Walking among the ruins of ancient Rome today, one is struck by just how small it is. The Forum steps where Caesar was assassinated are no more grand than the average library entrance. The grand lane that triumphant generals paraded down when returning from war is no wider than the single lane of a modern road. And the old city fits inside of what today we’d consider to be a decently sized municipal park. But the Coliseum still matches the mythic image in the heads of anyone who ever dreamed of ancient Rome. Crumbling as it is, it towers over those who walk in its shadow, reminding of the countless men and animals who lived and died inside, awaiting their turn to feed a ceaselessly grinding engine of bloody entertainment. It reminds us just how magnificent and terrifying ancient Rome could really be. This is where history and myth collide in our modern imagination, and by mining that meeting place, Ridley Scott crafted a fine return to the swords-and-sandals epics of yesteryear with an unforgettable tale of loyalty, revenge and redemption: Gladiator.
The story begins in 180 AD, and Roman general Maximus Decimus Meridius commands his army to a compelling victory of the trigged of Germania, completing his aging emperor’s campaign to extend the empire. Now that the war is over, Maximus just wants to go back home to his family in Spain. But Emperor Marcus Aurelius’s violent and unpredictable son Commodus is unfit to rule, and Marcus Aurelius would prefer to return the empire to a republic, and bids Maximus to take the reins. When Commodus finds out, he kills his father, drives Maximus into slavery and kills Maximus’ family. Maximus soon finds himself condemned to life as a gladiator, meant to die pointlessly for the entertainment of others. But as he proves his mettle on a new kind of battlefield, he rises as one of Rome’s finest gladiators, winning first his chance to return to Rome, and then his chance to confront Commodus and gain vengeance for himself, his family, and for Rome itself.
This movie is a sweeping visual spectacle, replete with grand battles, elaborate views of Rome at the height of its glory, and a deeply compelling screen presentation of the Roman arena. But for all of the action, splendor and intrigue that fills this movie (and there is much of all three), Gladiator is no love letter to ancient Rome. Indeed, we root on Maximus and his stalwart soldiers as they crush their Germanic opponents early on. But the more we see Maximus transit through the underbelly of a society he helped to build, the more we see it is one where justice is more than a little subjective, where the law befits those who wrote it, and where lives are cheap, but especially if you buy them by the dozen. A society cannot be great if it is not strong, but if a strong society cannot be just, then it also cannot be great.
But this movie isn’t meant to deconstruct Rome or try to give us a history lesson. It’s a tale of revenge set against those part of history which make for the best story. And while Gladiator makes for some dodgy history (fun fact; gladiators often shouted out product endorsements from the arena floor, but since modern audience wouldn’t believe it it never makes the movies), it does make us care an awful lot about Maximus. From the moment he recovers from the initial attempt to kill him and embraces his new life as a gladiator, we are all kinds of ready to watch him as he carves a bloody path from arena to arena, from the outermost edges of the Roman hinterlands to the streets of power in the imperial capital. The closer he gets to his objective, the more his legend grows. Before Maximus even has a chance to confront Commodus, he has already become something in his second life that he never quite was in his first: a hero.
There are plenty of fantastic battle scenes in Gladiator. The movie begins with a terrific set piece on the German frontier that showcases what the Roman war machine looks like when in full swing. It’s a stirring and chaotic triumph, but it’s when the movie’s fighting gets more intimate that it really begins to carry emotional weight. When we see Maximus in the chute before his first gladiatorial battle, there among those who know they will soon die pointlessly, we somehow feel more peril for him than when he faced a thousand German warriors. And when we see Maximus easily carve up those who would stand between him and his return to Rome, we marvel in his victories, but we grimace at the sight of a noble soldier reduced to his most elemental killer self.
But it’s when he finally gets that chance to fight in the Coliseum that we see the movie’s moment of truth. Maximus commands his fellow slaves in a recreation of a historic battle that is meant to be a one-sided slaughter, and Maximus is on the wrong side. But by employing his old skills and inspiring his fellow slaves, he pulls off an impossible victory and gains a rare public and congratulatory moment with the new Emperor. Commodus seeks the crowd’s favor by meeting the gladiator who defied the odds. But what he gets is an unexpected meeting with a man he tried and failed to murder. In response, Maximus delivers a speech that is the stuff of legend, mainly because of how utterly fearless it is. When he is ushered back to his cell afterward, Maximus does so to the sound of cheers, not from the audience, but from his fellow fighters who know that their commander has no fear because in his heart, he is already free. And a free man is someone who never really dies.