Tuesday, December 6, 2011

What we do in life echoes in eternity.

So to balance out the rather estrogen-laden film I reviewed yesterday, here are some thoughts on one of my favorite movies, Gladiator, which I watched last night.

Perhaps it's odd to be nostalgic for a film that was made just 11 years ago, but in a day and age when the only sword-and-sandal epics are the hyper-stylized, over produced, CGI-laden noise-fests like 300 and Immortals it's easy to pine for the simple, classical style of Gladiator. Ridley Scott hearkens back to an era of Hollywood when it was built of the success of spectacles like these. With iconic, weighty characters, breath-taking set-pieces, and an unabashedly epic story-line, Gladiator more than does those classics of the 50s and 60s proud, it surpasses them, keenly taking advantage of the strides movie-making has made since the olden days.

And yes Mr. Crowe, I was entertained. Now please, will you put down the sword?

Even at over 2 and a half hours long, the story is blessedly simple. Maximus, an intelligent, reliable and unflinchingly noble Roman general, is presiding over the end of a long war with the Germanic barbarians. The final, bloody battle scene is shot in a muddy palette of browns and grays, so it would be wrong to call it strictly beautiful, but combined with the roving camera which insinuates itself intimately into each sword stroke, it provides a brilliant contrast for the stoic and composed Colosseum of Rome, where human lives are packaged and sacrificed in the name of cheap entertainment.

Maximus wins the war in the name of Rome, and of his emperor Marcus Aurelius (inhabitied with a diginified grace by the late great Richard Harris). Aurelius, an aged, dying monarch, is a reluctant warrior who fears for the fate of Rome after he, and the distraction of constant bloodshed, are gone. To that end, he decides to name the competent Maximus as his successor--trusting that he will watch over a peaceful transition of authority back to the Senate, transforming Rome into a republic for the people (these epics are always about freedom it seems). However his son Commodus (played to sniveling ambitious perfection by Joaquin Phoenix) slays his father in a fit of oedipal rage and jealousy, in effect usurping the throne. Maximus manages to escape with his life, but loses his family and his freedom in the process and is eventually sold into slavery where as a gladiator he begins to find his way back to Rome and vengeance.

One can't review this movie without acknowledging how heavily it borrows on the towering epics which came before it. Ben-Hur, Spartacus, Braveheart all make their mark on this movie. Like it's predecessors, this movie never pauses for a dull moment and like them, it's not afraid to go gloriously over-the-top. The script, despite it's length, moves consistently at a brisk pace, with a healthy dollop of unique and tense action scenes, which present a legitimate source of danger and fear for our protagonists, even though the final confrontation between good and evil is never in doubt.

So Maximus, how's the fam-... oooh, right, sorry about that. 

So why does this succeed where more modern-day, effects driven epics like the aforementioned 300 fail? Both of them value extravagance over artifice, both of them have their fair share of cornily written lines (see: "Brothers! What we do in life... echoes in eternity" vs. "This is where we fight! This is where they die!") and both contain their fair-share of well-shot violence. But the answer is simple: the complexity and honesty of the characters. Let's compare protagonists for a moment. Maximus might not seem all that complicated on the surface, he's a brilliant general who inspires unflagging loyalty from his troops; who longs monogamously for his loving wife and son; who is fearless in the face of near certain death and who can take on several foes and survive despite long odds. But there's more too him than just badassery (not a word, but you get what I mean).

In his character is a definite antipathy, an unwillingness to accept the mantle of hero when it is thrust upon him. Russell Crowe's Maximus is just a husband and farmer who misses the embrace of his wife, the laugh of his son and the dirt of his fields (whenever he visits a new place, he feels the dirt between his hands, to remind himself of the lands he's left behind). When the Emperor first charges him with becoming the protector of Rome, he is reluctant to accept, as it would merely delay his return to his family. After his family has been slain, he lives on and fights with a similar reticence, only continuing to struggle because of his hated of Commodus and because he cannot abandon the neophyte gladiators who come to rely upon his experience and expertise as a soldier. Maximus is no schemer, at first rejecting the entreaties by Commodus's fearful, yet resilient sister Lucilla, and her Senate ally, the eloquent Gracchus (another stalwart performance from theater legend, Derek Jacobi) who beg him to help them oppose the unstable Emperor Commodus; even though their motives would seem to match his own hunger for revenge. But eventually, with some reluctance, he agrees.

