Favorite Movies | Gladiator (2000)

"Rome is to become a republic again." -- Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris)

Many, many details in Gladiator are simply not accurate. The character Maximus is a necessary fiction; having characters make patently false statements like “Rome was founded as a republic” is something of a head scratcher. Curiously, the Wikipedia article on Gladiator makes no mention of this in the “Historical Accuracy” section, when anybody who knows anything about the Roman Empire knows Rome was founded in 753 BC by Romulus, the first of seven kings the city (which was named after him) had. Tarquinius Superbus, the seventh king, was overthrown after his son raped the daughter of the Prefect of Rome; the next day, she pleaded with her father for vengeance and then stabbed herself to death, which I suppose sealed the deal — mobs do enjoy good theater. The year was 509 BC, and the Roman Kingdom was at an end. In its place appeared the Roman Republic referred to in the film. Seeing as how the movie begins nearly seven centuries later in 180 AD, it’s (I suppose) possible that the character was simply mistaken, but given that it was a Roman senator who said it, it’s certainly not plausible in the slightest.

This will come as a shock to those who love Gladiator and have absorbed every nuance of it, but the notion that the Senate was this force of benevolence is completely bogus. This benevolence is personified most deliberately through the character Gracchus (Derek Jacobi), a Santa Claus-like sparring partner to the new emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) during one particular scene on the Senate floor when he dips into American democratic values: “But the Senate is the people, sire. Chosen from among the people. To speak for the people.” A ridiculous line, to be sure: Roman senators were wealthy landowners, not democratically elected officials; the Senate was aristocracy, plain and simple. This, of course, would never intuitively click for a modern audience — the notion of a republic whose representatives aren’t democratically elected doesn’t compute for folks nowadays, but that’s how it was in Rome from 509 to 27 BC.

Gracchus and Commodus

The Roman Republic was also at a near-perpetual state of civil war, and the great British philosopher Bertrand Russell does a fabulous job of explaining why, ultimately, the Roman Republic was doomed to failure in his seminal work The History of Western Philosophy:

In the civil wars, one general would proclaim himself the champion of the Senate, the other of the people. Victory went to the one who offered the highest rewards to the soldiers. The soldiers wanted not only pay and plunder, but grants of land; therefore each civil war ended in the formally legal expulsion of many existing landholders, who were nominally tenants of the State, to make room for the legionaries of the victor. The expenses of the war, while in progress, were defrayed by executing rich men and confiscating their property. This system, disastrous as it was, could not easily be ended; at last, to every one’s surprise, Augustus was so completely victorious that no competitor remained to challenge his claim to power.

Russell actually smoothes over a few wrinkles that popped up toward the end of the Republic by omitting the rise of Julius Caesar and the forming of two triumvirates shortly before the Republic’s dissolution, which broke the flow of Russell’s scenario. Instead of the two-general scenario Russell illustrates, three generals in 60 BC established a triumvirate: Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus. The triumvirate itself was actually pretty uneventful and ended with Crassus’ death in 53 BC. Pompey seized Crassus’ political territory, leading to Caesar’s famed crossing of the Rubicon and the start of another civil war. Obviously, this is a textbook example of exactly the situation Russell outlines: the third general was out of the picture, leaving two generals to duke it out. Caesar defeated Pompey and established a dictatorship that (for the most part) lasted until his assassination in 44 BC. A second triumvirate was established after Caesar’s death, but unlike the first, it only included one general, Mark Antony.

The other two members were Caesar’s grand-nephew (and official heir) Octavian and a patrician (aristocrat) named Marcus Aemilius Lepidus. Lepidus never figured much into the equation, leaving Octavian and Antony to eventually embark upon the final civil war of the Roman Republic. Antony’s defeat left Octavian, who changed his name to Augustus, with complete power; he established the Roman Empire in response. The period between this founding in 27 BC and 180 AD is known as Pax Romana, Latin for “Roman peace.” The Empire centralized the power, thus eliminating resistance. During the Roman Republic, the Senate was virtually omnipotent, and they used their power to improve their own positions without regard for the state itself or its Roman subjects. Naturally, this wasn’t ultimately sustainable — a democratic movement led by the Gracchi brothers eventually arose in the second century BC that sought to award citizens with more say in the state, and it was this movement that directly led to the civil wars; as Russell says, “One general would proclaim himself the champion of the Senate, the other of the people.”

