MOTW: "Gladiator": A Historical Epic Crafted for the Modern Audience

Photo Credit: DreamWorks Distribution
February 25th, 2013

"Gladiator": a Historical Epic Crafted for the Modern Audience


Why is the "Gladiator" such a popular movie? Historical epics often fail to generate interest amongst the younger audience. At the same time, action movies involving bloody battles and brutal face-to-face combat do not appeal to those who prefer movies that focus on the sensitive aspects of the human nature. Yet somehow, this action-drama historical epic has managed to win universal appeal. 


"Gladiator" was the first big Roman epic in close to forty years. After such a long time, the audience was more than eager to take a look at the genre again. The concept seemed familiar enough for those who had watched such movies in the 50s and 60s but was a novel experience for an entire new generation of moviegoers. 


Ridley Scott deserves a lot of praise for not forgetting that even historical epics need a strong plot. Maximus (Russell Crowe), a brave general, is sought out by an aged Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) to help him to hand over power to the Senate and the citizens. The Emperor's ambitious son, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), murders his own father and accuses the general of treachery. Maximus escapes but loses his family. Seeking revenge, he becomes an ordinary gladiator. His fearlessness inspires awe, and he finds himself once again in Rome, where he wins over the masses, confronts the new Emperor, and has his revenge. In the process, he also restores power to the people of Rome. What is there not to like in such a plot?


There was a time when movies were bound by practical and technological limitations. Such limitations no longer exist today. If it can be imagined, it probably can be portrayed on the big screen. Directors who wanted to recreate the Colosseum in its full glory and grandeur in the past probably found it to be impossible or financially prohibitive. "Gladiator" made use of CGI techniques to recreate ancient Rome's monuments in the most realistic manner possible. The use of CGI combined with extra attention to costumes, mannerisms, language, and culture ensured that the audience was effectively really transported to ancient Rome.   


Despite its shades of romance, political ideas, palace intrigues, and drama, there is no denying "Gladiator" is an action movie. The prospect of watching men battling other men and animals in arenas specially designed for this purpose is one of the most interesting aspects of this movie. 


The director portrayed brutal and vicious bouts without going overboard. He avoided converting the movie into a mindless and senseless bloodbath. The volley of fire-tipped arrows covering the horizon showcased the might of the Roman army and the ruthlessness with which the Germanic tribes were vanquished. However, we also see a bunch of slaves fight alongside Maximus in the Colosseum and survive, despite the immense force available at the disposal of the Roman Empire. Well-crafted action sequences help highlight how friendship and hope survive even when a gladiator is facing certain death in the arena. This raises the movie to a completely different level.       


The movie, although dominated by Maximus' desire to avenge his family's death, is not about revenge alone. The movie effectively positions the final battle between Maximus and Commodus in the Colosseum as one between democratic ideals and autocratic dictatorship. The subtle blending of political ideals ensures that the movie is not just about personal vengeance and the desire of one man to kill another man who has wronged him.  


"Gladiator" caters to our innate desire for redemption. A hero-general becomes a slave. The slave ends up as a gladiator. The gladiator frees his country from the clutches of a despot and becomes a real hero. The emotional lure of such a redemptive tale is undeniable. 


Finally, the performance of the cast sets "Gladiator" apart from many other movies. Russell Crowe portrays the intensity and suppressed rage of a wronged man with perfection. Joaquin Phoenix is eerily effective in his portrayal as the weak and insecure heir. His incestuous advances towards his sister, Lucilla (Connie Nielsen), make it very easy for the audience to detest him. 


Connie Nielsen is very good as the graceful princess and gains sympathy as a caring mother and as someone who once loved General Maximus. Oliver Reed plays the character of Proximo, a slave who was freed by the Emperor after winning his bout on the grounds of the Colosseum itself. He is instrumental in helping Maximus understand what the audience wants to see and helps him seek his revenge and free Rome. Richard Harris is at his graceful best as the Emperor.


Not surprisingly, "Gladiator," which was released in 2000, is now accepted as the modern benchmark against which all future historical epics will be judged.