Russell Crowe is pitch-perfect as Maximus, he combines the inherent charisma of Chartlon Heston and Kirk Douglas, with the easy physicality of action stars like Bruce Willis or Sylvester Stallone. When met with his superior acting talent, he plums emotional depths that these lesser actors could not dream of. The scene where Maximus discovers his ill-fated wife and child resonates especially because of Crowe's ability to convey the enormity of the loss... these are characters we never got a chance to know or care about ourselves, after all.

By contrast, 300's Leonidas is a bloodthirsty brawler. He, and the rest of his Spartan ilk glorify war for war's sake simply to fulfil to adolescent fetishistic obsession with blood. Now I'm as susceptable to a well-composed action scene as any human being with a decent amount of testosterone, but after the 100th straight minute of slow-motion operatic slayings, or loudly-roared, bombastically written lines, my eyes begin to glaze over. And aside from some tenuous griping about freedom (though the complaint sounds odd, coming from a king with absolute authority over his people), that's all there is to his character: anger and bloodshed.

Not shown: subtlety, restraint, dignity

Gladiator also benefits from a well-developed supporting cast. Joaquin Phoenix's Commodus makes for a compelling villain. Driven by avarice, ambition and a need to overcome his unacknowledged, deep-seated, cowardice, Commodus is a man who has long lived in the shadow of his far superior father. Well aware of his own moral shortcomings, he uses them to his advantage when tussling with the seemingly invincible Maximus. That, paired with his devious, and deviant, cunning, makes him a worthy adversary of the forces of good. Oliver Reed, in the last role of his career, makes for an imposing Proximo. A former gladiator himself, he sees a lot of promise in Maximus and excitedly grooms him for Rome. Inspired by Maximus's near single-minded conviction to honor, he finds the strength to resist injustice outside the arena as competently as he resisted death within it. Djimon Hounsou also does well as Juba, a fellow slave and gladiator who befriends Maximus and helps him find his way back to living in his early darkest hours. Connie Nielsen, the sole female in the cast (aside from Crowe's wife--who has a grand total of 0 lines) carves out a formidable niche as a woman surviving in a man's world, who must fend off threats to her son--heir to Commodus's ill-gotten throne--as well as the slimy advances from her brother who pursues her bed in the name of so-called purity.

By comparison, the supporting casts of more recent efforts are cardboard cut-outs. Some of the other 300 Spartans with Leonidas may have had names, backstories and/or motivations, but damn if I can't remember a single one of them. Every character was exactly the same, enthusiastically seeking blood, or a glorious death (or a nearby tanning salon) for its own sake... never any trepidation, never any doubt. As for the villain Xerxes, words fail me, so in lieu of 1,000 insufficient ones, a picture shall have to suffice.

Not shown: sanity, decency, clothing
Ridley Scott and co filmed Gladiator with a great understanding of the importance of a unique story and convincing characterization. They never let the awe-inspiring imagery overwhelm the narrative. Instead, the larger-than-life depictions of Rome, the griminess and grittiness of the battlefield, the composed feeling to the fights within the arena itself, all are in service of the plot. During the reign of Commodus's father Aurelius, the games of gladiators had been banned within Rome. He understood all too well the value of human life, and the great sacrifices already made in his name were too large for him to enjoy the death of others for sport. Commodus's reinstatement of the games underscore the corruption of Rome, which he only exacerbated with his tenure. This is further indicated by the sole instance of actual warfare in the film, which is the antithesis of the brightly shot, gaily staged games where people chortle and cheer on slaves who are engaged in a frightening struggle for their lives. The countless, nameless men and women who are killed seem like a high price to pay for the edification of the masses. But perhaps not, as Proximo puts it, when confronted by Maximus's anger at the abuse he and his fellow gladiators must endure: "We mortals are but shadows and dust. Shadows and dust, Maximus!" What does such insubstantial stuff matter, in the face of thunderous applause?

