They don’t make movies like they used to. But then again, why would they? Gladiator claims to be a return to the days of Spartacus, Ben Hur, and those preposterously huge David Lean epics, but is it really? Of course not. It’s an intensely fake film, so processed and untrue to life that in the final Colosseum scene, the pools of rose petals look more like blood than anything that sprays from a beheaded soldier.
The film begins, grandly enough, with a massive battle sequence in Germania, where General Maximus (Russell Crowe, possibly the only actor in Hollywood with the girth and rough edges to convincingly play a heroic soldier and gladiator slave without a lick of vanity) wins a major victory for the Roman Empire and gains the approval of Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris). The aging Aurelius decides to bestow his position as ruler to Maximus, rather than his creepy son Commodus (Joachin Phoenix, who should have known better). Making matters worse, Commodus has the hots for his sister (Connie Nielson, making no more of an impression here than in Mission to Mars), who in turn pines for Maximus. So Commodus in turn kills his father, steals the throne, and sends his minions to kill Maximus and his family. Our hero Maximus proves too wily for the death squad; his family, on the other hand, does not.
After coming home to his farm and finding his wife and son’s dead bodies (we can see just how distraught he is because there’s spittle everywhere), he is captured and sold as a slave to gladiator instructor Proximo (Oliver Reed). Quickly, Maximus proves his mettle, and all of Proximo’s proteges (who miraculously evade slaughter despite numerous death matches) eventually play the Colosseum. In Rome, Maximus becomes the megapopular Stone Cold Steve Austin of the day and plots to kill Commodus so that he can restore Rome to the people and follow Aurelius’ wishes. The film, like so many odes to heroism before it, suggests that martyrdom is the way to go. And, just in case the audience misses that point, the newly liberated black gladiator-slave Juba (the valiant Djimon Hounsou, star of Amistad, and seeming in danger of being typecast as a slave henceforth) rambles on to Maximus about the value of “freedom,” while a digitized sunscape radiates perfectly orange-and-reddish hope.
Much ado has been made of the fact that digital effects made this film possible. No director or studio since the ‘50s-into-‘60s heyday of Technicolor spectacles (The Ten Commandments, Cleopatra) would attempt a historical film of this magnitude, with full recreations and casts of thousands. But digital processing allows for the reconstruction of ancient Rome with streets and Colosseum seats full of moving pinpoints that stand in for hundreds of thousands of extras. Still, these recreations almost invariably are noticeable the texture of the image is different from that of exposed celluloid. Gladiator also contains some much-hyped digital tigers, beasts that appear as smears of color when they move and look nearly real when they lay still. (Unfortunately, their role is limited and not so exciting, which raises the question: Why bother with the tigers if you don’t use them to their fullest, most awesome effects? and a subsequent inquiry, Is it really so hard to train a flesh-and-blood tiger to jump onto Russell Crowe without eating him?) On the upside, the tigers look more convincing than the alien in Mission to Mars but then again, so would a sock puppet.
Generally speaking, Gladiator is appropriately violent, featuring more impalings than a season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and proving that a mace in the face is just the way to jump start a fight scene. Relatively little simulated human tissue and gore actually make their way on screen, however, and the audience’s cringes tend to be more the result of their expectations, as well as some effective clashing and squishing sound effects. Sound not counting the score by Hans Zimmer, who seems to be reliving his Top Gun glory days is more convincingly fierce than the visuals here.
Gladiator‘s problems do not lie solely in its use of digital effects, but more in the laziness such use implies: DreamWorks and Universal could have rebuilt the Colosseum, they just didn’t want to. And this attitude is indicative of the film as a whole. Leos Carax had the Pont Neuf and the surrounding Parisian skyline rebuilt for The Lovers on the Bridge and, more famously (and even more expensively), James Cameron rebuilt the Titanic, so what was stopping the resurrection of ancient Rome but the buck? The script also cost-saves; its patchy construction seems as if parts of other films were used to fill in narrative and stylistic gaps, despite or perhaps because of a team of screenwriters and the once-inspired director Ridley Scott. The film samples plot and formal elements from such films as Braveheart, Days of Heaven, Spartacus, Saving Private Ryan, and, during one blurred-freeze-frames-in-motion sequence, Wong Kar-Wai’s signature style.
Scott assembles war sequences and fight scenes in the ring as a rapid-fire series of shots filmed, in alternating film speeds, to disorienting effect. This can recreate the moment’s psychological chaos for the viewer or become irritating or both at the same time. Although the opening Germania battle scene and several gladiator matches all employ many of the same basic devices, they produce different effects. During the overwhelming first battle scene, featuring charred forests, an indigo sky, and thousands of flaming arrows, the mob of woolly Germanic soldiers coming at Maximus and his men seems impenetrable; gradually, however, Maximus finds his bearing and makes his way to victory through the bedlam, while Aurelius watches contentedly from the battlefield equivalent of box seats. It’s a sensational, if overblown, way to open a hulk of a movie, much the way Saving Private Ryan did (shades of Papa Spielberg’s influence at DreamWorks?). In the ring, during the gladiator matches, the quick cuts dislocate the action, so that chariots, tigers, and other gladiators seem to attack Maximus out of nowhere and allow the viewer to identify with Maximus’s point of view, nearly keeping that viewer emotionally engaged, even though there is never any doubt that our hero will conquer all.
Unfortunately, when the characters are not fighting, they talk, spouting made-for-NBC-epic-style dialogue that no actor could make convincing. As Maximus, Crowe must mouth lines that mostly repeat the nuggets of wisdom that other characters say to him (“Win the crowd,” Proximo offers, “and you’ll win your freedom”); Phoenix has to deal with a clumsily written rather than tragically complex villain, and worst of all, Derek Jacobi, so brilliant in Love Is the Devil, I, Claudius, and nearly everything he’s ever been in, plays an outspoken senator in a manner that is so wooden, you might think he was auditioning for The Phantom Menace. The absolutely unconvincing script, in tandem with the plasticky digital effects, never provide for a believable ancient Rome. Scott, seemingly preoccupied with the spectacle of Gladiator, never overcomes the script. There are glimmers of a promising film on occasion, as during a quiet, early shot in which Maximus remembers walking through a field of wheat, his hand trailing over the tops of the feathery crops. There, the color has obviously been manipulated, but the moment, in contrast to the battle scenes, has an elegiac quality that is surprisingly beautiful. The problem is, Scott does not know when to hold back, and he returns to the field throughout the film, adding other images of Maximus’s family, his home, and, most disastrously, Maximus himself floating above a rocky terrain in a near-death hallucination that looks like he’s been picked up by a helicopter in M*A*S*H. Scott’s flashy style, such as the wild variations in tint from amber to blue, and exposure from dark to saturated light often within the same scene does not indicate moods so much as create a disjointed movie.
The director created a hermetic space in Alien, a stunning city of night in Blade Runner, and a sense of the open road in Thelma and Louise. Here, he constructs a place and time that never were and never will be a setting as synthetic as that in Julie Taymor’s Titus, only less hyperbolically fashionable or playful in its wild amalgamation of time periods. While Kubrick’s Spartacus may be the color of dirt in every frame, it reflects the time and place of the story. In Gladiator, we enter the increasingly prevalent digitally doctored mise-en-scene where all sense of reality is lost, despite all attempts at historical accuracy. Yet again, this is a flamboyant Hollywood project where the written script which either went through too many committee meetings or not enough was pushed into production rather than revised or abandoned as it should have been. Had the filmmakers been daring enough to make the movie without its clunky dialogue or without digital filler, Gladiator could have been epic in more ways than its running time.