Ridley Scott’s filmography contains two of the most unforgettable 20th century filmmaking feats in Blade Runner and Alien, which both entirely reshaped how an entire genre—not just within film, but everywhere—visualized certain types of stories. As I wrote earlier this year at the passing of Syd Mead, Blade Runner cemented artists’ view of the grungy, cyberpunk future. Alien has inspired sci-fi horror for decades.
Yet, if you want to look at the work audiences have rewarded with box office numbers and that his peers in the film industry have recognized with awards, his 2000 film Gladiator is hands down his most critically and commercially successful work. The sword-and-sandal blockbuster movie is not his best film and nowhere near his most influential one, not by a catapult-assisted long shot. But damned if it isn’t his most watchable, most quotable, and most fun.
The first caveat among many for those who want to watch Gladiator is of course that while it is a period piece, its historical inaccuracy is second only to perhaps Braveheart (which was another movie I could not stop watching if it came on TV back back when things used to just randomly show up on my TV). Set near what historians mark as the end of the Pax Romana, it depicts an extremely fictionalized version of the end of the reign of Marcus Aurelius and the succession (and eventual assassination) of his son, Commodus.
The movie did choose a compelling villain, and one who would have absolutely been the type to call for pointless games in the coliseum (and fight in them himself). History has never been particularly kind to Commodus (a gaunt and crazy Joaquin Phoenix in the movie), whom contemporary historians marked as somebody who rejected entirely his father’s aspirations to being a philosopher king, instead comparing himself to Hercules at every opportunity and fighting as a gladiator in the full knowledge that none of his opponents would ever dare harm him. He renamed the city and the calendar months after himself following a fire that destroyed major Roman landmarks, is said to have killed exotic animals in the arena for sport, and fashioned himself a demigod. Though he did not die brutally in the coliseum, his contemporaries had him strangled to death and did all they could to erase his legacy.
Opening on an icy, desaturated Germany, we join Maximus (Russell Crowe), a general in the Roman army who is very, very loosely based on real-life historical figure Marcus Nonius Macrinus. Maximus is a gruff, growling, utilitarian sort who thinks only of finishing his brutal colonial conquest and then returning to his idyllic farm where his perfect wife and son await the obvious tragic death that is totally about to befall them.
After Maximus crushes the last vestige of local resistance, the Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris, looking much older than the man who historically died at 58) asks Maximus to become emperor rather than allowing the title to pass to his twisted son, who’s already giving off incest vibes with his sister, Lucilla (Connie Nielsen). Despite being very good at bossing folks, Maximus just wants to go home, and Commodus treats this passing over as the last straw. In a whirlwind, Commodus kills his father and sends his men to kill Maximus. They fail in the attempt, and a wounded Maximus traverses the entirety of continental Europe before discovering his murdered family and collapsing from a wound. (Roads or not, how long does it take to travel from Germany to … Spain?? Maybe Tuscany?! … on horseback in the second century?)
Maximus finds himself sold into slavery, where his master quickly learns he’s the best gladiator around. To gin up local support for himself, Commodus opens the coliseum, and suddenly discovers that the man he tried to kill is the number one star.
The premise of the movie is completely nuts when you write it out that way, but despite that and the movie’s two-and-a-half-hour runtime (a special edition pushes it to three-and-a-half hours), Gladiator feels fleet and simple. It’s lavishly composed, written to give every actor down to the bit players no fewer than one memorable character beat, and it’s utter lack of subtlety makes it extremely easy to understand. On the former two points, it is very much in keeping with Scott’s filmography—on the latter, it is a departure.
Far from the overwhelmed Ripley or the overmatched Deckard, Maximus is the idealized hero—not just to us, but very much in accordance with what Romans would have thought of as such, too. Roman mythmaking idolized reluctant soldiers, or provincial adventurers who were seen as being untainted by the politicking of the Senate. It’s a character archetype Scott would use shades of again, to much less memorable effect, in Orlando Bloom’s main character in Kingdom of Heaven a few years later.
The movie—and people’s unapologetic enjoyment of it—turns on Crowe’s performance of this straightforward character. Maximus is not a complicated protagonist, though the movie does everything it can to ensure that his militarism never complicates him. He reserves one line of sympathy for the soon-to-be-conquered, and his suggestion that he simply march an army into Rome is quickly qualified by a promise that he won’t just install himself as another dictator.
Gladiator also stood out for the time in that it was a human-scale story that, thanks to a lot of digital correction, looked like a heightened, epic version of reality, much as The Lord of the Rings movies would in the years immediately following. The expectations for what an epic theatrical film looked like, even one that wasn’t centered on sci-fi explosions or the emerging superhero fights of the time, was changing: 2000 also saw the release of O Brother Where Art Thou?—a quirky adventure comedy musical without any major battle scenes that is nonetheless the first movie that used digital color correction for almost its entire runtime.
And yet, O Brother was not nominated for Best Picture, and the other lavish period action movie, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, had subtitles. Gladiator won almost by default that year, and its legacy seems mostly to be that it has cemented Crowe as one of Hollywood’s most bankable male actors and that it has marked Scott as a director who loves to get extras into chainmail every few years.
In some ways it’s easy to see why, when I planned a watch party around it for my fiancée, I immediately got responses from everyone enthusiastically quoting the movie. Big moments like Crowe’s immortal revenge monologue immediately come to mind, but they happen in a movie in which every scene sells itself as hard as possible.
Commodus is a horrible, craven weirdo ruled by insecurity, so therefore he must dominate Maximus before the crowd in order to feel as if he’s won. But he also can’t possibly fight fair, so he stabs Maximus and then faces him in the ring. In a film stuffed full of meaty fight choreography with great costumes and mounted combat, Commodus and Maximus have a short duel that is at once more urgent. Crowe sells his wound. Phoenix fights with sadism, then disbelief, then panic as it becomes clear that he still can’t win despite every advantage.
Gladiator lacks any historical insight, lacks its creator’s signature nuance, and certainly has little to say about our idealization of the Roman Empire, who were slaveholding conquerers. It did not deserve Best Picture in the year in which it won it.
It is nonetheless a treat to watch it every time, and not just because it is a story that ends in an insane, paranoid, incompetent tyrant who is mismanaging a plague getting his just desserts.
Kenneth Lowe will see you again, but not yet. Not yet. You can follow him on Twitter and read more of his writing at his blog. To follow his twice-monthly charity tabletop roleplaying sessions, subscribe here.