TM & © 2000 Dreamworks LLC & Universal Pictures
Photo: Jaap Buitendijk

From the moment the smoke drifts around the majestic letters of the title, through the shining moon hovering above the landscape, and into the battle proper, we sense, seated in the dark of the cinematic arena, that we are about to see an epic film of epic proportions. What confronts us for the following 2 1/2 hours is beyond our wildest expectations: a truly (excuse the redundancy) epic film, the likes of which has not been seen on the screen for forty years and which surpasses the memorable premieres of DeMille's "Ben Hur" and even Kubrick's "Spartacus". Ridley Scott, a well-proven master of the big screen, surpasses even himself with this new offering. A ritualistic myth and a tale of martyrdom that will capture everyone in its steadfast grip, Gladiator breaks new ground in the genre it so magically and majestically represents.

The story is built in three giant episodes in accordance with the experiences of a Roman general's life. Each part is immense in scope and could easily be considered an entire life story, yet they are bridged together to present a magnificent tale of heroism and righteousness. Visually stunning and crammed with excitement, the story itself (scriptwriters: David Franzoni, John Logan, and William Nicholson from a story by Franzoni) manages to mesmerize the audience and relentlessly ensnare them. Although what follows may seem to be an extensive plot analysis, never fear. There is so much material in every shot and glance, that this summary will nowhere near reveal too much of the story or disturb your enjoyment of the film. This movie is, above all, a visual experience not to be missed.

After the last battle with Germania in 185 B.C., the Roman Empire hopes, at last, to reach a moment of serene peace by completing its unity. (Let's face it, the Romans may often have been inhumane, but the Germanians were downright barbarians.) As General Maximus Glutius Meridius (Russell Crowe) rides between his praetorians anxiously awaiting a reply from the opposing force, his men, with the immense respect he obviously deserves, acknowledge him. As his co-combatant Quintus, also impatient with the prolonged delay in the Germanian's response, comments, "People should know when they're conquered," Maximus answers with the simple statement, "Would you, Quintus? Would I?" When the messenger returns after 2 hours, it becomes clear that a confrontation will ensue. The general announces, "At my signal, unleash Hell" as he rides forward accompanied by his fighting hound. Addressing his soldiers before battle with hopes of conquest and simultaneously encouraging them their private thoughts of both longed-for distant homes as well as reminding them of the potential destiny of heaven, he tells them that "What we do in life echoes in eternity."

The battle that follows is comparable in force to the renowned first half hour of Saving Private Ryan inasmuch as it recreates the horrors of warfare, albeit in another timescape. There is even a moment, in the speed of combat, when the general, unintentionally, almost strikes down his associate Quintus, but, staying his hand in time, winds up instead casting a smile of rapid recognition toward him before continuing onward with the fight. As the black ashes of the burning forest, catapulted with balls of fire, float down around them, they fight on until they conquer the rapidly diminishing opposition. With the spoils of war, in the form of fallen men and bloodied earth, surrounding them, Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris), the reigning Caesar, quietly says, "You have proved our valor once again, Maximus." Such attributes of bravery are sorely lacking in Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), the Caesar's son, who arrives too late upon the scene with his sister Lucilla. He approaches his father and asks, "Have I missed the battle?" to which he receives the response, "You have missed the war." The ashes are still falling around them, but they have grown gray and white now.

TM & © 2000 Dreamworks LLC & Universal Pictures
Photo: Jaap Buitendijk

With the battle past and the men washing the blood from their hands, Lucilla (Connie Nielsen) stands behind a curtain in a tent watching Maximus as Marcus Aurelius enters. Endlessly fascinated by his daughter's abilities to maneuver, manipulate, and charm, he amusedly says, "If only you had been born a man, what a Caesar you would have made. You would have been strong. I wonder, would you have been just?" The bond between father and daughter is a solid one, though it might have lost the love and affection that could have existed between them had circumstances been different. They can only pretend to act toward each other as a loving daughter and a good father.