It’s therefore more than a little ironic that Senator Gracchus posits democratic ideals during Gladiator, when he is undoubtedly named after the Gracchi brothers that edged the Republic into the perpetual state of civil war. The film also ultimately takes a naïve position by concluding with Rome becoming a republic again, since by any measure, the Republic was a failure: in the early years, the Senate held complete power (and was a far cry from the modern democracy alluded to in the film), and in the latter years, Rome was constantly at war — that is, until it became an Empire and enjoyed two hundred years of relative peace. Yet this dynamic, this seemingly inconsequential and superfluous “back to republic” nonsense that takes the history out of historical fiction, is actually crucial to the film’s success.

Commodus Fights Maximus

That the film opens in 180 AD, at the end of the Pax Romana, makes it the perfect time to call governmental methods into question. Furthermore, there is the character Maximus (Russell Crowe), Rome’s greatest general who, in effect, becomes the very “general of the people” who challenges the state of affairs, just like during the Roman Republic. Commodus, though not an actual general, assumes the role of the general representing the existing government. The battlefield where these two generals fight is on the sand in the Colosseum — each victory scored by Maximus in the arena has political ramifications for Commodus, who observes (and internalizes) every “defeat” from the sidelines until the film’s climax, when Maximus and Commodus finally confront each other mano a mano. In terms of staging, it’s nothing short of brilliant, and it’s done in a way that’s pretty subversive; we know what we’re watching is interesting, yes, but it’s hard to describe exactly why.

Additional layers add interest to each battle in the war between Maximus and Commodus, as well. Obviously, Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) favors Maximus in the beginning of the film, explaining to Commodus that “you will not be emperor” and that his “powers will pass to Maximus.” Daddy issues, of course, are nothing unique, but when combined with the fact that he is in love with his sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen), who not only doesn’t love him back but loves Maximus instead, Commodus becomes a much more interesting character. In fact, one of the forces that drives him is the fact that no one seems to really love him. Not his father, not his sister, not even the people of Rome, including Lucilla’s son Lucius, who doesn’t realize the effect his admiration of Maximus has on his uncle. This creates a curious symmetry between Maximus and Commodus: both lack a loving family.

Maximus and His Burned Wife and Son

Commodus is the emperor of the most powerful empire in the world; Maximus is a slave with no power at all, except that he possesses the one thing Commodus covets: the love of the people, and specifically the love of those like Lucilla and Lucius who Commodus feels are supposed to love him instead — they’re kin. Lucilla and Lucius also serve as necessary surrogates for Maximus’ wife and son that are executed upon Commodus’ orders in the beginning of the film; they provide reminders (both for us and for Maximus) that his mission isn’t strictly about revenge. Ultimately, he wants to go home to his family, something he expresses even before his family’s murder. Lucilla and Maximus, we are told (mostly through implication), used to be lovers; Lucilla’s husband has recently died before the start of the film, and the unresolved sexual tension is there in nearly every scene featuring the two. (Of course, an entirely different sexual tension exists between Lucilla and Commodus, as well.)

It’s interesting how they managed to create the character Maximus and weave him into actual events so well. For example, Lucilla actually planned a coup in 182 AD, attempting to assassinate Commodus and replace him with her husband and herself as rulers. Obviously, this is not quite what occurs in Gladiator — Lucilla’s husband is not even alive during the film. But the gist actually does happen: Lucilla plots a coup with Maximus and Gracchus, which falls apart. And as for Commodus’ ascension, he and his father actually served as co-emperors from 177 to 180, so the idea that Marcus Aurelius wanted Rome to become a republic again is, uh, not accurate. Gladiator is actually a perfect example of why fiction is so wonderful: if all movies did was recreate history exactly as it happened, they would suck. Hard. But there’s no denying that Gladiator stretches accuracy even more than historical fiction traditionally does. There’s a difference between altering facts and changing entire dynamics that shape the world of the story (all the while still presenting it as something that could have really happened).

