One of the pleasures of visiting Rome is going to the ancient ruins of the city, now preserved as a kind of historical park. Entering the ancient city is like walking backwards in time, not just because you are suddenly surrounded by the stone ruins of antiquity, but because the ancient city is in a kind of land depression. You enter the park and walk downwards about 20 feet or so, and in so doing, the sounds of Rome – which is a very loud city, with all of its motor traffic – kind of shoot over your head, and you are surrounded with quiet. It is like entering a bubble of history, and the effect does much to focus you on the city that was without being distracted by the city that is.
My favorite part of the ancient city is near the entrance, where, if you know where to look, there are some ruins that have copper burned into the marble floor. That is damage from when the Gauls sacked the city in 390 A.D. It is just there, kind of covered over by dirt and sand, without even a placard to draw your attention to it. One more tiny detail in a city that is nothing but a titanic collection of them. That is what history is, I suppose. A titanic collection of tiny details.
The ancient city is a remarkable place, in part because so many of its buildings simply do not fit the popular vision of them we have been fed through television and movies. The Forum, for example – the hall of politics where the world’s mightiest empire made its most important decisions, the place where Julius Caesar himself was stabbed to death – you’d think it is a massive, grand chamber for many hundreds of people to fill. But it’s not. I know people who own houses that are larger than the Forum. The truth is, like most everything else in ancient Rome, they never needed to build things on a truly modern scale. They just didn’t need them that big.
The Colosseum, however, is that big, and it is a place that truly needs little embellishment in the arts because the reality of it – even now, when it is in such poor disrepair – is so imposing. I toured the inside of it and saw where doomed combatants waited in jail-like cells until they were to venture out into the sun and the sound of the crowd, and fight for their lives. It is a magnificent structure, but it is also a chilling one, once you realize that even though this was a building built for entertainment, it was also a work of architectural genius designed to deliver death on an industrial scale. The Romans don’t often get the credit they deserve for being brutal, bloodthirsty people.
Ridley Scott’s Gladiator certainly gives it to them, though. This is a tale that is often credited for reviving the “swords and sandals” historical epics of old, and when this movie came out, it was a phenomenon. And with good reason, too. As with all Ridley Scott movies, it had a sweeping, epic visual sense that really worked. It featured an opening battle scene that was remarkable in its scope and execution, especially since it this was before the Lord of the Rings movies came out, with their also-impressive but computer-generated battle scenes. The battles in Gladiator rely on ace stunt work and practical effects, for the most part, and it gives the whole thing a visceral immediacy that many movies made since then simply lack.
But the movie also offered us a grand vision of Rome, perhaps a Rome that lives more in our imaginations than on the pages of history, but a compelling vision, all the same. If the lack of computer effects in Gladiator’s battle scenes are a good thing, then their inclusion in the scenery shots is also a good thing, because without them, we would never have had the imagery of ancient Rome that this movie affords us. Gladiator proves that like all tools, computer-generated imagery is neither inherently bad or good when it comes to film-making. Perhaps it would be better to think of them in terms of whether their use is appropriate or inappropriate for achieving a certain narrative effect. (That CGI gets overused in so many movies is a discussion for elsewhere, especially since its use in Gladiator is handled so well.) If Gladiator revived the swords-and-sandals genre, it is surely due in part because of new technologies that enable us to envision those days gone by much more easily, and with more detail, than previous movie-making techniques would have allowed.
Gladiator’s story is a familiar one to most, since the movie’s popularity hasn’t waned much in the 15(!) years since its release. Roman general Maximus is off in Germania, fighting the last of the holdout tribes there on behalf of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who is old, tired, and starting to have serious doubts about the direction his beloved empire is heading. His twisted son Commodus is waiting to inherit his father’s crown, but when Marcus Aurelius decides to hand the empire over to Maximus – in the hopes of returning Rome to a Republic – Commodus kills his father, blames Maximus and takes over. Maximus goes on the run, but only long enough to get back home to Spain, where he sees that his wife and son have already been murdered. Distraught, he falls into the hands of slavers, and fights as a gladiator without hope or self-preservation. His skill and fearlessness soon make him a superstar, and he returns to Rome to fight in the Colosseum, where he hopes he might get one last chance to meet Commodus and deliver swift revenge upon him.
Narratively, the story is no big deal. It is a simple revenge yarn wrapped up in rich historical dressing and the notes of a background political intrigue, because, hey, this is Rome. And intrigue is what all those old senators did back then, right? What really makes all of this work, are terrific performances by a powerhouse Russell Crowe as Maximus, Joaquin Phoenix as Commodus, Connie Nielsen as Lucillus (Commodus’ sister, and Maximus’ former lover – awkward!), Richard Harris as Emperor Marcus Aurelius, Oliver Reed as the gladiator trainer Proximo, Derek Jacobi as the friendly Roman senator Gracchus, and Djimon Honsu as fellow gladiator Juba.
