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Directed by Ridley Scott. With Russell Crowe (Maximus Meridius), Joaquin Phoenix (Commodus), Oliver Reed (Proximo Palindromos), Richard Harris (Marcus Aurelius), Connie Nielsen (Lucilla), Djimon Hounsou (Juba), Ralf Moeller (Hagen), Derek Jacobi (Gracchus), Spencer Treat Clark (Lucius), David Hemmings (Cassius), Tomas Arana (Quintus) Tommy Flanagan (Cicero), Sven-Ole Thorsen (Tiger) David Schofield (Falco), John Schrapnel (Gaius), et al. (photo copyright: Universal Pictures/Dreamworks).
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The sword-and-sandal film is back. In 1951, there was Quo Vadis about the Roman General Marcus Vicinius falling in love with a Christian slave during the time of Emperor Nero's rule. In 1959, Ben Hur, an Israelite prince (Charlton Heston), wins a chariot race at the end of an epic story and therefore brings victory for freedom over tyranny - and 11 Oscars for the film (as many as for Titanic). In 1960 came Spartacus, a Stanley Kubrick film starring Kirk Douglas, about the slave who was key in a Roman slave-uprising. A whole series of films around the character of Spartacus followed. In 1963 followed the monumental, four hour drama Cleopatra, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton: a flop. In 1964, The Fall of the Roman Empire, starring Sophia Loren and Alex Guiness, was another flop. Not only the Roman Empire fell, but also the genre of the Roman sword-and-sandal film.
Gladiator by Ridley Scott takes up the flame of the genre. It was shot in locations in England (the wood at The Bourne, near Farnham, has been transformed into the woods on the banks of the Danube), Morocco and Malta (the Colosseum scenes) with a budget of $100 million. The film takes place in the year AD 180 when 1/4 of the world's population was under Roman rule. Gladiator is about a fictitious Roman general, Maximus Meridius (Russell Crowe), in the service of Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris). He fights the barbarians in the woods of the Roman province of Carnuntum (which does not lie in today's Germany, but in Austria). Crowe, who lives on a 560-acre ranch seven hours north of Sydney, is experienced with riding horses, and therefore had no problems with the battle scenes. Marcus Aurelius was the emperor who fought the most wars in Roman history - despite this fact, he is remembered as the philosopher. It was his son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) who made peace with the "uncivilized" peoples in the north.
The real Commodus wore woman's clothes and kept a harem of 300 women and 300 boys. His reign marks the start of the decline of the Roman Empire. The Roman emperors used the arena to control the mob, but Commodus even went a step further and became the only emperor to fight in the Colosseum as a gladiator. He was a victim of megalomania (in German: Cäsarenwahn/Caesar's madness). Finally, he was strangled to death by the hands of people close to him. In Gladiator, the story is a bit different.
The film centers on the bitter rivalry between Commodus, the son of the ailing Emperor Marcus Aurelius, and Maximus, his trusted general. The opening battle scene - over 10 minutes of fierce fighting and killing - shows General Maximus leading his troops against the Germans in the woods by the River Danube. Maximus is not only a loyal and undefeated Spaniard who has never seen Rome, but also a trusted friend and adviser to the ailing Emperor Marcus Aurelius who prefers him to his own son, Commodus, as heir to the throne. The emperor, after having spent 17 years of fighting, is tired of the sword and wants Maximus to re-establish the Republican rule in Rome. Commodus makes a surprise visit to his father on the battlefield. He comes with his sister Lucilla (Connie Nielson) - a woman he has more than brotherly feelings for. She was formerly in love with Maximus who shared her feelings. But both got married separately and have sons of eight years of age.
As Marcus Aurelius tells his son about his plan to make Maximus the new emperor, Commodus murders his own father. Maximus is to be killed too, but manages to escape. He rides back to Spain as fast as he can, but as he arrives at home, his wife and son have already been murdered by Commodus' men. Maximus succumbs to fatigue and grief and falls asleep. When he wakes up, he has become a prisoner of a slave merchant and is finally sold to Proximo, a brilliant late Oliver Reed. The hard-drinking actor died while on location in Malta just weeks before filming was due to finish. The filmmakers superimposed his likeness on an stand-in's body to complete his final scenes. Proximo is a morally bankrupt slave trader and a Gladiator trainer in the Roman province. He is a formerly famous Roman gladiator himself who was freed after winning a fight. He advises Maximus, who first refuses to fight, that if you can win over the spectators to your cause, you will live. And if you are great, you will be able to fight in the Colosseum in Rome - in the presence of Caesar. Commodus ultimately tries to help Maximus, whose identity he does not know for a long time, to take his revenge on Commodus. A fight between the emperor and the gladiator finally becomes reality.
Russell Crowe's performance in Gladiator is in the shadow of the one by Joaquin Phoenix (Commodus) which shows the sexual ambiguity of his character as well as his moral weaknesses - although, he too, has to pay tribute to some weak lines. Director Ridley Scott did not give Russell Crowe a chance to show his intense and subtle acting. Therefore, the character of Maximus remains pale. Ridley Scott also uses too many bad-taste sunsets. The screenplay by David Franzoni only partly allows the complex characters to show all their facets, the lines are often to simplistic, e.g. regarding the relation between emperor and general, father and son, brother and sister, emperor and senators, slave trainer and gladiator. The music by Hans Zimmer is pure kitsch. Interesting is the fact that Ridley Scott's scene of Commodus' triumphal entry into Rome as the new Caesar is a very close copy of a documentary film scene from the 1930s by Leni Riefenstahl showing Hitler riding in his car through masses of German people acclaiming him. Gladiator is impressive for its battle scenes shown in all their cruelty - and therefore largely attracts (at least at the cinema where I was) an audience keen on primal sensations. The actors, the story and the characters could have produced a masterpiece, but the result of Ridley Scott's work is a movie in which the action dominates and the characters and the story telling are too superficial, sometimes ridiculous, despite some great acting here and there. But Gladiator is never annoying and the special effects let us live in Roman times - at least for two and a half hours. Gladiator is in more than one respect the Roman equivalent to Titanic.
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Director Ridley Scott has had critical and commercial successes with Blade Runner (his first Hollywood experience), Alien, Black Rain, Silence of the Lambs and Thelma and Louise, but also some flops with 1492: Conquest Of Paradise, White Squall and GI Jane. Ridley Scott is part of a filmmaking dynasty: both his son Jake and brother Tony are also directors. All three have worked together on the television show The Hunger, based on Tony Scott's 1993 film about vampires.
A few notes about some actors: Tomas Arana co-starred with Russell in L.A. Confidential, Joaquin Phoenix starred 1998 in Clay Pigeons, a film with Ridley Scott as co-producer and Tony Scott as executive-producer. German Ralf Moeller (Hagen, one of the gladiators) is a former Mr. Universe. Black actor Djimon Hounsou (Juba), starred in Steven Spielberg's Amistad for which he was nominated for a Golden Globe. Connie Nielsen (Lucilla) had a part in The Devil's Advocate and Rushmore.