Bread and circuses 2000
The plot of the film is pretty much wrapped up in DreamWorks’ “General… slave… gladiator…” taglines, and can roughly be divided into these three acts. In the first, we’re introduced to Roman General Maximus (Russell Crowe), a Spanish outsider who has never seen Rome, but nevertheless has risen to be a favorite of Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) through his personal virtues and many years of loyal service expanding the empire.
This doesn’t sit so well with Marcus’ evil son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), who is jealous of the affection given the worthy Maximus. So it’s no surprise that when Commodus murders his father and seizes power that his first act is to have Maximus (who was to return supreme power to the senate) arrested and taken away for execution. Maximus escapes (covering his tracks so he’s thought dead), but is unable to save his family.
The exhausted and wounded warrior is easily captured by slavers, who sell him to Proximo (Oliver Reed), a trainer of gladiators. Though the games of combat have been outlawed in Rome for many years, they still continue in the provinces, where Max proves to be a favorite.
In order to strengthen his hold on Rome in the face of the challenge of the senators, Commodus renews the games, giving the people a full 150 days of free entertainment. This naturally brings Proximo and his team to Rome, and gives Maximus the hope of coming within reach of his enemy once again.
The film is a breathtaking epic, bringing the new technology of filmmaking to bear on the kind of film that hasn’t been attempted in decades. It was especially fun going through the DVD with my wife, who has studied ancient Roman history and culture in depth, and could fill me in on a long list of inaccuracies. Since it often bothers me that films set that far in the past look like they’re played out in ruins familiar to modern viewers, I was excited by the fact that Gladiator appeared to go to great lengths to present the age as it really was — but they could have gone even further to make the film authentic without sacrificing any drama.
One big problem is that our evil villain Commodus doesn’t protect himself as well as even the most benign emperor would. Even though he is supposed to be in love with her, Commodus’ sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen of Mission to Mars) would never be allowed to stay so close — even shown riding in chariots and fixing (and drugging) meals for him — especially since she has a son (Spencer Treat Clark of Unbreakable) who is next in line. They both would have been killed immediately, along with any others that later get in his way. Seen in historical light, this fictional Commodus doesn’t seem like such a bad guy after all.
Popular gladiators earned part of the take on their bouts, so Maximus would have probably been able to buy his freedom by the time he got to the Coliseum — though he might have kept on as a gladiator to get to the emperor. However, despite the great carnage provided for the mob, most of the fights involving big-name gladiators were no doubt fixed, much as they are today in professional wrestling.
Though the art department has brought the beauty and glory of ancient Rome to light, they fail to portray its decay. As the first city of over 1 million in population — and the last until another thousand years passed — Rome was as magnificent and as trashy as New York City is today. All the wonderful architecture and statuary was covered over with garishly colored paint, advertising and even graffiti.
Possibly the biggest problem is in the display of faith among the characters. The idea of an afterlife is firmly entrenched in the fabric of modern society, but the Romans had no use for it, preferring to make their deeds count during their lives so that they would be remembered by descendants. One scene was to show this in better contrast, with devout Christians massacred by lions, but it was deleted. Thus we’re left with Max praying and thinking of heaven — was the Spaniard a pagan of some sort? Did the filmmakers think he needed extra motivation beyond revenge and justice? The Romans are also seen praying to ancestors for guidance, so this point is all muddled.
There are many other flubs — from the incorrect way text is displayed to mispronunciation of names, etc. — but the most annoying thing about them is that they could have easily been used to enrich the film. Maybe the truth would have been laughed at by modern audiences more used to perpetuated myths, but the truth might have also made a more interesting film.
The digital transfer is pristine, with several audio options with which you can show off your system. There’s a full commentrak with director Ridley Scott, director of photography John Mathieson and editor Pietro Scalia — a rare choice of participants but welcome. There is a separate menu page to access specific chapters of the commentrak. Scott shows himself as an expert in his craft, but glosses over points at which he’s ignored facts with the old vaudeville routine “Vas you dere?” No, the anthropologists and historians available for consultation weren’t alive 2000 years ago, but at least they’ve examined every scrap of evidence that has survived from the time and pieced together a pretty good picture. It must be driving them mad to see Scott and his crew disregard their knowledge in favor of their own “logic.”
With tons of extras to include in their package, DreamWorks has chosen to put them all on a second disc, rather than overburden the feature disc with all that heavy data. Something I haven’t seen before — one of the discs is held within the case on it’s own hinged plastic “page”. The menu designs are also quite classy, although the soundtrack clips can get monotonous if you stay on one page too long.
Here you can view 11 cut scenes, while on an alternate track Scott comments on each, telling us why it had to go. Plus, editor Scalia has taken a bunch of cut shots and assembled them into a sort of music video, especially for the DVD.
A 25-minute The Making of Gladiator featurette gives an entertaining account of how the production was filmed, but doesn’t give any information about its origins. It also shows thatRussell Crowe is quite a cut-up.
A fascinating 50-minute documentary Gladiator Games: Roman Blood Sport, originally seen on The Learning Channel, gives a much more fact-based view of the subject. It features interviews with experts, scenes of actual sites and artifacts, and shows how this knowledge was used (or ignored) by the filmmakers.
Hans Zimmer: Composing Gladiator is a 21-minute piece which examines the prolific film composer’s contribution to the film. Although it’s a fine score, and I was interested in hearing the composer’s views in depth for a change, this feature may be best left to musicians and score fans. It ends with a crass plug for the soundtrack album.
Ever wonder what it was like for a child actor to be a part of a giant epic film? Then read “My Gladiator Journal” by actor Spencer Treat Clark (Lucius), a diary of the boy’s adventures. It’s a little hard to read on a TV, but better on a computer monitor.
More! View the film’s storyboards by Sylvain Despretz — including deleted scenes (Maximus battles a rhino!) and conceptual art. An extensive gallery of stills is divided by subject. There’s a teaser, a trailer and some TV spots. Follow Marcus’ bird to yet another DVD Easter Egg that isn’t that special: a Chicken Run trailer. There are capsule bios of 21 cast and crewmembers. And finally, a “production notes” section tosses in a brief article that talks a bit about the project’s genesis.
The film may have its flaws, but it is an impressive and entertaining epic full of good old-fashioned (really old-fashioned) action and drama, and the DVD package does it full justice. And all for less money than a lot of no-frills Disney DVDs.