Movie Review: Gladiator

A few years back, I wrote some reviews/commentaries on various movies and books for a friend’s now sadly defunct website.  Some of them I’ve posted to my LiveJournal since then.  I was looking back at some of them, and I’ve decided that a few may do well to be here, as well, with appropriate revision.  The movies are a bit out of date (I wrote this review about ten years ago), but I hope this review (and any other old ones I may post in the future) will be entertaining and maybe even enlightening.  I also plan to writes some new reviews–I have in mind particularly a series on Pixar’s films.  For now, enjoy this review of the Ridley Scott/Russell Crowe movie Gladiator.

The Noblest Roman of Them All

That is how Shakespeare referred to Brutus, but it could apply equally to Maximus, the lead character of Ridley Scott’s brilliant move Gladiator.  This movie is many things: an epic of the variety hardly seen these past forty years (with the occasional exception, such as Braveheart); an action/adventure move; a historical drama; the tragedy of a good man wronged.  What I would like to focus on here, however, is the way in which it is almost unique among epic movies, present or past, in catching the flavor of Roman virtue and vice at their highest (and lowest).

Since this is my focus, I will not give a synopsis of the movie.   After all, there are plenty of reviews out there that will do so—better yet, go see it if you haven’t already!  I thus assume knowledge of the plot by anyone who reads this.  The greatest virtue of this movie is one it shares with very few other historical dramas (only Braveheart and Rob Roy come to mind in the past decade or more): a true respect for the period it portrays.  All too many period movies (especially those set in the ancient world) fail to remember that they are dealing with different times and cultures.  Thus, you have people running around dressed in togas or kilts but behaving like 20th century Americans.  This is OK if done in a humorous, ironic, or lighthearted way, as in Xena, Warrior Princess, but is absolute death for a serious movie.

By way of contrast, Gladiator was obviously written by someone who had carefully studied the classics and the history of Rome.  There is a feel that the characters speak, act, and think as true second-century Romans.  We can see this best by focusing on the four main characters:  Marcus Aurelius, Lucilla, his daughter, Commodus, his son, and of course Maximus.  Marcus Aurelius, beautifully portrayed by Richard Harris (who actually bears a striking physical resemblance to the busts of Marcus), is every bit the noble, world-weary, dutiful Stoic Roman philosopher-king.  He hates the perpetual war and longs for peace, but fights on because he must.  His sole comfort as a Stoic is having done the best he could.  Incidentally, the portrayal is about 95% accurate, historically speaking.  There is no evidence that he intended to restore (or even could have restored) the Republic, and he died of disease, most probably some early form of bubonic plague.  Still, this is a textbook example of the correct way to make small modifications to the fact for the purpose of the story, while maintaining faithfulness to context and to the characters.  Marcus Aurelius, one of the greatest, noblest, and most admirable men ever to sit upon a throne, is well and accurately presented here.

His daughter, Lucilla, is another example of how to do this type of movie correctly.  There are two temptations when portraying lead women in movies of this sort.  The first is to make them sultry tarts who would make the worst-written 30’s pulp chicks look three-dimensional (judging from the ads, this is the route that the miniseries Cleopatra took; certainly its predecessor did).   The second is to make the lead into a modern feminist/independent woman (somewhat like the Drew Barrymore role in Ever After, which is still not a bad movie for that).  The first hardly needs commentary.  As to the second: I’m all for strong, independent women, but writing characters that act as we would if we were in their situation is not true to their times.  Robert Silverburg once noted that we have our values and that’s well and good, but it betrays our art to project them onto characters in ancient times who would not have shared those values.  An accurately portrayed character says nothing about the author’s values and beliefs, though readers continually make this mistake (if I write about murderers, does that mean I must be one, or approve of them?).  Rather, it attests to the author’s skill in stepping outside his own milieu and letting the character speak with his or her own voice.  This, after all, is what all great literature and film is about.

The point is this: A lesser screenwriter would have made Lucilla a character crusading for the Republic, or had her take up arms herself to free Maximus, or some such.  This, however, would be out of character for a ruling-class woman of middle Imperial Rome.  Lucilla is a strong woman and an interesting character, but she expresses this in the way a woman of that period would.  She is straightforward with Commodus, even slapping him, and she makes her opinions known even to the point of endangering the lives of herself and her son.  Nevertheless, she is also captive in the gilded cage of royalty and has had to learn to harden herself, to be a survivor.  As she confesses to Maximus, she has had to learn to live in fear as she goes along to get along, so to speak.  Until the very last scene, she is forced to keep her support of Maximus secret, not because of cowardice, but out of the pragmatic realities of her situation.  She is no less admirable for this, but instead shows us an accurate portrayal of a noblewoman of the time.