Commodus Gives Maximus a Thumbs Up

For example, in Gladiator, thumbs up equals “live” and thumbs down equals “kill,” which is actually the opposite of what thumbs up and thumbs down stood for during Roman times — thumbs up represented a stabbing motion upward into someone’s throat. This is an example of altering a fact, and it’s easy to see why they did it: modern audiences aren’t going to know how Romans viewed thumbs up and thumbs down (and any attempt to explain a small detail like that for the audience would be clumsy at best and would come at the expense of story). Changing an entire dynamic, which is what they do with the ludicrously out of place “Rome has to become a republic again” bullshit, is a much trickier proposition, which is why most historical movies never attempt it. Changing a dynamic has effects on every aspect of the film’s universe, and when it comes to historical fiction, there are usually so many facts at hand that managing how to render all of those facts in a realistic manner can quickly become a nightmare.

There are several reasons why they did it. First, Maximus is a fictional character, which creates the elasticity needed to make it work — I doubt what they attempted with the “back to republic” premise could be accomplished in a film with a real person as the central character. Second, when it comes to this period in history, people generally don’t know many of the facts about it, so managing how to render them isn’t a difficult proposition. Third, assigning the “back to republic” argument to Marcus Aurelius accomplishes the task of establishing the “back to republic” position and creating the necessary action of moving the story forward; it drives enough of a wedge between him and Commodus that Commodus murders him. (This didn’t happen in real life, but is certainly more dramatic than what actually occurred.) Fourth, once Maximus kills Commodus, an event created out of whole cloth specifically for the movie, what was then supposed to happen? Who was supposed to rule? This had to have been a problem the screenwriters always faced when writing the script, and it’s probably a major reason why three different writers eventually took separate cracks at it — they didn’t write it “as one.”

Marcus Aurelius

Once you have a fictional character kill someone real, it feels like a cheat, especially in a movie that plays everything straight. Imagine if you watched a movie where, say, Thomas Jefferson was killed by an entirely fictional character during the first term of his presidency. You’d react with anger and say, “Uh, what? You can’t do that.” Now, if the movie is some kind of farce (e.g., Hitler getting shot up in Inglourious Basterds), that’s one thing, but if it’s something like Gladiator? Wouldn’t work. So how do they manage to pull it off in Gladiator, then? Actually, it’s by changing the dynamic. The seed is planted early: even before Aurelius’ death, the senator mentions “Rome was founded as a Republic” and Maximus is asked where he thinks power should be concentrated, in the Senate or in the emperor. Obviously, it’s Aurelius himself who then tells Commodus right before he is offed, “Rome is to become a Republic again.”

To a modern audience, the idea of a Republic sounds more attractive/benevolent than an Empire. (The United States, for example, is more republican than democratic — our say in government is mostly limited to the election of representatives.) In the world of Gladiator, the implication is that Maximus’ heroism has inspired the city to basically set up some kind of modern liberal democracy as the film comes to a close, when that’s pure bullshit. Granted, the movie does a great job of presenting it — they avoid specifics — and when it comes to fiction, it’s more important that a story be plausible than factual. In the world the film presents, the ending makes perfect sense. Gladiator also benefits immensely by the fact that 99.9% of the audience had never heard of Commodus before the film was released (I took Latin for six years and Commodus was never mentioned unless it had to do with a discussion of the movie), so the audience has no expectations for how the movie is supposed to end while they’re watching it.

Lucilla Says Goodbye to Maximus

The decision to have Rome revert back to a republic is actually a pretty ingenious way to answer the questions I raised earlier about who should replace Commodus once a fictional character kills him, since the film simply sidesteps the issue by positing that there should be no emperor at all. And while this may be at odds with the facts, it’s absolutely true to the world of the film and pulls a nifty trick of being so intuitively in line with modernity that audiences never even question its authenticity. The movie may edge closer to fantasy in this regard, but given how well Gladiator presents its world as real in terms of look, feel, and sensibility, historical accuracy ultimately isn’t important. Furthermore, Gladiator was the first sword-and-sandal picture in literally decades to be made in Hollywood, and the huge leap in realism and modernity from classic Roman-set epics like Quo Vadis? (1951), Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954), Ben-Hur (1959), Spartacus (1960), Cleopatra (1963) and The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) lent it considerable credence.

