Russell Crowe in Gladiator

Late to the Party: Gladiator

Each week in Late to the Party, someone posts about an older piece of media that they’ve just experienced for the first time. This week: Ridley Scott’s historical epic – Gladiator.

The 3rd highest grossing film of 2000. Nominated for 12 Oscars and 5 Golden Globes. An all-star cast, directed by the man behind Alien and Blade Runner. What could possibly go wrong?

Quite a lot actually. I was not entertained.

And I’m going to tell you why.

Russell Crowe is a dull and uninteresting lead

Crowe won the Oscar for Best Actor for his portrayal of General Maximus, and I’ll come right out and say it – he did not deserve it. Tom Hanks was robbed, goddammit!

Tom Hanks in Castaway
He’s acting opposite a volley ball, and he still knocks Crowe out of the water!

I’ll say this in Crowe’s defence – he wasn’t given a lot of work with. Maximus is introduced as a competent and respected General in the Roman army, and the opening scene in Germania is an opportunity for the audience to see his skill and courage on the battlefield. But Maximus’ mind is elsewhere – he wants to finish this campaign so he can finally return to his wife and son in Hispania.

A talented but jaded soldier who just wants to get back to his family? How innovative.

Even if military life has lost its appeal, Maximus continues to have a warm relationship with Emperor Marcus Aurelius.1 Aurelius is old and sick, and is worried that all he has accomplished during his reign is bloodshed and destruction. Maximus is having none of it – Rome is a beacon of light in a world of darkness.

The movie basically agrees with Maximus – if Rome has any problems, they are caused by a class of corrupt politicians given to squabbling among themselves. Aurelius sees Maximus as the man to end this degeneracy, and decides to make him his (unwilling) successor. It is his duty to restore the Roman Republic.

Gif of Homer Simpson Laughing
All the historians in the audience

This is the main reason I dislike Crowe’s character – he has no agency. He does not want to become the Emperor, but once Aurelius is murdered and Maximus’ family in Hispania is butchered,2 his desire for vengeance can only take him down a single path. Maximus must become Emperor, whether he likes it or not.

The movie could have made more of this, explored how Maximus is a puppet who was doomed before the film even started. But it doesn’t – there are no long scenes of contemplation. Even when he is enslaved, Maximus remains a taciturn man who expresses himself best through violence.

Now, it is perfectly possible to make an excellent film where the main character does not change very much.3 Mary Poppins is a good example of this – Mary doesn’t change, but the Banks family changes due to her influence. Gladiator attempts something similar, but because Maximus is enslaved and has no freedom of movement, he can’t really do anything. He convinces Proximo to let him go, but that doesn’t bring much catharsis because we barely know Proximo – we’ve spent far too much time watching Maximus fight in the arena instead.

Image of Proximo, as portrayed by Oliver Reed
The slaver who profits from human suffering? Give him a redemption arc!

Commodus is Hitler

Not every movie needs to have an interesting, multi-layered hero. Mad Max: Fury Road is a spectacular film, but its titular character is not the main focus – Immortan Joe and the collapse of his regime are. Perhaps Maximus is just a vessel to show us the downfall of Commodus, usurper of the throne and murderer of Marcus Aurelius, his own father?

Well, not exactly.

Commodus is undoubtedly the villain of the film, but we don’t get a strong sense of what he wants and what drives him. I suppose I should feel outraged when he smothers his own father, but there are two problems:

  1. Murdering your own flesh and blood to claim the throne wasn’t exactly unusual in the Ancient World.
  2. If Aurelius truly believes that “Commodus is not a moral man … He must not rule”, why has he not had him murdered? He is the Emperor – he has the power to do that!

Commodus also murders Maximus’ family out of spite, but since we don’t actually know his wife or son, it is difficult to feel a great sense of loss. The screenplay relies heavily on clichés and visual shorthand to explain characters’ motivations, rather than exploring their relationships with one another.

And that is why I say Commodus is Hitler. Take his triumphant entry into Rome:

Commodus arriving at Rome
Ridley Scott would like you to know that he has seen Triumph of the Will

Commodus is also deeply dismissive of the Roman Senate. He sees it as an moribund institution, full of the “tedious sermonizing of a few dry old men“, that only obstructs the relationship between the Emperor and the People. Commodus’ arrest and murder of multiple Senators in the final act of the film is an obvious and clumsy metaphor for the Night of Long Knives.

Still not convinced? Commodus, who has been lusting after his own sister Lucilla for most of the movie, tells her after the Senate has been neutered that “you will provide me with an heir of pure blood so that Commodus and his progeny will rule for 1,000 years.

I’m sorry Voldermort, for calling you “Wizard Hitler”. You are so subtle by comparison.

The screenplay was clearly trying to contrast Maximus and Commodus with one another, the same thing The Prince of Egypt does with Moses and Rameses. But Commodus doesn’t know that Maximus is alive for a large portion of the film, and when the two characters do interact they have really poor chemistry.

I also find it baffling that multiple characters complain that Commodus is appeasing “the mob” by putting on so many gladiator tournaments.4 Pretty much the only thing Maximus does throughout the film is fight in the arena – his popularity with the crowd is the only thing that stops Commodus from murdering him outright! Why are we acting like this is a complex moral dilemma?

Boring Spectacle

Let’s be honest, this movie was just an excuse to film gladiator fights. The problem is that the screenplay does not provide these fights with an interesting context or meaning. I was often bored while Maximus was fighting in the arena – the set-pieces that the entire movie revolves around.

Halfway through a fight involving some poorly aged CGI tigers, it suddenly occured to me what movie I should really be watching instead…

Pirates of the Caribbean poster
This is the Tale … of Captain Jack Sparrow!

Think about it – Pirates of the Caribbean also has a historical setting, but it has a superior score, more interesting characters, and better special effects. Why do I need to watch plank-of-wood Maximus fight in the arena, when I can watch Captain Jack Sparrow take part in an epic sea battle?

So that is why I do not recommend Gladiator – everything it sets out to accomplish, another movie does it better.