Gleenneen16's rating: *****/*****

Oh, and before I forget, here's Part III in the series of photos in which I debase myself on the internet:
I have no idea what I'm doing


  1. Alright, well here is my two cents.

    I mostly agree with you about the virtues of Gladiator and why the film succeeds as an ancient epic where many have failed and continue to fail. However, I do think this film is overrated. Now, overrated doesn't mean it's a bad movie--I just think that people give this movie way too much praise and I think all of its success stems entirely from three aspects of the film.
    The first aspect is the opening battle scene. This is the scene where I learned that I was not a pacifist, nor was I very eco-friendly. Scott out did himself with this scene. From the ancient napalm-esque bombardment to the flank of the cavalry inflicting the final blow to the merciless efficiency of the Roman legions, it truly brings to life the power of Ancient Rome. It's fucking awesome.

  2. Okay, so the comments have a limit to them so here comes part 2 of 3 of my entire commentary.

    The second aspect, of which you already noted is Russell Crowe's performance. The way he brings Maximus to life has the viewer both rooting for him (as you noted) but also confounded by his political nativity and his optimism. I won't go further on why the viewer roots for Maximus because that'd be beating a dead horse. However, I think how Crowe adds this other element to the character is worth noting. When Aurelius reveals his intentions to him, Maximus (as you noted the reluctant hero) hesitantly agrees but then he acts foolish following Aurelius' death. Instead of feigning allegiance to Commodus, he puts his faith in his naive optimism. He blatantly accuses Commodus of murder and uses little to no tact. Maybe this is just the politician in me, but that just seemed stupid and adds another element to his character. While we feel awful and sympathetic to his situation, we're like really, dude? That's how you play it? This comes back to play in the end when he hardly thinks twice in joining the coup and fully believes it will work. The simpleton farmer Maximus maybe a good warrior, but an awful politician.

  3. Finally, the third aspect. This won't be very long because you wrote about this already but I do want to offer my agreement that Phoenix takes the classic antagonist to a whole new level. Even when we are supposed to feel bad for him, when Aurelius informs him that he will not be emperor, we still hate him. Phoenix is just damn good at making sure we cannot feel sympathetic to him. Every time there is an opportunity for his death we wish it so, though we know that Maximus will be the one to defeat the evil. Phoenix's Commodus is creepy, off-putting, manipulative, narrow-minded, awkward and extraordinarily selfish. Next to Walk the Line, I think it is his best performance to date. To make Gladiator work, we had hate Commodus with the same passion Maximus did and oh, did we fucking hate this guy thanks to Phoenix's performance.

    So there you have it, good ole Ben's take on Gladiator. A good movie, just one that we need to remember is just a classic ancient epic. It's violence is awesome and it has brilliant performances from both its protagonist and its antagonist. It's a wicked fun ride for sure, but nothing more.

  4. My first real comment, exciting! I think you're right on target here. With Gladiator, what you see is what you get, and if that isn't enough for some people to call it a favorite, I definitely understand that. However, for me, what you see--which is a terrific cast, hard-hitting action scenes and a grandiose yet consistently controlled tone--is enough. Is it predictable? Absolutely. But in this case, the journey is more important than the destination.

  5. Okay, I just realized where the movie lost me. At the end. "Rome was once something great" bull shit loses me completely and the martyr they make Maximus out to be. Alright Aslan, cool your jets. Otherwise, I think were overall in agreement.

  6. Yeah, it does go really over the top right at the very end, but Crowe sells it well enough for it to be okay.