Interestingly, it was Cleopatra‘s extreme budget overruns and the financial failure of The Fall of the Roman Empire, which features many of the same characters and takes place at the same time as Gladiator, that effectively ended Hollywood’s involvement in making anything resembling a sword-and-sandal epic for more than thirty years. (The closest thing was probably Braveheart.) For decades, it was considered a dead genre, even more dead than the western is now. But Gladiator was, in every sense, utterly modern when it debuted in 2000. In fact, it was marketed as an action picture and opened on the first Friday in May, which is the weekend that begins the summer movie schedule. (As an aside, isn’t it amazing how much Hollywood has changed since 2000? A movie like Gladiator would never kick off the summer now; that first weekend is reserved for Iron Man or whatever huge comic book adaptation Marvel is releasing.)

My only complaint with Gladiator is the use of what I have jokingly dubbed the “Avid slowdown” in my college viewings of film and TV with my friend Brett Madsen. You see, there are two ways to show something slower: you can either shoot it at a higher speed and then play it back at the normal speed (e.g., shooting something at 48 frames per second and projecting it at 24 frames per second will simply display it twice as slowly as normal), or you can take something shot at 24 frames per second and slow it down with the editing machine (Avid is simply the most popular editing software professionals use), which makes it look choppy and unnatural. This latter technique is the “Avid slowdown” I was referring to. When something has been shot at a higher speed and is projected at 24 fps, it looks very fluid and natural; when frames are stretched over additional time in an editing machine, it never looks quite right.

Roman Siege in Germania

These “Avid slowdown” uses are all over Gladiator, and are particularly noticeable on Blu-ray. I held out on getting Gladiator on Blu-ray for years after reading that the original release in 2009 was plagued with video quality problems. But the movie has been remastered and looks astonishing on the re-release, to the point that it looks hyper-real. This is great for everything about the film — well, except for those shots that were slowed down in the Avid, which look jarringly out of place and borderline amateurish. Every time one of these shots pops up (which is often, particularly in the opening battle in Germania once the hand-to-hand combat gets underway), I can’t help but think, “Well, I guess they forgot to shoot that at a higher speed.” This is likely one of the primary reasons why Ridley Scott did not win Best Director, even though Gladiator won Best Picture — it’s easy to see that his command is sometimes a tad off.

Picture/Director splits are not common, though a unique situation arose that year: two films (Traffic and Erin Brockovich) directed by Steven Soderbergh were nominated for Best Director, and from what I understand, the industry decided he should win for this achievement; he won for Traffic. Gladiator likely won Best Picture because of its epic sweep and its rousing, emotional ending. Traffic is ultimately the better film and is more significant artistically, but I can see that it would be a hard movie for many to love, and Gladiator made gobs of money, was (unexpectedly) popular with both male and female audiences, and featured a likable hero. In fact, I would argue that Crowe, who won Best Actor, received the award because the character and movie were simply really well liked. (Crowe gave superior performances in The Insider (1999) and A Beautiful Mind (2001), but lost in both of those years.)

Maximus

The competition possibly just wasn’t particularly strong in 2000, but he delivers more of an action movie performance in Gladiator, so it’s still a little surprising in retrospect. Is there anything wrong with Crowe’s performance? No. It’s just that usually actors who win typically are in movies where the dramatic heft is pronounced more through the acting than the action. Of course, part of what makes Gladiator such a satisfying movie is that it’s ultimately such a human story: Maximus wants to return home to his family, and his path to them is through the killing of Commodus, the man whose use of murder put them out of current reach. Gladiator’s subsequent imitators — Alexander (2004), Troy (2004), even (and especially) 300 (2007), and countless others — have simply lacked the evocation of human feeling that Gladiator manages so well. I haven’t seen Alexander because it’s supposed to be one of the worst movies ever, but Troy and 300 were both miserable failures at replicating Gladiator‘s success, for different reasons.