Commodus has the most liberties taken with his historical character.  In fact, the historical Commodus was a bulky brute of a man who thought he was Hercules reborn, and looked it.  Although he did fight in the games frequently in disguise, he did not die there, but was drugged and then killed by a wrestler who broke his neck.  Nevertheless, this should not take away from the superb performance of Joaquin Phoenix, and as I noted earlier with Marcus Aurelius, the adjustments keep to the truth of the characters and are well and subtly done.  If Marcus was the near miracle of a man uncorrupted by power, Commodus is the man, flawed already, who is undone by the limitless power of the Imperial throne.  He is the perfect picture of the last phases of Roman decadence in his exclamation that life is only a terrible dream, indeed the attitude of the later pessimistic Roman writers.  If this is so, then one can make it bearable only by doing whatever he wants, hoping to fill the void.  For one with the power Commodus wields, this means literally anything, no matter how strange, frivolous, or cruel.  This is precisely how Commodus (both the screen and real) behaves.  Yet even here, there is complexity, as the young emperor’s insecurities and his unhappy relationship with his father are explored.  We may find him a horrible creature, but we can feel sorrow and sympathy for him, too.

Finally comes Maximus.  As portrayed here, the fictional general is the absolute epitome of pietas, the old-fashioned virtue of Rome in the Republican and early Imperial days.  This very Roman term cannot be adequately translated (“piety”, which derives from it, is far off the mark for catching the meaning) but is well-exemplified in Maximus’ actions.  He is loyal to those he loves and respects, and strives to his utmost to do right by them.  He is quick to do his duty to his king and his country, even if this entails things he dislikes. He makes proper homage to the Lares, or household gods, without being sanctimonious.  He stands up for what he believes to be right, no matter what the cost.  Most of all, he is not overawed by power and position, but wishes most of all only to go home to his farm and his family.

In this respect, he is reminiscent of the great historical figure of Cincinnatus.  This great general of the early Roman Republic had been voted out of public office for sticking to his views, and so retired to his farm.  In a time of impending attack on Rome by foes, however, the senators sent delegates to him, meeting him in his field.  He left the plow which he had been guiding, listened to them, and agreed to accept the position of supreme commander (known in Latin as dictator, an office valid for up to a year).  He defeated the enemy army, and fifteen days later removed his armor and all insignia of rank, returned to his home, and picked up plowing at the very spot at which he’d left off.  The story of Cincinnatus was told to Roman schoolchildren much as the stories of Washington and the cherry tree or Honest Abe are (or at least used to be) to ours, and he was held up as the ideal of duty and patriotism without ambition.  Someone we could all learn from!  I am therefore very happy that such virtue has been so accurately portrayed in the character of Maximus in this movie, a character who could easily have become a Dirty Harry clone in a tunic.

Another minor thing I liked is the scenes of Maximus at prayer.  There is more New Age/neo-Pagan hogwash about these days than one can shake a stick at.  Depending on whom you read, the ancient pagans were esoteric masters of enlightenment, avatars of the aliens, nude dancers in the oak groves, adepts in touch with the hidden power centers of their minds, or any other absurdity you care to cook up.  The older conservative viewpoint that they were hedonistic orgy-crazed oppressors of Christians (who were indeed horribly persecuted, but for political reasons, not religious) isn’t much better.  Instead, we see a very truthful portrayal of the Roman religion.  From ancient times, Romans centered their faith not on elaborate philosophy or esoteric doctrine or complex rites (the temples, though numerous, were mainly patronized on holidays) but on the homely values of family, home, and hearth.  Maximus has a shrine dedicated to the Lares, the personified powers of the ancestors and guardians of the household who watch lovingly over us.  He bows in humility and simplicity before the great unknown, asking for strength for himself and protection for his family.  He is not so different in this from a devout Christian, Jew, Moslem, or any other believer

On the whole, I think that this movie deserves its current success, and I hope that as many as possible will see it.  Not only is it good entertainment, but it shows a period of history very much like our own in some ways in a clear and accurate way.  More importantly, it stirs our hearts and gives us things to think about.  Perhaps we would all do well to emulate the lead character—our society could desperately use a few Maximi!

Suggested Reading

 A slight supplement to suggest books about this era that might be of interest to those who found the movie fantastic and want to learn more.  Most are available in Penguin editions, as well as others.  Check Amazon, they can give you the nut-and-bolts publishing details!

  • The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius–The philosophical musings of the Emperor himself and one of the most-translated pieces of Roman literature.
  • The Early History of Rome, by Livy (Penguin)—Tells of the early Republican days of Rome, including the story of Cincinnatus.
  • The Twelve Caesars, by Suetonius—Covers the period immediately before the time of the movie, up to about the end of the first century.
  • The Secret History, by Procopius—Deals with the early Byzantine era, about two centuries after the film’s time frame, but catches the court intrigue well.  The portrayal of the Empress Theodora, wife of Justinian, is reminiscent in many ways of the movie’s portrayal of Lucilla.

The works of Tacitus also cover the early Imperial era of Rome, and Dio Cassius, I think, deals with the days of Marcus Aurelius and his immediate predecessors and successors.  I can’t remember the specific titles nor do I know their availability, but if anyone wants information, post a comment and I’ll try to find out and respond.

Posted on 18/07/2011, in movie reviews, movies, pop culture and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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