Sunday, 9 August 2009

Gladiator (dir. Ridley Scott, 2000)

Gladiator is one of my all-time favourite movies. I loved it so much I went to see it for the second time in France, despite my shaky French (assuring my brother, who has no French, that ‘arrrrgggh!’ is universal). It helps that, in Hans Zimmer’s score and Lisa Gerrard’s vocals, the movie has one of the best movie soundtracks in history (coming second only to Howard Shore’s score for The Lord of the Rings in a Classic FM poll in 2005). It’s easy to make fun of this sort of score, especially since so many other films, like Troy, have aped it, but it really is a fantastic piece of music. It also helps that the action sequences are so well choreographed that even I find them interesting.

First things first though: as I think many people know by now, Gladiator is not historically accurate. Which is putting it mildly. It recently made No 8 in a list of the 10 Most Historically Inaccurate Movies Ever, just two places behind Apocalypto (though this article would be a lot more convincing if the author hadn't misspelled Marcus Aurelius as Marcus Araelius). I have to confess, though, that I find the historical inaccuracies here much, much less irritating than those that appear in The Patriot (at least Gladiator does not accuse my ancestors of war crimes actually committed by the Nazis) or U-571 (as there are no actual Romans, or close descendants of Romans, left alive to be offended, nor does the film take a notable military achievement from my country and give it to someone else).

The article explains the basic differences between history according to Gladiator and actual history: for anyone who wants to have a look at the primary evidence, Cassius Dio is a good place to start (Books 72 and 73 especially). The most notable change is the restoration of the Republic in AD 180, about 1800 years early (after 31 BC, neither Rome nor any part of Italy was a Republic again until the nineteenth century AD). Presumably modern Western (for which read American) audiences are presumed only to be capable of rooting for someone who's fighting for democracy (don't get me started on 300 - we'll leave that for another day). Cassius Dio does say that Marcus Aurelius may have been concerned about Commodus' character before he died, but most of the rest of the story is pure fiction.

But for all the messing around with history, Gladiator is still a great film. The opening sequences are gorgeous. The dialogue is a touch cheesy but it works, and I confess I love the tagline, 'What we do in life, echoes in eternity'. The battle is suitably epic, the action tough and bloody but then slowed down to something more artistic, the non-military scenes full of opulent fur cloaks and sexual tension all over the place. And Joaquin Phoenix with his shirt off. Yum.

It's also very funny in places - 'You have missed the war' is a rather good line, while I find Marcus Aurelius telling Maximus he just wants him to do one more favour - just a little thing, just
overthrow the current heir to the throne, restore the Republic, completely reorganise the political system of the biggest empire in the world - before he goes home (which Maximus was planning on doing pretty much straight away), absolutely hilarious every time.

Richard Harris puts in a great performance as the philosopher-emperor, showing all the latent power, thoughtfulness and tragedy that it's a great shame he never got to give Dumbledore. All the performances in this film are terrific, Connie Nielson's slightly off-putting accent notwithstanding (everyone else is, of course, speaking The Queen's Latin). Joaquin Phoenix has quite possibly never been better - he makes the seriously unhinged Commodus entirely believable, his actions, though sometimes repulsive, always plausible and shorn of the histrionics sometimes shown in portrayals of the two great mad emperors, Caligula and Nero.

So, to summarise some of the plot: Commodus inflicts Death By
Hug on his father and Maximus, who does not just kiss his hand and plot behind his back like the rest of us would because he is a Hero, has to make a swift getaway, back to his farm. Lucilla, being much more practical, does go for the kiss-the-hand-now, plot-later approach, and guess who's offspring is still alive at the end of the film?! (Yeah, I know, the real Lucius died, but I'm going entirely on the film's version of history now). The slap Lucilla gives Commodus before she kisses the hand is absolutely classic, and doesn't seem to worry him at all.

Having escaped execution (helpfully pausing to explain that the frost makes the blade stick, something the doomed soldier he was talking to probably knew), Maximus rides two horses away, but only has one as he reaches Spain. I think
he ate the other one. Unfortunately, one mand on two exhausted horses can't outrun a series of messengers and soldiers stationed at various points along the way, and we end up with the famous scene where Maximus weeps over the bodies of his wife and child, which is often made fun of for the snot, but is actually very touching and deserving of its Oscar glory.

