Beyond cleaning up at the Oscars, the true lasting impact of Gladiator is that it marks the beginning of the longstanding cinematic “bromance” between director Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe. It is also the high water mark for that creative team. They’ve done good work since but not on this level.
This film brings the classic “sword and sandal epic” into the modern age, with production resources to recreate scenes that Stanley Kubrick and Kirk Douglas could only dream about when they were shooting Spartacus. The opening segment, where General Maximus (Crowe) unloads a half ton of second century Roman whoop-ass on some barbarians in Germania, is spectacular in its staging (even if any student of Roman military history could talk himself blue pointing out the factual errors).
Maximus is the ultimate idealized hero, the brilliant leader, idolized by his men, who is nonetheless humble and, as a Spaniard who has never even set foot in Rome, he remains uncorrupted by its politics. That earns him favored status from the aging emperor, Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris), whose dying wish is to install Maximus as the “Protector of Rome,” so he can restore a republican government, rather than leave the empire to his son, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), who lusts after power about as intensely as he does his own sister, Lucilla (Connie Neilsen).
Needless to say, Commodus isn’t thrilled with this arrangement and murders his father before he can make his intention known. Because Maximus deduces the truth and refuses to swear allegiance, he is arrested and marked for execution. He escapes and races home to Spain but arrives too late to save his wife and son from being killed by Commodus’ men. Exhausted and broken, Maximus is captured by slave traders, sent to North Africa and sold as a gladiator to Proximo (Oliver Reed).
His skills as a soldier make him a formidable force in the arena, and soon “The Spaniard” has a following not only amongst the people but among the other gladiators as well. He acquires two loyal friends, Juba (Djimon Hounsou) and Hagen (Ralf Moeller), a German who probably fought against Maximus at one time. Proximo assures him that, if he learns to entertain the crowd (and not just kill everyone before the dust settles), he will earn the love of the crowd and that will be their ticket to the Coliseum in Rome, where Maximus might just earn his freedom from the emperor. Maximus realizes that this would be his only chance at revenge, survive in the arena long enough to be in the same room as Commodus, so he lets Proximo take him under his wing until they do, ultimately, earn a spot at the gladiatorial games that the emperor is staging to appease the masses.
Under Maximus’ leadership, Proximo’s gladiators handily defeat a superior foe in their first battle in the Coliseum, earning the Spaniard the admiration of the crowd and the notice of the new emperor. Commodus is understandably “vexed” to realize that the people’s new hero is the supposedly dead general who not only knows his dirty secret, but is also swearing both vengeance and allegiance to Marcus Aurelius.
Killing Maximus at this point would undo all the good will that Commodus has earned by staging the games, so the emperor tries to arrange for him to be killed in the arena, but these plans backfire and the Spaniard starts to appear not only invincible but also beloved for his mercy toward defeated opponents. Commodus is torn between appearing weak and showing no mercy toward a merciful hero.
Sensing his vulnerability, Commodus’ sister Lucilla, who has many a good reason to both fear and despise her brother, begins conspiring with a senator (Derek Jacobi) to use Maximus’ popularity to depose the emperor. At first, Maximus wants no part of their political maneuvers, but realizes that he needs their help to complete his revenge.
Gladiator is not a short movie at over two-and-a-half hours, but it needs that time to tell a complex story well. There is more than enough bloody gladiatorial action at regular intervals to keep the ADHD crowd from wandering too far, but the story that connects those scenes is sufficiently compelling to keep your fingers off the fast-forward button.
The real strength of this film is right at the center of the film, where it should be. Maximus is not a marble statue of moral purity, but a simple and honest man who only wants to return home after the war and farm with his family. When this is torn from him, we easily understand his desire for revenge.
On the other hand, Commodus is rather thinly written villain who needs an entire empire behind to make him formidable. When he does finally face off with Maximus in the Coliseum, it doesn’t really seem like a fair fight, even when Commodus cheats. This is not a total invention of the filmmakers, by the way. The real emperor Commodus did, in fact, fight in gladiatorial games.
As I said early, real students of Roman history will probably notice an endless supply of factual inventions that have nothing to do with real story of Marcus Aurelius and Commodus, but as long as you do come to this movie expecting a history lesson, there is nothing really wrong and an awful lot that is damn good.