whereas Commodus feels this is an attempt to sweep power from under his royal feet (which it is in fact). 

From very early on the stage is not only set for what is to come, but also what has come before. Gladiator’s first act not only propels the viewer into a grittier, grimmer vision of the Roman Empire than we’ve been accustomed to seeing, but through pivotal character interactions elaborates on several important machinations that transpired before movie even began. We get the perfect sense that all of characters have a past with one another, be it from their dialogue or even the manner in which they look or spy on one another. When Marcus Aurelius warns Maximus that Commodus simply must not rule since because of his nefarious qualities as a leader and a human being and that Maximus has known this since ‘he was young,’ the audience is instantly given a window into the history of these characters. The encounter between Maximus and Lucilla during the snowy afternoon outside the tents is another rich scene that delineates the links these characters have with one another. She loved him once and he most likely loved her as well, but for reasons that require no explaining they had to part their own ways. Caesar Aurelius laments what his legacy to the people of Rome might be given that he has lived 4 years of peace out of the 20 he spent as the empire’s leader. I would like to warn future viewers of might they might see in Richard Harris’ Caesar. He’s old and talks to Lucilla and Maximus with great pride and affection, but the fact that he wants things to be done differently once he is gone is a testament to how his reign probably belied the kind old senior attitude we see during his few scenes. Maximus has not seen his family in over two years now and wishes for no more than a peaceful retirement, but is being called into action as the single most important person in the Roman Empire. He refuses with all his heart, which, as Marcus explains, is precisely why he must take on the mantle. The future ruler of Rome must be someone un-corrupted by the politicians and humble to the point of hardly wanting such power at all, thus the importance of having Maximus take over as the next Caesar. Gladiator, for all its spectacle and attempts at being huge, offers one of the best first acts I have ever seen in a film. 

This weighty human drama carries over into the next segments of the movie. With everything Maximus wanted after his tenure as a general disintegrated, his ‘raison d’ĂȘtre’ in this world goes through a series of critical changes, three in fact. At first, his attitude about his lot comes across as total indifference, apathy even. As a gladiator slave under the direction of Proximo in the province of Zucchabar, he morphs into nothing more than a cold blooded killer. When the opportunity to battle in front of the massive crowd at Rome’s coliseum, Maximus suddenly understands that an opportunity as presented itself, however small his chances may be, to strike back at Commodus. Maximus has entered phase two of his personal journey. Apathy is replaced by blind anger, changing him into much the opposite of the man he used to be, as Lucilla states during her eventful visit to him in the dungeons of the coliseum. Finally, when a plot between Lucilla, Gracchus and some other senators is in development to overthrow Commodus and restore some economic and political sanity to the direction that Rome is taking, Maximus is called upon to help (Lucilla also begins to fear for the safety of her son, Lucius, who’s life may be in danger given how he is next in line after the maniacal Commodus). This is when the protagonist enters the third, final, and most important stage of his tale. A greater purpose is discovered. Actually, a greater purpose is rediscovered, as Maximus recalls Marcus Aurelius’ final wish before his death: to restore more legislative and executive measures  to the Senate, to lend power back into the hands of those who probably should have had it all along and help guide Rome back to the light. What adds more resonance to this trying journey is that Maximus, a believer in the afterlife (as most of the characters in the film are) knows that any decisive blow in the gladiator arena can send him to Elysium, where he can be at peace with his wife and son who are already waiting for him. He final stop is in fact Elysium, but not before taking care of some business in our world first and paying respect to the demands of an old friend and mentor in Marcus Aurelius. It is storytelling at its best, with the personal stakes intertwined with those that hold the future of the Roman Empire in the balance.

What struck me in my more recent viewings of the film was how much I found Commodus, played with the right amount of malice and child-like brashness, was a sympathetic character. Beneath the veneer of viciousness and anger towards those who oppose him is a tragically sad figure. He is a Caesar’s son, and thusly should be rightful heir to the throne, but all his life has failed to make his mark or an positive and lasting impression on his father. This disappointment and frustrations mounts throughout the years, eventually playing out in full force over the course of Gladiator as he sets into motion a series of machinations, the goals of which are to preserved his firm grip on ultimate power. In many ways he is still the spoiled, dissatisfied brat who wants not only the attention of Romans, but also their respect. He believes himself to be worthy of a Caesar all the while fearing his weakness in character can prove to be his downfall. This in no way excuses the character’s behaviour, he is very much a villain, but the dynamics of his villainy and his motivations were more complex than those normally found in movies of this type.

To conclude, it was the attention to detail in the back story of the characters, their interpersonal relations and the dire conditions that push them onward towards their goals that keep pushing Gladiator up the list of my all time favourite films. Notions of ideals and what exactly they mean to people are also explored. Spectacle is one thing (and it should be noted that Gladiator offers a solid of spectacle, rest assured), but the film’s rich storytelling, which is only enhanced by the performances and the memorable Hans Zimmer score, are what I find myself coming back for in recent years when I sit down to watch it.

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