This review includes full spoilers. Proceed accordingly. For other movie reviews from me, click HERE:
Dusty: [after swiftly dispatching another movie review] Are you not entertained? Are you not entertained? Is this not why you are here?
The Comments: Dusty, Dusty, Dusty…
Director: Ridley Scott
Writers: David Franzoni, John Logan, William Nicholson
Stars: Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen
Release Date: May 5, 2000 (United States)
Run time: 2 hour, 35 minutes
In 180 AD, Hispano-Roman General Maximus Decimus Meridius intends to return home after he leads the Roman army to victory against the Germanic tribes near Vindobona on the Limes Germanicus. Emperor Marcus Aurelius tells Maximus that his own son, Commodus, is unfit to rule and that he wishes Maximus to succeed him, as regent, to help save Rome from corruption and restore the republic. When told of this, Commodus privately murders his father.
Commodus proclaims himself the new emperor, asking Maximus for his loyalty, but he refuses. Maximus is arrested by the Praetorian Guard and is told that he and his family will die. He kills his captors and, wounded, rides for his home near Turgalium (now Trujillo), where he finds his wife and son crucified. Maximus buries them, then collapses from his injuries. Slavers find him, and take him to the city of Zucchabar in the Roman province of Mauretania Caesariensis, where he is sold to gladiator trainer Proximo.
Maximus reluctantly fights in local tournaments, his combat skills helping him win matches and gain popularity. He befriends two other gladiators: Hagen, a German; and Juba, a Numidian. Proximo reveals to Maximus that he was once a gladiator who was freed by Marcus Aurelius, and advises him to “win the crowd” to win his freedom.
When Commodus organises 150 days of games to commemorate his father’s death, Proximo takes his gladiators to Rome to fight in the Colosseum. Disguised in a masked helmet, Maximus debuts in the Colosseum as a Carthaginian in a re-enactment of the Battle of Zama. Unexpectedly, he leads his side to victory, and Commodus enters the Colosseum to offer his congratulations. He orders the disguised Maximus, as leader of the gladiators, to reveal his identity; Maximus removes his helmet and declares vengeance. Commodus is compelled by the crowd to let the gladiators live, and his guards are held back from striking them down.
Maximus’s next fight is against a legendary undefeated gladiator, Tigris of Gaul. Commodus arranges for several tigers to be set upon Maximus during the duel, but Maximus manages to prevail. Commodus orders Maximus to kill Tigris, but Maximus spares his opponent’s life; in response, the crowd chants “Maximus the Merciful”, angering Commodus.
Maximus discovers from Cicero, his ex-orderly, that his former legions remain loyal. He meets in secret with Lucilla, Commodus’s sister and once the lover of Maximus; and Gracchus, an influential senator. They agree to have Maximus escape Rome to join his legions, topple Commodus by force, and hand power back to the Roman Senate. Commodus learns of the plot when Lucilla’s son, Lucius, innocently hints at the conspiracy. Commodus threatens Lucilla and Lucius, and has the Praetorian Guard arrest Gracchus and attack the gladiators’ barracks. Proximo and his men, including Hagen, sacrifice themselves to enable Maximus to escape. Maximus is captured at the rendezvous with Cicero, where the latter is killed.
To win back public approval, Commodus challenges Maximus to a duel in the Colosseum. He stabs Maximus in the lung before the match to gain an advantage. Despite his injuries, Maximus disarms Commodus. After the Praetorian Guard refuses to aid him, Commodus unsheathes a hidden knife; Maximus overpowers Commodus and drives the knife into his throat, killing him. Before Maximus succumbs to his wounds, he asks for political reforms, for his gladiator allies to be freed and for Senator Gracchus to be reinstated. As he dies, he has a vision where he reunites with his wife and son. His friends and allies honor him as “a soldier of Rome”, at Lucilla’s behest and carry his body out of the arena, while the body of Commodus is left behind. That night, Juba visits the Colosseum and buries figurines of Maximus’s wife and son at the spot where he died.
