Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Gladiator
USA 2000, dir. Ridley Scott, stars Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen
In many ways Gladiator is as slam-bang direct as its title and its hero, Roman general Maximus (Crowe). The story straightforward – Maximus leads a successful northern sortie against the German hordes, while ageing Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) looks on approvingly. So approvingly, in fact, that he confidentially informs Maximus that he intends to name him as his successor – a development which does not go down well at all with his son and supposed heir, the neurotic Commodus (Phoenix). So Commodus snuffs the old man, orders Maximus to be executed and returns to Rome to rule in glory with his sister Lucilla (Nielsen) by his side – or even closer, if Commodus has anything to do with it.
But Maximus eludes his captors and gallops back home to Spain, where he finds his wife and son have been murdered by the Roman legions. Griefstricken, he ends up being sold into slavery and trained as a gladiator by Proximo (Oliver Reed). This eventually leads him to Rome and a final confrontation with Commodus, whose anti-democratic plans have set the Senate, headed by Gracchus (Derek Jacobi), all a-quiver.
Gladiator is an old-fashioned sort of film in more ways than one, and although 21st-century computer graphics enable Scott to recreate ancient Rome in greater detail than ever before attempted on film – the Coliseum really is a marvel to behold – he otherwise keeps things as simple as possible without quite passing over into simple-mindedness. This is an enjoyable, crowd-pleasing piece of entertainment, but it’s by no means brainless. The presence of the likes of Jacobi (a nifty if dangerous piece of casting, given that he’s so closely associated with a very different take on ancient Rome, the BBC’s 1970s classic I Claudius), Reed, Harris and (an unrecognisable) David Hemmings – lend proceedings a convincing patina of Shakespearian respectability, even if the script falls some way short of the level they and we may ideally have been hoping for.
The main problem with Gladiator is that it’s about 20 or 30 minutes too long. Also, the opening sequence, with Ridley Scott over-directing as if his life depended on it, is a blatant rip-off of Saving Private Ryan, right down to the varied shutter speeds to convey the intensity of battle. After that, Scott thankfully settles down and handles the remainder of the film pretty much spot on. The film isn’t easy to criticise – instead I’ll offer a few brief observations…
Before watching Gladiator on the big screen – and I’d recommend seeking out the biggest screen in your area, rather than settling for the nearest pokey multiplex coop – go and rent John McTiernan’s 1998 flop The Thirteenth Warrior. Warrior, which has all the makings of a future cult movie, is a bit like the upstart kid brother of Gladiator. Production problems resulted in the final version being a bit of a mess, but Warrior – which has Antonio Banderas as an Arabian scholar falling in with a bunch of rampaging Vikings – has an efficient brevity, plus a bit of a sense of humour, which Gladiator sorely lacks. Gladiator is undoubtedly the more impressive film, but with a little more 13th Warrior about it, it could well have been the kind of classic some of the reviews have been so eager to hail.
Russell Crowe took over the part of Maximus after Mel Gibson turned it down on the grounds he was too old. Crowe is much the better actor of the two, but I have my doubts as to whether he’ll ever be anything like as big a star as his compatriot. Crowe’s four main roles to date – Hando in Romper Stomper, Bud White in LA Confidential, Jeff Wigand in The Insider and Maximus here – all demonstrate his talent, his versatility – and his chronic humourlessness. While Crowe’s success disproves those critics who said that Lee Marvin was the last actor who could be tough without having to be ironic about it, his range will always be lacking until he can convincingly bring to life a character who isn’t quite so glum and grim.
- Crowe may turn for inspiration to his co-star, Oliver Reed, who died during production of this film and whose scenes were completed with the aid of computer-generated imagery – all too obviously, in one or two shots including his final appearance. Reed is, in fact, the best reason to see Gladiator. With his blue eyes burning out of a darkly tanned face, framed by a black djellaba, it’s almost unbearably moving to see him bring it all together one last time, turning the role of Proximo – himself a former gladiator, now a trainer of future champs – into a self-mocking, self-aware commentary on Reed’s whole career, attitude and life. A posthumous Oscar would be a token of recompense towards an actor whose enormous abilities were too often overshadowed by his shamelessly colourful off-screen exploits. He will be missed.
- Let’s hear it for the underdog… or not, as the case may be. While it’s absurd to criticise the recreation of ancient Rome as “something Albert Speer might have approved of for Berlin” – Speer would no doubt have been strongly influenced by Roman architecture, rather than the other way around – there is something more than a little disturbing about the way we are expected to cheer on Maximus even when it’s clear he’s much more skilled and deadly than any of his opponents, either on the battlefield or in the gladiatorial arena. The first scene of the film shows a raggle-taggle mob of German tribesmen who clearly have no chance against the military machine of the Roman legions, just as Maximus’s victims offer very little resistance to our ‘hero.’ You end up feeling rather sorry for Commodus, who has the deck stacked against him at every turn, from his lavatorial-sounding name upwards. And this is surely not what the scriptwriters, who are careful to paint the false Emperor as a snivelling wretch with no redeeming features, had in mind. It’s rather like Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich – anybody who sides with the hero/heroine is OK, anybody who opposes him/her is a fool, or worse.
Gladiator is doing extremely well at the box office all over the world, and it has been made with such elaborate care and attention, at pretty much every level, that it’s very hard to begrudge it any of its enormous success. It’s also received many five-star raves from serious critics who generally don’t get over-excited about action-type movies, but I must admit, I’m still not convinced that Ridley Scott is anything other than a second or third rank director. Gladiator is, for me, a good example of how his tendency to overdo things, especially the visuals, can be counter-productive. It’s not that I didn’t like or enjoy his movie, or that I wouldn’t recommend it to anybody who asked… it’s just that I basically can’t imagine ever wanting to sit through it again.
by Neil Young