The Roman Epic seemed to die after the release of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra. Starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor as doomed lovers Marc Anthony and Cleopatra, the 1963 film is the ultimate example excessive filmmaking. Originally slated for a budget of around $12-15 million (around $120-$150 million today), the movie’s budget kept ballooning to a mammoth $44 million (more than $400 million by today’s standards)! On top of that, the film was in excess of six hours in length. The studio cut the film in half, and released it to theatres where it did decent business, but nowhere near enough to get the studio’s money back. Mixed reviews did not help the film either as critics enjoyed the earlier portions of the film, but were under-whelmed by the romance of Burton and Taylor on screen as well as its tepid action set pieces.
In the end, Cleopatra had killed off what was before a genre that had produced cinematic milestones such as Mervyn LeRoy’s Quo Vadis, Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus and William Wyler’s Ben-Hur. Between just those three films fifteen Oscars were garnered, including a win for Best Picture by Ben Hur and twenty-six Oscar Nominations between them.
In the year 2000, the genre made a roaring comeback. Behind the wisdom of a visionary director and the charisma of a star in the making, Gladiator battled its way to another Best Picture Oscar. The film would begin a string of hits for its helmer, Ridley Scott, to give him success he had not seen since the 1970’s. Russell Crowe would use Gladiator as a launching pad for worldwide stardom and the statue for Best Actor.
Gladiator Starring Russell Crowe and Joapuin Phoenix. Directed by Ridley Scott.
Gladiator is a film that works because it gave audiences what they wanted to see. When rebirthing the dead genre, filmmakers took special care to bring back elements of past films that had made them successful. Take for instance, the film’s opening battle. Roman Epics traditionally have a huge battle scene in them. The greatest up to this point came in Spartacus as Kirk Douglas’ rag tag bunch of slaves took on Laurence Olivier’s Roman forces in the best battle sequence of its time. Really the sequence was not entirely eclipsed until Mel Gibson’s Braveheart stunned audiences with its brutality.
With Gladiator’s opening battle, Director Ridley Scott would do what would indeed work for most of the picture; he would combine elements from past films to create something new and successful. The battle sequence features the forces of Maximus (Russell Crowe) against a horde of barbarians from Germania. In essence, this is almost the battle from Spartacus in reverse. The film is also given the type of editing and fierce choreography as The Battle of Stirling from Braveheart.
Next, the cinematography from the sequence is borrowed from another Epic, Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan
. That battle featured a “shaky” style of photography that showed the chaotic side of battle more than any film ever before it. Gladiator
would amp up the chaos of the style, but would morph it into a more crowd-pleasing type of battle with quicker edits. Private Ryan
had the tendency to linger on moments of horror, while Gladiator
tried instead to get the heart pumping.
The last piece of the puzzle would be Hans Zimmer’s thunderous score. This score would establish the tone of the picture’s music as the mood of the piece would hinge on the score’s ability to move the audience. Zimmer’s score moves swiftly here from its thunderous brass to the haunting vocals of Lisa Gerrard.
This opening sequence is also able to establish the character of Maximus. Russell Crowe’s character may be the defining moment of his career. In this opening, the film establishes that he is stalwart and a professional. His men love and obey him because he is in the field of battle with them. When he falls from his horse, they come to defend him. After the battle, he is seen amongst his men, tending to their problems and showing he is one of them. Furthermore, Maximus’ character is shown to the audience as he discusses his family with Caesar Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris). When Aurelius asks Maximus to become the quasi-ruler of Rome after he is gone, Maximus shows his reluctance, as he only wants to go home. He is an everyman with no designs on power or glory.
The film’s main plot is set in motion at this point. A lover of the genre would see how much the picture borrows from other films, and liberally at that. Much of the plot is taken from Fall of the Roman Empire. In that picture, Caesar Marcus Aurelius (Alec Guinness) asks a General to create a state of peace. That piece is disrupted by the ascension of Aurelius’ son, Emperor Commodus, played by Christopher Plummer. Here, Commodus is played with slithering menace by Joaquin Phoenix.
Phoenix is an amazing villain in this picture. The character’s fury and malice are hidden just beneath the surface, and rise out of him at a moment’s irritation. This fury comes out almost immediately after his introduction. Commodus is saddened and yet outraged at his father’s decision, and kills the Emperor when Aurelius tries to console him. When the Empire is his, Commodus sets his sites on the only man who can stand in his way.
The remainder of the film takes major themes from classics such as Ben-Hur and Spartacus. Just as Charlton Heston’s Judah Ben-Hur is condemned to die by his best friend, and then vows revenge for the wrongful death of his family, Commodus sentences Maximus to death. Those who were worried whether Russell Crowe would be able to carry a $100 million Epic were silenced at this point. Crowe takes Gladiator upon his broad shoulders and runs with it, not only making this film a success, but breathing new life into the entire genre.
Up until this point, Crowe had not been a big star. He had turned some heads in 1992 as a Nazi Skinhead in Romper Stomper, an independent film with a fierce intensity. Crowe’s big Hollywood breakthrough came with Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential as his Bud White showed audiences Crowe’s ability to turn a bad guy into a fan favorite. Crowe had earned a 1999 Oscar Nomination in The Insider. Crowe gave a tour de force as Dr. Jeffrey Wigand. While Crowe had the assistance of makeup and prosthetics to portray a man in the midst of middle age, he was able to embody Wigand with subtle body language and voice work. Crowe also gained a lot of weight for the role, which made his transformation to Maximus that much more surprising.
