Directed By: Ridley Scott
Starring: Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen
Tag line: "A general who became a slave. A slave who became a gladiator. A gladiator who defied an emperor."
Trivia: Antonio Banderas was also considered for the role of Maximus
The Roman Empire was one of the greatest civilizations the world has ever known, yet its foundation was stained with the blood of millions. As its detractors have pointed out, Ridley Scott's Gladiator is both dark and vicious, yet no film about Imperial Rome would have been accurate were it not so.
It’s the height of the Empire, and General Maximus (Russell Crowe) is the most popular military leader in the Roman army. The Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) looks upon Maximus as a son, and has chosen him to be his successor. When the Emperor’s actual son, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), learns of his father’s plans for the succession, he murders his father and sentences Maximus to death. Maximus escapes, yet arrives too late to save his wife and child, who were also condemned by the new Emperor. His spirit shattered, Maximus is taken captive by a passing slave trader and sold to Proximo (Oliver Reed), who operates a gladiator training facility. A skilled swordsman, Maximus quickly becomes the most powerful gladiator in all of Rome, yet his triumphs in the arena are fueled not by a lust for glory, but a desire to exact revenge on the man who destroyed his former life.
In speaking of the look of the film, Production Designer Arthur Max said, “We tried to bring to Gladiator a sense of the grandeur of the Roman Empire, and at the same time its corruption and its decay”. As a result, Gladiator is simultaneously brutal and beautiful, awe-inspiring in its magnificence, yet repulsive in its execution. The city of Rome, awash in brilliantly polished marble, houses artistic and architectural wonders the likes of which the world has not seen since. The recreation of the splendor of Rome, its statues, temples, and the ever-impressive Coliseum, is amazing. Yet before Gladiator reveals the spectacle, we experience the violence that defined this era of history. The opening scene, a battle between Maximus’ highly trained legions and a barbarian Germanic tribe, takes place amidst the muck and filth, with limbs and heads scattered everywhere. The Roman Empire was a civilization of extremes, and Gladiator weaves them together superbly.
While Gladiator is primarily fiction, it's story was at least partially based on fact, including the tale of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius and his son and eventual successor, Commodus. History tells us the real Commodus ascended to the Imperial throne in 180 A.D. at the very young age of 18. Throughout his twelve-year reign, Commodus saw several attempts on his life, one of which was initiated by his sister, Lucilla, whom he promptly had executed. Towards the end of his dozen years as Emperor, Commodus started to think himself a God, and ordered statues built that placed his head on the body of Hercules. He further shocked the Senate and aristocracy of Rome by personally taking part in Gladiator contests. Dressed as Hercules, Commodus would slaughter exotic animals, then stroll around the arena with their severed heads, taunting the Senators seated nearby with promises they would be the next to suffer such a fate. He was assassinated on Dec. 31, 192 A.D., first by poison and then, when he vomited that up in the night, by strangulation. Buried immediately in secret, an angry Senate called for Commodus’ body to be exhumed, tied to a chariot and dragged through the streets as if he were a common criminal.
Gladiator is certainly grisly, but look at the history it recreates. Far from being an over-the-top depiction of violence, I’d say Scott and his crew just about nailed it.