Gladiator, the Roman Empire epic helmed by director Ridley Scott, and starring Russell Crowe, is still glorious more than two decades after its debut. The movie revived the Roman era period piece film and won five Academy Awards, while being nominated for an additional seven awards. All this time later, it is difficult to find any faults in the movie. The acting, the screenplay, the visual effects, the cinematography, and the score are all superb even by today’s standards. The worst thing I can say about Gladiator is that it might be too violent for many viewers (though that is understood by the subject matter and the R rating going in.) The audience also walks away at the end of the film knowing that at some point shortly after Maximus’s death, his entire sacrifice was rendered moot, because someone unknown to the audience seizes the reigns of the Empire and prevents Rome’s return to its earlier form as a Republic (we know from history that the Empire never reverts to a Republic.) Yet… even that fits. There was a dream that was Rome, so the script says, and that dream was ever fragile.
Having not seen the film in well over a decade, I watched this expecting that some of the CGI and visual effects would look dated. I was pleasantly surprised to find that my assumption was wrong. Perhaps a more professional eye than my own might see signs of age, but to me, everything looked outstanding. The fight scene involving the CGI tigers looked realistic, the completed Coliseum looked amazing, and it all blended well with the otherwise spectacular cinematography. The sweeping visuals, the use of light when the characters traveled up and down the Roman elevator, and the color tone change in scenes when Maximus dreamed about home were all perfectly done.
I was not at all surprised that the Hans Zimmer scoring of the film remains incredible in my ears. In fact, this particular soundtrack is currently popular as background for TikTok videos and Instagram Reels and hearing the music used in this way inspired my review. If you’re going to post a short video of a beautiful scene from nature, or an architectural wonder, you cannot really do better than this music. It befits the epic and operatic nature of the story, ranging as needed from bombastic, to ethereal, and to somber. Lisa Gerrard’s vocalizations in “Honor Him” lent an ancient world music vibe to the film.
Gladiator is one of the most widely quoted films of all time and a re-watch only reaffirms my understanding of why that is the case. I’ll leave some of my favorites below:
Maximus: Strength and honor.
Commodus: You wrote to me once, listing the four chief virtues: Wisdom, justice, fortitude and temperance. As I read the list, I knew I had none of them. But I have other virtues, father. Ambition. That can be a virtue when it drives us to excel. Resourcefulness, courage, perhaps not on the battlefield, but… there are many forms of courage. Devotion, to my family and to you. But none of my virtues were on your list. Even then it was as if you didn’t want me for your son.
Quintus: People should know when they are conquered.
Maximus: Would you, Quintus? Would I?
Juba: And now we are Free. I will see you again… but not yet… Not yet!
Proximo: Those giraffes you sold me, they won’t mate. They just walk around, eating, and not mating. You sold me… queer giraffes. I want my money back.
Gracchus: Fear and wonder, a powerful combination.
Falco: You really think people are going to be seduced by that?
Gracchus: I think he knows what Rome is. Rome is the mob. Conjure magic for them and they’ll be distracted. Take away their freedom and still they’ll roar. The beating heart of Rome is not the marble of the senate, it’s the sand of the coliseum. He’ll bring them death – and they will love him for it.
Commodus: It vexes me. I’m terribly vexed.
Maximus: [removes helmet and turns around to face Commodus] My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius, commander of the Armies of the North, General of the Felix Legions and loyal servant to the TRUE emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife. And I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next.
A relatively large percentage of men over the age of forty can quote that last monologue, word for word, and will know the words until they join their own families in the afterlife. The credit for that shared cultural memory goes not just to the words, but to Russell Crowe’s performance. He won an Academy Award for best actor and after watching the movie again, it is not hard to see why.
Joaquin Phoenix also deserves a lot of praise for his portrayal of Commodus. He created a believable character so irreparably broken and detestable that watching him have a dagger shoved into his neck felt cathartic. The most impressive thing to me was that he created an Emperor so deranged that I completely bought that he would attempt the ill-fated fight with Maximus at the film’s conclusion. Phoenix’s Commodus possessed a powerfully self-destructive need for affirmation. A need like that has destroyed many real people, making the character recognizable, though few if any real people have this occur so violently in front of fifty thousand spectators.
Apparently a sequel for Gladiator is now in the works and it will allegedly focus on the now grown-up Lucius. Perhaps we will learn what happened to prevent the transition back to a Republic and what role Lucius plays in either aiding or thwarting the dying wish of Marcus Aurelius. As that is the one lingering question I had with the original, I am cautiously optimistic to learn the answer from a sequel. Perhaps we will learn that a Republic is a thing to desire, if it can be kept, and a far more difficult thing to reclaim once lost.
Overall, I was entertained. If you have never seen Gladiator, or if it has been a long time, I cannot recommend this film enough. What do you think about Gladiator? Let me know in the comments.
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