The fourth entry in my List Of Shame takes us back to the glory days of Rome!
Screenplay By: David Franzoni, John Logan, & William Nicholson
Directed By: Ridley Scott
The story found in Gladiator is not a complex one, even if it has aspirations of being complex. There is a stretch in the film, following the battle against Germania up until right after Maximus has become a slave that is very clunky, exposition ridden and self-important. It’s a good thing the film mostly abandons that style and those aspirations after Maximus becomes a slave because the film Ridley Scott was setting up in those scenes was not a film I would have enjoyed. There are call backs to those earlier scenes, but they are handled much better and don’t feel shoehorned into the movie like every conversation Maximus has during the timer period in question. Gladiator isn’t a film that needs to think of itself as important, and for two hours and ten minutes of its run time it doesn’t do this. There are, sadly, twenty five minutes where the film thinks it is complex and that it is important and those minutes drag the film down somewhat.
I said the film is dragged down somewhat in the aforementioned twenty five minutes, but the film quickly moves ahead and delivers a very good old fashioned blood and guts epic. I’m not sure what the politics of the film are, I’m still not convinced the film itself knows what its politics are. To be honest its stance on the people versus totalitarian rule is so shallow that Gladiator never actually takes a stance. I viewed all of the politics and the maneuvering as window dressing to appease those who felt the film needed to be about more than simple revenge. Truth be told, Gladiator is a simple revenge tale, but it is a simple revenge tale done right. We don’t learn a whole lot about Maximus, but we learn enough so that he becomes a character we can root for as he attempts to gain his revenge. This is a common trope of the revenge tale, I’m convinced that Mr. Scott knew that his film was nothing more than a revenge tale and that’s why as it moved along he stripped away layer after layer of window dressing until all that was left was good versus evil with no gray to be found anywhere.
As Maximus progresses towards his goal of revenge a few key things happen in the film,
Firstly, Russell Crowe delivers a fine performance as the man out for revenge. I know some people that deride his performance in this film as one note, but in reality he is supposed to be a one note character. He’s driven by his need for revenge and nothing more, that’s why all of the political inklings of the film are mere window dressings, he views them as nothing more than a tool to get his revenge. Mr. Crowe is resolute in his performance, he is strong when he needs to be, vulnerable when the moment calls for it, and vicious when need be. He has delivered better performances, but Mr. Crowe’s performance in Gladiator need not be derided, he knew what type of movie was being produced ad he inhabited the role thunderously.
Secondly, Mr. Scott uses a combination of impressive CG, wide open visuals, wonderful set design, and an engaging score to propel his tale of revenge. I can’t recall a second in Gladiator where I thought to myself, “There’s something odd about the CG,” but more to the point I had a hard time recognizing the CG from the real landscapes and vistas. Speaking of vistas, I’ve never thought of Mr. Scott as a director with a wide open eye. Most of his films, from Blade Runner to Black Hawk Down, are closed off and take place in tiny worlds. Gladiator is huge, with sweeping camera movements and a gloriously reveled in large scope that gives the film a true epic feel. Gladiator also looks like Rome should look, historical inaccuracies be damned, I loved the craft that was displayed in the set and costume design. Finally, Hans Zimmer has quickly won me over as a composer. Gladiator is yet another film where his score moves in step with the film, it’s not overpowering nor is it too meek. Mr. Zimmer’s score provided a strong backbone to the film but never takes on more than it can chew or allows the film to fall on its face.
Gladiator isn’t an all time great, but it is a great picture. It’s a revenge tale done big and that may be the greatest trick Ridley Scott has pulled off. When the movie ends and characters are talking of the glory and vision of Rome the audience has two choices to make. Either they accept what the characters are saying at face value, consequently not getting much out of the picture. Or they remember what they have seen all movie long and realize the glory and vision of Rome matters naught. Even at the end the focus of the film is on one man’s journey to gain revenge, there’s no glory or vision to be found in his journey, just a blood lust for revenge. I walked away from the ending with that line of thinking in my head, I walked away from Gladiator appreciating the film a lot more than I would have with any other reading.