Each of them fills their role so ably that you just never care if the tale is taking serious liberties with history (it does) or that it doesn’t deliver a particularly deep story (it doesn’t). What it does do is craft a narrative that draws upon what we know, convincingly provides us with the details of what we don’t, and delivers a story that is solid enough to keep us sitting forward in our chairs throughout the show, but especially whenever Maximus is ordered to go back out onto the sand.
As with the opening war scene, the numerous battle sequences of Gladiator are expertly done, and are both thrilling and visceral, triumphant and terrifying. Yes, we are meant to root for Maximus as he seeks victory after victory. Yes, we are meant to enjoy the bloody spectacle of the varied opponents he must face. But there comes a point when you realize that with the exception of a single gladiator who is paid to fight Maximus, every one of his opponents are in the exact same position that he is in. They are all slaves, made to fight purely for sport, the protectors of nearly worthless lives whose victories merely forestall an inevitable public death.
Gladiator is no love letter to the concept of ancient Rome. It might fall short on a wide range of historical details, but in the broad strokes, it definitely captures just how deeply Rome relied on enormous scales of violence to operate. We cheer the victory of Maximus’ legion in the beginning of the film, but should we, really? The Germans they destroy weren’t bothering Rome. Their only crime was not kneeling to the Empire, which came to their home and demanded loyalty. Likewise, the guys trying to kill Maximus didn’t have anything personal against him. They were all unwilling participants in a theatre of slaughter that ultimately enables Maximus to contend with an evil emperor, sure. But how many innocent guys did he have to kill along the way? (Answer: a lot.)
That is something I quite like about this movie. We idealize Rome quite a bit, and in so doing, tend to assign its most violent culture to isolated moments in history, the episodes of mad emperors. But the truth is that the Roman Empire was an engine of death and destruction on a scale that we rarely see in the modern age. It is a place where the rule of law is, at times, just a veneer of civilization over a much deeper, much darker drive to do what you want, to whom you want, when you want. I read one criticism of the movie that Maximus’ fall seemed to abrupt and impossible. Is this really something that could happen to one of Rome’s citizens? In this vision of Rome, yes. I think that’s kind of the point. In a civilization where you can be one sunrise away from being Emperor of the world, and then suddenly be a nameless slave fighting pointless battles for the entertainment of the masses…how great can such a civilization be? Powerful, yes. Influential, yes. But truly great? I suppose so, but not without admitting the cost this particular civilization chose to pay to get where it is.
I have gone on about the movie’s vision of Rome and its uneven adherence to historical accuracy. How this movie looked and felt, and the decisions it made to adhere to history when it worked, and to reject it when it did not, really struck a chord with me as a writer. This movie treated history as a means to an end, and that end is to tell a good story. When history got in the way of the story, history was pushed out of the way, much to the chagrin of historians, but much to the delight of movie-goers. I am glad it went that way.
It seems strange that a movie would work so hard to get certain details right only to reject others wholesale. (Case in point: Ridley Scott did not include the fact that in ancient Rome, gladiators often shouted out product endorsements from the arena floor; he felt that even though that was true, modern audiences wouldn’t believe it.) But the point is to create a narrative that works first and best on its own terms, and in that, Gladiator is a huge success. It is not a documentary, nor does it ever pretend to be. Unfortunately, sometimes when a movie gets too deep in reproducing historical details, it crosses this invisible line with certain audience members that if you’re historically accurate to a point, then you’re obligated to go all the way. No movie ever does. So when it doesn’t, the historians get upset over it. I get where they are coming from. But the narrativist within me sides with Scott on this, and it always will.
This movie was hugely influential to me as I wrote my own trilogy of King Arthur novels – Pax Morgana, Pax Arcadia and Pax Britannia. I knew I could never fully recreate a historical picture of medieval Britain, but then again, I didn’t have to. These were to be fantasy novels. All I had to do is use the history of the setting as a tool to craft enough to get my audience to suspend their disbelief. And going by the reviews I’ve received, I managed to do that. I wanted to tell a story of Arthurian heroism, and I think that had I not seen Gladiator, and learned from it what I learned about setting and history and detail, I might never have had the courage to type the first words of the first page. I love this movie for many reasons, but I love it most for that final one.
And that, my friends, is why Gladiator is one of my favorite movies.