Maximus, in the meantime, has many thoughts troubling his mind. 5,000 of his men have been wounded, of which 2,000 will, most likely, not survive. For years he has fought against a world that is cruel and dark and within which "Rome is the light." He longs to return home to his wife and son in a pastoral surrounding of pink shores, through the gate, past the giant poplars and into the land of apple, pear and olive trees. He hopes that, after 2 years and 264 days of fighting, Caesar will now release him so that he might return there. Caesar, however, also has a troubled mind, and, knowing that his death is imminent, wishes Maximus to follow him as ruler of the Empire. With this unexpected thought, Maximus spends the night pondering the request and his difficult choice, realizing that his responsibility lies with Rome before himself. His final decision, however, is never to be announced.

When Marcus Aurelius tells Commodus that he is not to become ruler, the son's world collapses around him. In torment, he tells his father that he is aware that he never possessed such qualities as patience, fortitude, and temperance, but proudly states that he does possess ambition, resourcefulness, courage (though not of the kind necessary for the battlefield), and devotion. In immense pain, he tearfully proclaims "None of my virtues were on your list" before taking his personal revenge.

At this point, Germanicus finds himself overwhelmed by a vicious turn of fortune that has disastrous results both for him and his family. Destined to die by order of the new Caesar Commodus, Maximus manages to escape before collapsing from his wounds and is retrieved by a travelling group of bandits who are taking slaves to be sold on the marketplace. Watched over during this strange journey by the compassionate black slave Juba (Djimon Hounsou), the barely conscious ex-general is told to stay alive and avoid being fed to the lions that are worth more than the humans are. Once reaching the Roman province Zucchabar, he is into the hands of Proximo (Oliver Reed), a coarse and avaricious fellow who encourages his men to die as men before he sends them to fight in the arena. Originally prepared to die because he no longer has anything left to live for, Maximus finds sufficient wisdom hidden in this greedy man's words, coupled with his own personal desire for revenge, to decide to fight for his life. In this, he will succeed again and again. As he is told by a fellow gladiator, "The gods favor you. Red is the gods' color. You will need them today." A carousel shot recreates the feeling that Proximo has earlier described when praise is hurled by the masses toward the victor. Maximus knows, as a great man once told him, that "Death smiles at us all. All a man can do is smile back."

As Commodus enters Rome, rose petals fall through the sky (reminding one of the earlier ashes falling on the field of battle). After arrival, he has an abrupt confrontation with Gracchus (Derek Jacobi), a republican member of the Senate, which approaches flashpoint when Lucilla suddenly intervenes and saves the day. Gracchus, aware of this woman's subtle powers, replies, "As usual, your slightest touch commands obedience." Commodus is not interested in a republic; he is interested in power. He decides to organize 150 days of gladiatorial games in honor of his deceased father. Gracchus, who is wise enough to view the reason for this action otherwise, knows that the beast of Rome is present in the arena rather than in the senate, and says, "He will bring them death and they will love him for it." As is his wont, this statesman never pretends to be a man of the people, but is always prepared to be a man for the people.

This is the portrait with which we are confronted when the actual games begin.

TM & © 2000 Dreamworks LLC & Universal Pictures
Photo: Jaap Buitendijk

"We are all dead men. We can decide how we reach that end, so that we are all remembered as men," Proximo proclaims. While some men piss themselves in fear of the outcome in the arena, others band together under the direction of Maximus, now referred to as "The Spaniard" and manage to overcome what repeatedly seems to be impending death ("We who are about to die, salute you"). Before one encounter, a gladiator calls out that he served under Maximus at Vendebarr, and soon the other gladiators follow suit in joining the general's directives when he says, "Whatever waits for us behind those doors, we have a better chance of survival if we stick together." This man of stature not only leads the opposition for the reenactment of the battle at Carthage, but rewrites history as he does so. His abilities on the battlefield now save his life in the Roman games. When he first conquers the field, he cries to the hoards in the stands, "Are you not entertained? Are you not entertained? Is that not why you are here?" The crowd screams out his name again and again: "Spaniard! Spaniard! Spaniard! Spaniard!"

Emperor Commodus wishes to meet this masked Spaniard, a seemingly indestructible warrior, and, upon their meeting, asks his name. To this he receives the response, "My name is Gladiator." As turns his back and begins to walk away, the Emperor grows angry and demands that he removes his helmet and tells his name. Maximus does both and the confrontation begins that will lead to the end of the tale.