We move into the middle section of the film, as Maximus is taken to North Africa and sold as a slave for the arena. Scott depic
ts the desert and the heat and the changed atmosphere of the new location brilliantly, though his depiction of Rome, as Commodus rides in, in almost black and white is les successful - grey is not a colour one usually associates with ancient Rome and the attempt to draw a parallel with footage of Hitler at Nuremberg is just a bit too obvious to really work. The scenes in North Africa (filmed in Morocco, though set in modern Algeria) look great though.

One of the most impressive surviving amphitheatres, El Jem in modern Tunisia

When Juba is asked his work and says 'I was a hunter', every time I expect the next lines to go: 'What did you hunt?' 'Romans'.


Maximus spends some time sulking, refusing to fight and ca
rving out bits of his own arm, but decides to put some effort in just in time - whether because he doesn't really have that much of a death wish, or because he is chained to Juba and wants to help him, is hard to say. The action here is so good even I enjoy it, though I do have to keep looking away from all the blood. The bit in a later fight, where Maximus takes two swords to chop off one guy's head, is particularly good. For some reason the bit where all the guys with bull's heads (to resemble the Minotaur) and maces and things are waiting for our guys to come in always reminds me of the house robots on Robot Wars, with the guys out front as the House Gladiators and our guys as the competitors - but I think I might be alone in that.

By the way, gladiator fights in reality were not always to the death. If one's best gladiators were always getting disabled or killed, one would spend an awful lot of money buying new gladiators all the time.

Meanwhile, back in Rome Derek Jacobi is playing a Roman again! Hooray! Gotta love the advert written in Latin as well.

The Colosseum, seen with the Roman Forum from the Victor Emmanuel II monument, and from the interior. Full of tourists, of course.

Maximus says he will give the crowds in Rome something they have never seen before, and our heroes make their way there to admire the Colosseum. We only see the foot of th
e colossal statue that gives it its name though, as Proximo looks up at it.

Commodus, not satisfied with perving over his sister, is leering at his nephew as well. Lucilla gives him a tonic - she really should have just slipped some arsenic in it there and then.

A few more scenes of build up and we're into by far the best sequence of t
he movie, right at the heart of the film. Maximus and friends have been cast as the Carthaginians in the Battle of Carthage, pitted against some fearsome female gladiators in chariots (see here on female gladiators). Maximus uses his superior General-skills to win (and there' some really gruesome actions involving people being sliced in two), leading to much amusement since the barabrians should lose the Battle of Carthage, and Commodus goes down to congratulate him, leading to the classic lines:

'My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius, commander of the Armies of the North, General of the Felix Legions, 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.'

Commodus is forced to let him live for fear of the crowd and Maximus leaves in triumph. The whole sequences is fantastic, and the score is brilliant as ever - the whole lot is on the soundtrack album in one 13-minute track.

Lucilla has a fabulous costume in this bit, by the way, though it looks more like it belongs on 19th century royalty than 2nd.

(I am aware of the debate surrounding whether thumbs up meant 'live' or 'die' - because one shoves the sword upwards to kill someone - but I think the movie makes the right decision in using the modern meaning of up=good, down=bad, otherwise the audience would be very confused).

After this various less exciting scenes follow, leading up to the inevitable conspiracy. Commodus' line about how Maximus' survival 'vexes me. I'm terribly vexed' is justifiably famous - Joaquin Phoenix is a comic genius.

The archaeology of the Colosseum, unlike the history, is accurately portrayed. As Commodus tries to have Maximus killed by tigers, we see the various trap doors and so on in the arena working in the way we think they did in ancient Rome. The crowd adore Maximus for being merciful but I have to admit, considering the injuries he's inflicted on his opponent and the state of ancient medicine (no anaesthetic) I'm not sure letting him live was the merciful option. Commodus taunts Maximus about the rape and murder of his wife, to make sure we all know just how eeeevil he is.

The tunnels and cells underneath the arena at El Jem, where gladiators, prisoners and wild animals were kept before being set on each other.

Commodus is also intent on bedding Lucilla, a trait usually associated with Caligula - pop culture is blending all the mad emperors into one again. According to Dio Cassius, the real Lucilla was just as bad as Commodus, though he doesn't suggest they slept together.

Maximus dithers for a while but eventually agrees to Lucilla and Gracchus' plan, which is to get him to where his former troops are encamped at Ostia (the town known as the port of Rome) and stage a military coup. Naturally, the plan goes horribly wrong, partly because Lucilla has apparently been over-sharing with her motor-mouthed son.