Troy has been the most cinematically successful Gladiator clone, but it just had awful dialogue (written by Game of Thrones co-showrunner David Benioff, surprisingly — he receives sole screenplay credit but I’m sure the script was massaged by countless others, since I can’t imagine someone of Benioff’s skill would stand for dialogue that atrocious) and was ultimately just a mediocre action picture, even if it was pretty spectacular and cool to see the Trojan War on the big screen. 300, on the other hand, was another matter. Troy was ultimately a misfire, but it at least had good intentions; 300 was a hilarious joke of a movie that was an insult to the notion of taste, and I would imagine it has aged very poorly. Nevertheless, 300 has seemingly led to a new niche within the genre — Clash of the Titans (2010), Immortals (2011), Wrath of the Titans (2012), and 300: Rise of an Empire (2014) would follow. 300‘s influence would not just be limited to what played in the theaters: On television, the show Spartacus: Blood and Sand appeared on Starz and utilized 300‘s similarly stylized and over-the-top approach.

That show was terrible, but the HBO show Rome was fabulous, and is the best slice of entertainment influenced by Gladiator to come about. Since it was an expensive show to produce (reportedly $10 million an episode), it only lasted two seasons (22 episodes total), but I can’t recommend it enough. Also of particular influence has been Hans Zimmer‘s score. I can remember sitting in a theater back in 2003 watching Pirates of the Caribbean and thinking, “This music sounds exactly like the Gladiator score.” Part of the issue is that Zimmer is now everywhere, receiving “Music by” credits on several films a year and contributing to other scores such as the first Pirates film (which itself is an interesting story), but there’s no question that Gladiator‘s score has loomed large in the rear view mirror now for quite some time. In fact, I would argue that it has shifted Hollywood scores away from traditionally orchestrated music, as movie scores rarely receive this kind of treatment anymore; a full-bodied John Williams type of score seems to be the exception rather than the rule now.

Maximus and Juba

Those with more trained ears can pinpoint the shortcuts Zimmer takes with his scores, and though Gladiator features less of them than his subsequent works, one only needs to point to the striking sonic similarities between the entirely synthesized track “The Gladiator Waltz” on the Gladiator: More Music from the Motion Picture soundtrack that Zimmer used as a mock-up and the finished version that winds up in the movie as evidence that he loads up his final orchestrations with synths. It’s still immensely enjoyable music that does its job well, but it was a move away from traditional scores that utilize entirely acoustic instruments, and this movement has only gathered steam over the years, resulting in lots of scores that are terrible. But there’s no question that Zimmer’s score for Gladiator is remarkable, particularly the piece before Maximus’ first fight in Zucchabar (now Morocco), which captures the thundering gravity of the upcoming life-or-death situation in an astonishing way.

All these reasons (and more), have contributed to Gladiator becoming a permanent fixture in pop culture. It’s much more of a drama (and epic) than an action picture, yet its action scenes are among the most thrilling ever filmed (perhaps because so much that’s human is at stake), so it’s frequently counted among folks as a favorite action movie anyway. It also launched Russell Crowe into the A-list stratosphere, and made him a household name. As for Ridley Scott, he has made some very good movies since — Black Hawk Down (2001) and American Gangster (2007) are arguably the best two — but he has yet to receive that Best Director award and has only been nominated for it once more (for Black Hawk Down). Scott has made two more films that were marketed as Gladiator sequels of sorts, Kingdom of Heaven (2005) and Robin Hood (2010), and both were financial disappointments and were unfortunately just decent in quality. (The director’s cut of Kingdom of Heaven, however, is a must-see and elevates the film to near-great status. The studio trimmed 50 minutes from the film before it would release it in theaters; everyone found it understandably shallow.)

Maximus Reunites with His Family

As for what really happened to the Roman Empire, Commodus ruled from 180 to his assassination in 192 AD, and the Empire eventually fell in 476 AD. It would appear that, in the aftermath of Gladiator‘s success and influence, Hollywood now finds itself in its own Middle Ages of sorts (they even literally went there with Kingdom of Heaven); Gladiator, like the Roman Empire, belongs to the ages now, but judging by how ineffective its imitators have been at knocking the film down from its perch as the best historical epic of the 21st century, it’s unlikely that any film will unseat it any time soon. Even so, I will certainly be seeing Ridley Scott’s own Exodus: Gods and Kings — which is a Biblical/religious epic instead of an historical epic, but it still counts as a Gladiator sequel, for sure — when that opens later this year to see how it compares.

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