The odd circumstances of fate that have thrown these two men together again build even further in tension and excitement throughout the film.

"Win the crowd and you'll win your freedom," Proximo tells Maximus. Though their bond grows, Proximo does not yet fully appreciate either the gladiator or his abilities. In earlier days, he was once a gladiator who killed swiftly and made the crowd love him. He believes that this can also be the destiny of Maximus. Realizing that he himself is a mere entertainer, Proximo begins to comprehend, as time goes on, that the general is a man of his word who is prepared to die for Rome. A man of valor whose honor shines bright, he repeatedly becomes an image of hope to many and his ancient call to battle rings out loud and clear, "Strength and honor."

A deeper understanding toward each other is shared between the general and Juba, who misses his wife and family equally as much as Maximus does. They both believe, in their separate pagan ways, that they shall meet their families again in the future (", but not yet"). In an old world, where beliefs have ancient roots, idols and rituals have a different impact and importance for the citizens. Maximus always carries clay representations of his family with him for use in prayer. Whenever an ordeal begins, Maximus always takes a handful of earth to feel and smell. Each time it seems a bond with nature and earth as well as a remembrance that the next battle could be the last, whether taking place on the battlefield or in the arena. His is a strange world, oddly familiar to us.

TM & © 2000 Dreamworks LLC & Universal Pictures
Photo: Jaap Buitendijk
In a parallel world, where many manipulate and remain hidden in the background, Commodus frequently appears in half-shadow. "Still afraid of the dark, brother?" Lucilla asks him. He replies, "Still. Always." Even Proximo, with his base activities, is aware that he exists in a nether world and reflects, more than once, that "We mortals are but shadows and dust."

Dreamworks may have faltered with some early productions, but "American Beauty" and "Gladiator" announce what one may hope will be the beginning of an endless succession of masterful films appearing through this studio's doors. Universal, of course, has a reputation of long standing and the union of these two production companies almost seems like a gift from the gods itself.

All of the performances are superb. Rather than elaborate about the unforgettable performances of the actors (i.e. all the actors), let us simply present a short list of starring names: Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen, Oliver Reed, Derek Jacobi, Djimon Hounsou, Richard Harris, David Schofield, and John Shrapnel.

Naturally, a Roman epic on this scale calls for assistance of equal magnitude. So here goes. To give an inkling of what was necessary to create the visual delight, let's take a look at those who helped prepare the feast:

TM & © 2000 Dreamworks LLC & Universal Pictures
Photo: Jaap Buitendijk

Stunt coordinator Phil Neilson choreographed the numerous fight scenes. Fight master Nicholas Powell choreographed the spectacular sword fights, which means that he not only worked closely with the actors and stuntmen, but also had to coordinate the 1,000 extras present in the memorable opening battle sequence. The close sword fighting utilized in this film meant endless hours of intricate staging and rehearsal in order to achieve director Scott's desired effects as well as ensuring literally that no one would lose their head. Precision was the word of the day. The location of this opening scene was, in reality, a forest called Bourne Woods near Farnham, England which had been scheduled for deforestation. Scott, an amiable man, was glad to tell the British Forestry Commission, "I'll do it for you. I'll burn it down." And so he did, with the help of FX supervisor Neil Corbould's 16,000 flaming arrows and numerous catapulted fiery clay pots.

To continue: Supervising armourer Simon Atherton and his team designed and built more than 25,000 weapons for the opening scene including broadswords, axes, spears, and crossbows. He also assisted costume designer Janty Yates with the armour and helmets. Yates used the work of artists Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema and George de La Tour as inspiration for the look of the costumes formed from softer materials. (Connie Nielsen is a real treat in her hand-embroidered silk gowns with shimmering gold threads woven throughout. And doesn't Joaquin look super-sinister in his dark blue duds?) Director Scott also admits, "We leaned very heavily on these artists, not only for the costumes, but interior designs as well." (The stunning work of production designer Arthur Max was responsible for the breathtaking surroundings present throughout the epic.) As with every aspect of this film, the logistics were myriad. Yates and her crew, for example, had to fashion 10,000 costumes in all. As one example of the required dressing, she cites that every piece of Russell Crowe's armour (i.e. foam covered in leather) had to be duplicated 12 times over in various stages of wear. "There were different versions of each costume as scenes progressed: cleanà dirtyà tornà bloodyà You get the picture."