After he is betrayed and his family killed, Russell Crowe drives Maximus to his full potential as a character. Part William Wallace, part Spartacus, and part Ben-Hur, Maximus unleashes all of his fury after he is sold into slavery. In the gladiatorial arena, Maximus is unstoppable as Crowe makes the Roman a one-man slaughterhouse. Opponents one after another fall in brutally staged fight scenes. Maximus’ victories bring him closer to Rome step-by-step, and closer then to revenge.
A villain in a Roman Epic needs to be several things. He needs to be ruthless. He needs to covet Rome and all of its power. He needs to be amoral. Lastly he needs to be a dangerous warrior, but also a coward to an extent. These are the guidelines that Joaquin Phoenix follows that make Commodus a memorable heavy. Commodus is indeed ruthless. He kills his father for control of his Empire, and innocents with no remorse, such as Maximus’ wife and child. To keep control of Rome, Commodus eliminates political rivals such as Senators that stand in his way. Commodus also is adept in swaying the Roman people to his will, by giving them weeks of gladiators dying for sport. Commodus’ lust for power even goes to his sister, whom he also covets, but would gladly kill in order for him to stay in power. Lastly, Commodus is shown to be adept at swordplay in the beginning of the film, so when the inevitable clash with Maximus happens the end result is not easily predicted.
The role seems to be so natural for the actor that it seemed to skyrocket his career and earned him an Oscar Nomination for Commodus. There is just something slimy about the performance that permeates throughout the entire picture. Phoenix can take quite a lot of credit for the film’s success, as a good hero does not work without a worthy opponent. Phoenix is able to fight through some of the film’s weaker dialogue (“I’m very vexed!”) without making it seem silly, and then is able to bring out all of his villainous glory in other scenes (Am I not merciful!!). Phoenix may play villains down the line in his career, but never one so deliciously wicked.
Helping both leads are a slew of supporting performances. Djimon Hounsou gives one of his best performances as Juba, Maximus’ confidant in captivity. Another fun performance comes from Ralf Moeller as Hagan. Moeller is a giant among the gladiators and followed Maximus with steadfast obedience once the General has proven himself in battle. These two are important as they are able to convey Maximus’ charisma and leadership through actions. Both these characters and others end up being willing to die for his cause.
Lastly, the film is given legitimacy by adding old pros to the cast. Richard Harris and Oliver Reed both give some of the best performances of their careers. Harris is able to squeeze out every moment of remorse and humility out of his performance as Marcus Aurelius. You can tell this is a man who is ashamed of his warlike past and wants to make things right with his family and his Empire before he goes. Oliver Reed’s Proximo is a great character for the actor and also his last. Proximo is at first reprehensible and yet makes a very believable 180 in favor of Maximus. Proximo is a wonderful character as Reed was able to make him quite lovable, despite his self-serving philosophy on life and death.
While on the subject of Proximo, this is a good segway into another one of Gladiator’s great accomplishments. The Historical Epic up until this point was a decidedly “old school” type of genre. For instance, Braveheart and Last of the Mohicans both use a minimum of visual effects in favor of more physical effects that have been used in the genre since the beginning. Gladiator was a turning point in the genre in the fact that it used a heavy amount of CGI for its shots. A prime example of the new style of film making used in the production of Gladiator has to do with Proximo’s final scenes.
Oliver Reed actually died before the end of production with his final scenes yet to be filmed. This posed quite a problem for filmmakers as a double would be noticed immediately. The remedy came with Reed being inserted digitally into the picture and his last scenes finished from behind with a double. Another instance would be the recreation of the Coliseum of Rome. The budget for the film had already reached $100 million and a full reconstruction of the site would have killed any executive that happened to look at the bill for the picture’s production. What filmmakers came up with was to have the Coliseum half way built and to have the rest of the structure actually put into the film with CGI. The sequence is seamless and as majestic as it should be.
Few filmmakers make comebacks like Ridley Scott did with this Roman Epic. After his early initial success with The Duelists and having a huge hit in Alien, Scott was primed to take his place among cinema’s finest directors. Unfortunately, due to interference from studio heads and an audience that was not ready to understand it, Scott’s great film, Bladerunner was a huge bomb in theaters. This trend continued with other setbacks and box-office failure such as Black Rain and 1492: Conquest of Paradise. Indeed, when Gladiator came up in front of studio heads, they must have been hesitant. They were asked to finance a $100 million movie, in a genre that died in the 1960’s, with a star that had yet to have a blockbuster and a Director that hadn’t had a hit since 1979. What they ended up with was a Best Picture winner and the re emergence of a genre.
Scott and Crowe have since set the cinematic world on fire with various films and roles that have captivated audiences. Both need to thank their lucky stars that Gladiator fell into their lap when it did, as Scott has now been able to rejuvenate his career and Crowe is one of the most sought after film stars in the world. Fans of the Epic are lucky too. Because of Gladiator’s, success those of us that love The Last Samurai and Master and Commander have been able to savor the entertainment that has flowed into theaters and left us satisfied.
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