Epic film back in style, back in Rome

I went to see Gladiator because I wanted, quite literally, to escape. The swim team was having a party in my house and I wasn’t invited, and I thought it was as good a time as any to get off campus. I mention this so that we are all clear about what I was looking for when I plunked down my $8.25 for admission to what all the newspapers and magazines are breathlessly (or condescendingly) calling “The Summer’s First Blockbuster.”

I went, first, and foremost, for the spectacle, and on this count, Gladiator delivers from the start. In the first ten minutes of the film we are given a gritty, Saving Private Ryan-esque battle scene, all fast cuts and slow motion, in which the Roman Legion lays the ass-kicking of the second century down upon some Goths somewhere in Germania. The scene was actually shot in a forest in England, using real catapults, 600 flaming arrows, huge bearded barbarians, you get the idea. As soon as I heard Russell Crowe, as Roman general Maximus, utter the line, “At my signal, unleash Hell,” I knew I was in for something special.

To give a sense of how violent Gladiator is, I should point out that I found the opening battle scene to be one of the least effective and exciting fight scenes in the movie, when compared to the gory and elaborate (chariots, tigers, bows and arrows) battles staged for us in the Coliseum at regular intervals. In the course of more than two and one-half hours, Gladiator managed to sate my primal need for violent summer movie death and then some.

Running throughout this carnival of mayhem is the story of Maximus, “the general who became a slave, the slave who became a gladiator, the gladiator who defied an empire.” Maximus, the greatest general in Rome, wants only to return home to his wife and son in Spain, but the ailing emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris, looking convincingly like he’s about to die) asks him to be protector of Rome so that it might become a republic again. Maximus is the son Aurelius wishes he had fathered instead of the unctuous and perverted Commodus, played enthusiastically by Joaquin Phoenix.

Gladiator keeps things nice and simple as far as good and evil are concerned. “Commodus is not a moral man,” Aurelius tells Maximus. Later, Commodus remarks to his father, “You sent me a list of the four virtues, and I knew I possessed none of them.” With this kind of buildup, there’s only one place the movie can go. Commodus smothers his father against his chest, declares himself emperor and orders Maximus executed. Maximus escapes execution, but is injured and a fugitive, and after miraculously making it across the desert (between Germany and Spain? I guess it depends on where in Spain), he returns home to find that his wife and son have been ravaged, tortured and burned to death, and collapses in a heap.

In Spain, the delirious and dying Maximus is captured, taken across another desert and sold as a slave to the sturdy and charismatic Proximo (the late Oliver Reed), who uses him as a gladiator. It doesn’t take long for Maximus to emerge as the leader among his ragtag (and good-hearted) group of fellow gladiators, organizing them into a team of overachieving underdogs, and soon they all find themselves at the big show, the Colosseum in Rome, where Maximus reveals himself to Commodus, swearing to take his vengeance “in this lifetime or the next.”

The scenes in the Colosseum are a wonder to watch, and it is obvious where the $103 million budget went. Scott takes full advantage of the latest computer technology, rendering a highly stylized, yet vibrant, pulsatingly alive Rome. For the most part, the infusion of cutting-edge filmmaking techniques complements and invigorates the venerable and forgotten Roman epic genre, although it can at times be a little jarring. When Maximus’ friend and fellow gladiator peers up at the hulking digital Colosseum and marvels that he didn’t know men could build such things, we’re not sure if we should hear irony in the statement or not. It is worth mentioning that the resemblance between Scott’s second century Rome and the capital of the planet Naboo from last summer’s Episode I: The Phantom Menace is uncanny.

These moments of déjà vu abound in Gladiator. If you think you’ve seen it before, it’s probably because you have. Scott’s movie resounds with echoes of movies past, from Spartacus to Braveheart to Triumph des Willens. On first seeing Gladiator, I was impressed by how familiar it seemed. Yet this familiarity only serves to locate Gladiator firmly within its genre – the epic blockbuster. It may be repackaged and resold each summer, but each summer it’s just as tasty.

Impressively, Gladiator manages to make it through more than two and one-half hours without dragging too much. Credit this to strong performances from the lead players. Crowe, fresh off an Oscar nomination for playing nervous, overweight Jeffrey Wigand in The Insider, makes a good case for Macho Man of the Year honors, seething attractively with equal parts hurt, rage and restraint. Phoenix is pure evil as Commodus, sneering and sobbing and lusting after his sister Lucilla (Connie Nielson) with aplomb. If he occasionally tries a little too hard, he can be forgiven. Harris and Nielson do pretty well with what they’re given (the script was written hastily as filming progressed, and it shows) and Reed, who died suddenly during the final weeks of filming, bites into his final role as the former gladiator Proximo with gusto.

Yet Gladiator could learn from some of its own self-consciously platitudinous dialogue. “The beating heart of Rome is not the marble of the Senate but the dust of the Colosseum,” we are told, and the same is true for the movie. As long as Maximus is killing tigers, or muscle-bound men in masks, or comely women archers, the movie is a great ride, but it gets bogged down as soon as it tries to interest us in questions like the struggle between the emperor and the senators.

I do not understand why every historical drama these days feels obliged to reassert the supremacy of democracy as the only acceptable government of any society, any time in history. The movie works as a tale of revenge, but not as a fable about governmental legitimacy. We get the feeling watching Crowe’s performance that the charred bodies of his wife and son are probably enough to get Maximus to kill, so why does he also have to be fighting for the cause of the Republic? Scott only half-heartedly indulges the senators’ tale, concentrating instead on the fighting, but this merely serves to make the fate of Rome (as opposed to the fate of Maximus) all the less compelling.

Similarly stunted in its development is the romance between Maximus and Lucilla. We take it from a series of ambiguous remarks that they had been lovers once, a long time ago, and though they occasionally exchange complicatedly tender glances, this element of the story is perfunctory at best, as if Scott knew he couldn’t make a decent trailer without a kiss. At least in Braveheart there was some real substance to the liaison between Mel Gibson and Sophie Marceau.

The presence of the senators is interesting, however, insofar as they exist in opposition to the mob, which wants only titillation and bloodletting. By resenting the senators’ story, I found myself inescapably aligned with the mob, cheering for Maximus. The movie knows what it is and forces us into complicity.

After winning one of his early battles, Maximus turns to the cheering mob, arms raised in victory and contempt. “Are you not entertained?” he cries. The crowd roars in approval. Yes, we are base and detestable and fascinated with violence; yes we are entertained.