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Gladiator (2000)
Added 2002-04-30
by Ronald Bruce Meyer



My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius, Commander of the Armies of the North, General of the Felix Legions, loyal servant to the true emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife. And I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next.


Are you not entertained?
Are you not entertained?
Is this not why you are here?

Maximus and Juba
Maximus and
Juba (Djimon Hounsou)

Connie Nielsen

You risk too much.

I have much to pay for.

You have nothing to pay for.

Today I saw a slave become more powerful than the Emperor of Rome.

Maybe director Ridley Scott rewrote Roman history. Maybe the art direction caused most of the shots of ancient Rome, circa 180 BC, to look muddy and depressing. Maybe the plot of Gladiator was too simple, if not simple-minded. So what? This is a great movie!

General Maximus Decimus Meridus (Russell Crowe, fresh from a triumph in The Insider) is a hero for our time; perhaps for all time: "What we do in life echoes in eternity," he declares to encourage his Felix Legion before one final military victory in Germania. A favorite of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius (a wise but wizened Richard Harris), Maximus is hated by the Emperor's son, Commodus (a slimy Joaquin Phoenix) -- who murders his father so he can become Emperor over the old man's wish to appoint Maximus Rome's protector -- and loved by Commodus's sister, Lucilla (the stunning Connie Nielsen, who I last saw in The Devil's Advocate, 1995).Lucilla and Commodus

The hatred runs as deep as the new Emperor's madness and ambition, so he orders the general's execution and the murder of his family. Escaping by dint of skill and brains, Maximus arrives in Spain too late to save his family, is captured by slave traders, and lands in North Africa under the ownership of former gladiator Proximo (Oliver Reed, to whom the film is dedicated). Not surprisingly, Maximus excels at this form of entertainment, and with new pals, Juba (Djimon Hounsou, pronounced JEE-mon HAHN-soo and last seen in Amistad) and Hagen (the beefy Ralph Moeller), he fights his way to the Coliseum in Rome.

Proximo and Gladiators
Proximo (Oliver Reed) addresses his gladiator-slaves:
Hagen (Ralph Moeller), Juba, and "The Spaniard" (Maximus)
Listen to me. Learn from me. I was not the best because I killed quickly. I was the best because the crowd loved me. Win the crowd and you will win your freedom.

* * *

So Spaniard, we shall go to Rome together and have bloody adventures. And the great whore will suckle us until we are fat and happy and can suckle no more. And then, when enough men have died, perhaps you will have your freedom.

* * *

We mortals are but shadows and dust.
It is here that Scott recreates the Rome we've always imagined: perhaps not shiny and bright, but certainly real enough to believe. As the birds fly past the digitally restored Coliseum, and Juba intones, "I did not know men could build such things," I found myself thinking similar thoughts about what I was watching. I did not know film could create such things. (Indeed, Scott was pressed to digitize Oliver Reed's face to complete the film, after the actor's fatal heart attack after overindulging at a bar.)

The plot has its dragging moments and the script its pedestrian lines, of course, but I didn't care. I came to Gladiator to see a hero only slightly larger than life, and that is what this film gave me. The intrigue with the Senate, of which Gracchus (Derek Jacobi, who played Emperor Claudius in the 1976 PBS series) is the leading representative, may have been naïve politics. But the heroism and skill in the battle scenes makes up for those shortcomings, and the photography and choreography slashed to pieces any reservations I might have had about historical accuracy (Commodus did fight in the arena, but he was murdered in his dressing room). The film did, after all, win Best Picture, Best Visual Effects, Best Sound, and Best Costumes -- in addition to Best Actor honors for Russell Crowe (2001).
The general who became a slave. The slave who became a gladiator. The gladiator who defied an emperor. Striking story! But now, the people want to know how the story ends. Only a famous death will do. And what could be more glorious than to challenge the Emperor himself in the great arena?

You would fight me?

Why not? Do you think I am afraid?

I think you've been afraid all your life.

Commodus and Maximus
Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) confronts Maximus (Russell Crowe)
before they face off in the arena

I knew a man once who said, "Death smiles at us all. All a man can do is smile back."

I wonder, did your friend smile at his own death?

You must know. He was your father.

You loved my father, I know. But so did I. That makes us brothers, doesn't it? Smile for me now, brother.

If an excess of heroism is a vice, Gladiator is guilty. But this tale is of sweet, even poetic, revenge. There are so few heroes in our day and age that even the concept is called into question. Maybe they live only in movies because movies inspire, indeed require, suspension of disbelief. I was overwhelmed by the power of this film -- the power to dazzle and the power to encourage. Gladiator gives viewers something to cheer for: Maximus is a hero for our time.
Gladiator (2000) 155 min. Directed by Ridley Scott. Written by David H. Franzoni (story); David H. Franzoni, John Logan and William Nicholson (screenplay). Cast: Russell Crowe as General Maximus Decimus Meridus, Joaquin Phoenix as Emperor Commodus, Connie Nielsen as Lucilla, Oliver Reed as Antonius Proximo, Richard Harris as Emperor Marcus Aurelius, Derek Jacobi as Senator Gracchus, Djimon Hounsou as Juba, David Schofield as Falco, John Shrapnel as Gaius, Tomas Arana as Quintus, David Hemmings as Cassius, Ralph Moeller as Hagen, Spencer Treat Clark as Lucius Verus, Tommy Flanagan as Cicero, Sven-Ole Thorsen as Tigris (Titus) of Gaul. Also known as: The Gladiators (1999) (USA: working title)
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Ronald Bruce Meyer is a freelance reviewer.

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