Cinematographer John Mathieson used a camera mounted on a steel latticework frame fashioned to the contour of the hills for the opening sequence in order to capture the galloping horses and the steeply graded landscape as well as the burning trees. (DP Mathieson's work throughout the film is superb and overwhelming. And, of course, editor Pietro Scalia deserves immense praise for the striking visceral effect his work has upon the audience.)

And that's only openers.

Chief animal trainer Paul Reynolds and animal trainer Thierry Le Portier were in charge of the tigers that, although raised in captivity, could sometimes be as unpredictable as cats at play. These men had to make sure that their pets didn't toy with the actors too much in any unexpected ways. Inevitably, there were moments when the four cameramen (for these shots) would suddenly disappear if the tigers took any unexpectedly rapid leaps in their direction.

Visual effects supervisor John Nelson and special FX supervisor Neil Courbould create a world in which we see things that are there as well as things that aren't there with an optimum of enjoyment. (Take, for example, that fantastic arena)

Scott explains his approach by explaining, "I felt the priority was to stay true to the spirit of the period, but not necessarily to adhere to facts. We were, after all, creating fiction, not practicing archeology." He also extends his appreciation toward those who assisted in this creation: "I had the best department heads -- people who had been there, seen it, done it or researched it. I knew I could rely on their artistry to craft the world in which our story unfolds, and they did an extraordinary job. You can almost smell the arena and feel the atmosphere of the city."

The screen becomes a canvas filled with voluptuous images and beautiful faces while director Scott never distracts us from the central story. Each person and location (four crews: one mobile, three located in London, Malta, and Morocco) is an integral part of the whole and the story is told, as a film should be, not only using the spoken text but, more importantly, using a highly intelligent and subtle visual text.

TM & © 2000 Dreamworks LLC & Universal Pictures
Photo: Jaap Buitendijk

There are endless unspoken things going on within this film. Maximus, an intelligent man, is obviously also a politician in his own way. Many things are not said directly, not least of all because there always seem to be extra ears listening (both in the sunlight and the shadows of the Roman Empire). One rare moment when Maximus bursts out of his usual stable hawk-like demeanor is when he laughs in Proximo's face and says, incredulously, "You knew Marcus Aurelius." To this, Proximo answers, "I didn't say I knew him. I said he touched me with his sword." Oddly enough, it is within this scene that a parallel between the two men is unexpectedly drawn that becomes clearer at later moments. Maximus' last comment to Proximo is "Don't tell me you're in danger of becoming a good man, Proximo." Then the lines drawn between them are completed. However, the unspoken thoughts of Maximus are often equally as moving as his measured statements. There are deliberate obscurities throughout the script that enrich the story rather than hinder it. Take note of him saying "Father" over the deceased remains of Marcus Aurelius as well as his avid interest in Lucilla's son, Lucius. True, Maximus has lost a son of similar age to Lucius, but his tenderness toward the boy extends beyond friendly sympathy. His relationship with Lucilla is never fully explained and there exists not only the possibility that Lucius could be his own son, but that Lucilla might have left him because his station in life was too far beneath hers to permit consideration as a suitable mate. To examine potential situations even further, it might even be possible that Maximus, in an extreme interpretation, is the bastard son of Marcus Aurelius and, therefore, the illegitimate brother of both Lucilla and Commodus. The possibility of a brother having intercourse with his sister in the days of Rome's decay was not unthinkable (one need merely reflect upon Commodus' lecherous desires), but this sort of link between Lucilla and Maximus seems most unlikely and therefore unworthy of pondering further. Remember, after all, Lucilla has always been attracted to Maximus and still remains desirous of his advances, whereas those of Commodus repulse her.

As Commodus reflects, so will we all: "The general who became a slave. The slave who became a gladiator. The gladiator who defied an empire. A striking story. And so people will want to know how the story ends. Only a glorious end will do."


Thanks, Ridley. For everything.

© 1994-2006 The Green Hartnett