15 years ago this month the world was blessed with Gladiator (2000), a masterpiece of cinema.
Gladiator’s greatness is actually quite hard to pinpoint in specifics. The whole film is beautifully made but it clearly relies on the intended cinematic of the film for its success. This film is a ‘historical epic’ designed to show a glorified version of reality to make us, as the audience, feel a sense of wonder and amazement at it.
Our introduction is very limited at this point and we don’t actually get to know the character until after the battle. What we do get from here though is his skill, leadership and inspiration on the battlefield. Maximus clearly excels at being a leader of men. We can see how loved he is when it is he who is cheered for and not the Emperor, a small foreshadowing of whats yet to come.
This starting battle scene is beautiful. The scale of it even at the start is its main benefit.
The video above shows a scene from the battle, which rages on for about 10 minutes in the film. Everyone seen is real, humans fighting humans. This is a far more realistic looking battle than a CGI one. It’s actually shot very cleverly though. We know there is an army of men fighting but at best see only about 60 people fighting on-screen at most.
Gladiator’s use of shots is very significant, not only in implying scale when there is none but also in a more symbolic sense. A very famous shot ‘The Wheat field shot’ or ‘Gladiator shot’ is one of the most iconic shots in the film.
This shot appears throughout the film at significant intervals and mostly just shows a hand passing through wheat fields. At first it is not too clear on what this means but each of the shots is done for a purpose. They are their to show a journey, one that is set for the afterlife. This symbol promotes some significant themes in the film especially of life and death. There is also a sense of revenge or gratification here though. The closer he gets to saving Rome and avenging his family, the closer he gets to seeing them again. It’s a wonderous bit of imagery that holds a great deal of sadness with it. This is one aspect that sets it aside from most ‘historical epics’ where all you usually get is just wars and a bit of politics.
The films main strength lies in its actors.
As stated previously Russel Crowe plays the main character of Maximus. This character is the main drive of the film. His acting in this film is rather subdued in places but this is not a problem as it allows Crowe to show us a more introverted and internal form of acting.This style of acting is used in the vast portion of the first half, particularly when Maximus becomes a broken man. He doesn’t act, and just stands, sits, sulks and mourns. We can tell he as a character has given up. The subdued acting that makes these scenes is juxtaposed to the scenes of him fighting in the Collosium where, in his words “I’m required to kill so I kill”. Maximus is clearly very skilled on the battlefield and he has an anger and ability that makes him a formidable foe. What’s important here is the seedlessness that Crowe has in going from Maximus the mourner to Maximus the gladiator. Crowe gained a best actor oscar for his role as Maximus and I strongly believe he deserved it.
He of course isn’t the only actor in this film. The cast itself is an all-star cast.
The late Richard Harris, who we might know for his role as Dumbledor in the first two Harry Potter films, plays the Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Arguably one of the most important characters, he becomes a catalyst of the film and inevitably drives his son Commodus, played by Joaquin Pheonix, to have Maximus and his family executed.
Joaquin’s acting as Commodus is terrifying to say the least. he plays a highly convincing madman that goes crazy for power. It’s somewhat reminiscent of the Emporer Nero but slightly less crazy. I can even imagine Commodus as a more like Jeoffery from Game of Thrones. He is a man who has a love for his family; hates the politics of the land; is cowardly in fighting; loves watching fights unfold; is cruel to all he meets and doesn’t stop going on about how he is the ruler. It’s almost uncanny. His acting style is very different to Crowe’s and is far more extroverted in nature. However there is a sense of unspoken anger in places. Especially when Maximus fights and all Commodus wishes is to kill him, yet he can’t upset his people.
The next great actor sadly died during a break in filming. Oliver Reed plays the ex-slave slave owner who deals in Gladiators. His character has a strong presence in the film, but there are moments where it falls a bit short or the scenes don’t fully work. This is no fault of anyones and was down to the fact that when he died some scenes hadn’t been filmed or completed fully. In most of the film you’d never know but if you look carefully there are scenes where they have a body double or a poorly edited shot. We can forgive them for that though.
What is interesting is the abundance of british actors in this film. Oliver Reed and Richard Harris are clearly the most recognised internationally but there is also John Shrapnel, David Schofield and Derek Jacobi. Not only this but the lack of American actors is clear too. Crowe is a Newzealander, Connie Nielsen is Danish and Djimon Hounsou is from Benin in Africa.
To say all the film is good though can is wrong, being 155 minutes and 170 extended, this near 3 hour epic can drag in places and/or is slow to do things, focusing a lot on politics. Although this appeals to some, I’m one of them, I will concede that for many people this could be an unwanted lull that they would wish reduced. This once again goes back to the idea of the films main work is its cinematic. The story, acting and politics is very unique. The thing that makes it truly successful however, is its brand of being an epic, but a unique epic all the same.
Personally I have a great love of this film, if you hadn’t worked that out already then you clearly missed something, but I do know it’s not for everyone. When comparing it to the films we know now it still holds up as a masterpiece in film making. There are bits here and there that they fall short on though. The CGI is lacking in places. For example when we see the Collosium, or even Rome itself, we clearly know it is fake. The acting also has moments where it doesn’t seem to work fully and the editing is skewed in places and throws us off slightly. We can’t really penalize them for most of these failings as it wasnt really their fault given what happened to Oliver Reed, but there are moments even in the main brunt of the film where it can be noticed. For example a clear skewed edit appears in the end of the battle scene video where the sword is stuck in the tree. In most cases though the magnificent acting from the main cast or the epic scenes of the film cover up a vast portion, if not all, of these failures.
I would strongly recommend this film to anyone. It’s not just an action film but also philosophical, political and somewhat historical. There are very few films that are like that.
So to finish, here is the song played during ‘the Gladiator shot’. Likely the most recognisable song in the film it always gives me a sense of both sorrow and joy whenever I hear it.