By the time they make the attempt, Gracchus has already been imprisoned and their other ally, Gaius, killed. Maximus and Lucilla manage to squeeze in a quick snog - nothing too heavy, as we need Maximus to keep focussing on his dead wife, and justified by the idea that they are old flames, then we're back to impending disaster. Maximus' nice German friend is killed, Proximo is killed (because Oliver Reed died; Proximo's ending is very well done and gives him a satisfyingly heroic exit) and Maximus is captured, while Lucilla is left to face a fate worse than death, which she cannot even escape by suicide. Thus we are set up for The Finale.

Commodus wants to fight Maximus himself, but of course, he is a dirty cheat and stabs him in the gut first so poor Maximus is dying throughout his last fight. Maximus said Marcus Aurelius said that death smiles at us all and all a man can do is smile back. I haven't noticed this exact quote in Marcus Aurelius' Meditations, but it isn't unlike the sort of thing he said.

The last fight is decent enough; the moment when Maximus' old friend Quintus finally grows a spine and refuses to supply Commodus with a sword is very satisfying and Commodus' eventual death suitably gross (the sounds he makes as Maximus shoves a knife into his throat are truly icky). After that, it becomes difficult for me to see the screen through the flood of tears pouring down my face - I am a sucker for a tragic ending, especially when it involves visions of the afterlife and the solemn removal of the body by the survivors. It may be pure fiction, but it is good fiction. I'm not quite sure why Gracchus is being held prisoner under the Colosseum, but never mind - maybe Commodus was planning to feed him to the lions. Juba's final act in memory of his friend and his joyful expression as he says 'Now we are free' round it all off beautifully and the score excels itself.

One last thing to wonder though - just where do all those red petals at the end come from...?!

9 comments:

  1. Lucilla in the wrong costume?
    Well, in that case, Russel Crow knows better history that the actual director of the film.

    Marsia

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  2. "The Collosseum, seen with the Roman Forum" - the view is over the Forum Iulium and Templum Pacis. Sorry! I couldn't stop myself!!

    I must watch Gladiator again.

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  3. I'm not quite sold on this film... seemed a bit to contrived to play on our emotions. But yes the soundtrack was brilliant!

    I'm guessing from the photos you've been to El Jem? I went with a group of Uni friends to Tunisia when we finished our degree, didn't really do much organising beforehand (other than booking a hotel), kind of played it by ear... and ended up on a bus south (from Sousse) to El Jem (and Matmata and some other spots) and was astonished at seeing those Roman ruins and in such good condition!

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  4. I'm sure you can see a *bit* of Roman Forum in that photo! ;)

    I think I did a similar bus trip from Sousse - down via El Jem to Douz (the camel place!) and up via the Atlas Mountains, where The English Patient was filmed (which I is why I ended up watching that particularly miserable film last night!). I hope to go back someday and see Dougga, which we didn't have time for - the Roman ruins there are apparently very impressive too. I absolutely loved the whole thing, as you can tell by the way the photos keep getting shoved in to every blog post!

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  5. I rather like the uncomfortable plot summary for this movie: Convict murders head of state.

    I seem to remember reading that the signals in the arena were an open hand for mercy and a closed fist for death. Or possibly that there weren't any at all, since there weren't that many killings that weren't executions of some sort.

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  6. I think nobody really knows, so everyone guesses. I presume something somewhere first implied that thumbs up meant death, but don't know what. I think the movie did the right thing to just go with the modern version!

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  7. cf. Corbeill, A. 2003. Nature Embodied: Gesture in Ancient Rome - he has a detailed discussion of the thumbs up/thumbs down debate (not just in the arena, so it is nicely in context).

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  8. My theory about the end is that, in the old days of Hollywood epic, you could have the evil empire win, yet still send the audience out of the cinema with a spring in their step, simply by pointing out that eventually Christianity will come along and sort everything out. Quo Vadis and Spartacus are explicit about this. That doesn't work in 2000, so Scott falls back on a distortion of history to create the same effect.

    It's also worth noting that the degree to which filmmakers can distort history is progressively increasing, though the rewrite of the end of WWII in Inglourious Basterds may be a step too far.

    Commodus wasn't accused of incest with Lucilla, but the Historia Augusta does allege it for other sisters.

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  9. I haven't seen Inglourious Basterds - I love WW2 movies but I don't really like Tarantino. If it rewrites WW2 I should probably avoid it - any film that rewrites WW2 tends to make me *really* *really* *angry*...

    Good point about the ending, I hadn't thought of that.

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