Reviewed by: Emmett W. Elliott
2 hr. 45 min.
Year of Release:
Director Ridley Scott, who also directed the sci-fi cult movies “Alien” and “Blade Runner”, does not resort to sexual titillation in “Gladiator”. The film only hints that deviant sexual behavior may have taken place when Lucilla (Connie Nelson) must endure the incestuous advances of her own brother Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix). Instead of the usual Hollywood dosage of bare skin on screen, Scott exploits violence. In short, “Gladiator” is a gory computer-generated special effects blockbuster.
“Gladiator” begins in 180 A.D. with General Maximus (Russell Crowe) about to vanquish the last threatening barbaric horde. Scott engages the moviegoer with a grand opening battle scene reminiscent of “Saving Private Ryan.” The ensuing bloodbath contains close-ups of clashing metal, blood, beheadings, and dismembered body parts much like sequences seen in “Braveheart.”
The hero of the movie, Maximus, is comparable to William Wallace who announced in “Braveheart”, “I came home to raise crops, and God willing, a family. If I can live in peace, I will.” Likewise, General Maximus yearns to return to his Spanish farmland and reunite with his wife and son; however, the Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) has another plan for his beloved general.
Jealousy overpowers the morally flawed Commodus when he discovers that his father, ruling the empire as an expansionist dictator, favors Maximus to protect Rome until the Senate assumes enough power for Rome to govern as a Republic once again. Reminiscent of the first murder ever recorded, a jealous Cain slew Abel in Genesis 4:8, Commodus asphyxiates his father to become the new emperor. Subsequently, Emperor Commodus orders the execution of Maximus and his family.
Unbeknownst to Commodus, Maximus survives his execution only to be enslaved by his saviors. He is purchased as a slave by Proximo (Oliver Reed) and forced to entertain the people (“the mob”) as a deadly gladiator. Maximus unites with Juba (Djimon Hounsou) and Hagen (former Mr. Universe Ralph Moeller) as fellow gladiators. Maximus quickly displays his superior skills as a warrior to emerge as a champion among the gladiators. The mob coins him “The Spaniard” and at times is even silenced by his unique talent as a killer of men.
Meanwhile in Rome, Commodus refuses to listen to the advice from the Senate. Instead of dealing with important domestic issues, Commodus chooses to focus his visionless political agenda on maintaining happiness among the mob by reopening the barbaric gladiator games in the spectacular Roman Coliseum. To Commodus, it does not matter how he governs as long as his poll ratings are high as best sampled during the games. This governing policy lasts until Proximo brings his band of gladiators to Rome where Maximus quickly wins the crowd over. To make matters increasingly difficult for the emperor, Maximus openly defies the emperor after each victory. Once again, fancy abandons Commodus for Maximus. The plot thickens leading to the eventual main event between the jealous Commodus and the mob’s newfound hero, Maximus.
Unfortunately, Scott was careful enough to censor any mention of Christianity (at least the theater/video version… the DVD release reportedly does have a powerful and prayerful scene where Maximus watches as Christians are fed to the lions). Maximus hopes to reunite with his family in the afterlife, but what kind of afterlife? In a time when Christianity was sweeping across Rome, I wished that our gladiator had been a converted Christian.
The performances are uniformly good, but most moviegoers will select this film for the action sequences and special effects seen briefly in the trailers. The computer-generated graphics enhance the action sequences and recreate a glorious Roman world albeit void of Christianity. Due to this major oversight, “Gladiator” falls short of classic and offers new meaning to the movie’s tagline: “A hero will rise.”