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 A few weeks back, coinciding with the release of Gladiator, Suck ran a highly entertaining persiflage on the pretentious aura that still surrounds any mention of the Roman Empire, entitled "Decline and Fall" (5/2/00). Replying to the question "What was [Roman] civilisation?", the author, Bartel d'Arcy, answered, "Vast, I allow, but vile....The Roman, like the Englishman who follows in his footsteps, brought to every new shore on which he set his foot...only his cloacal obsession." In spite of his unyielding adherence to classicism in the arts, such an irreverent take on the mighty Romans might well have even brought a momentary smirk to the face of Voltaire. Nevertheless, the lingering shadows of the only great empire to have arisen in Western Europe continue to haunt us many centuries after its demise, as a long series of movie epics attest, dating back to what I assume is the first version of Quo Vadis, directed by Enrico Guazzoni in 1913. Although the genre has been more or less in hibernation since the palmy days of the 1960's, when studios like Metro and Fox could get a lot for their money by shooting in Italy or Spain, Gladiator, directed by Ridley Scott, which has had a huge success at the box office since its opening, proves that movie ventures into antiquity are far from being merely a thing of the past. Whether this augurs a new wave of epics like the one which commenced with the release of  William Wyler's Ben-Hur in 1959 remains to be seen, but the computer graphics which Gladiator so triumphantly employs to conjure up the spectacle of Roma aeterna certainly open up possibilities that did not exist for filmmakers of previous generations who had to rely on often shaky special effects procedures like traveling matte shots or the use of miniatures to supplement the construction of costly sets. On that score, at least, the film cannot be criticized, and were a dazzling show of computerized effects the only basis for evaluating a motion picture, then Gladiator might rate as a masterpiece. Frankly when the film was over I felt as if I had spent two and a half hours in a Roman water closet.

Anyone who goes to a historical spectacular in search of historical accuracy is certainly looking in the wrong place. Although directors from D.W. Griffith on have liked to boast about the authenticity of their celluloid epics, the spectacular is a movie genre with its conventions just like any other. Serious historical films that try to transcend those conventions like Carl Theodor Dreyer's Day of Wrath, Sergei Eisentein's two parts of Ivan the Terrible, Luchino Visconti's Senso, or such works of Kenji Mizoguchi as Ugetsu or Sansho the Bailiff have always been a rarity. But in the past, directors have often not only been able to shrewdly manipulate those conventions--most notably Cecil B. DeMille--but to have fun in the process. Yet insouciance of that kind belongs as much to a bygone era as do the ethnic stereotypes that also play a conspicuous role in DeMille's productions. Only in a comedy like Mel Brooks's History of the World Part I could anyone dare to have fun with history these days, and Gladiator illustrates that shift in taste perfectly. Although Gladiator throws in plenty of combat to the death scenes with an accompanying dismembering of limbs to keep adolescent males watching to the end credits, such touches as the direct visual quotations from Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will--which Bartel d'Arcy noted--when Commodus returns to Rome from imposing the pax romana on the barbarians up North make it clear the audience is not supposed to be enjoying the spectacle but getting a moral lesson from it. With numerous scenes that take place inside dungeons or gloomily lit palace interiors, Gladiator makes graphically explicit the ponderously serious import of its intentions from beginning to end. Where the audience for a spectacle by DeMille got sermons sugared with scenes of debauchery and luxurious high life--like the bath of Messalina (Claudette Colbert) in asses' milk in The Sign of the Cross (1932)--the audience for Gladiator doesn't have such luck: it gets a laxative compound, no doubt prepared according to an old Roman recipe.

Gladiator tells the story of a Roman general named Maximus--what else?--who at the beginning of the film conquers Germania for Marcus Aurelius (121-80 CE). When the wimpy son of Marcus, Commodus, does in daddy after the latter proposes to name Maximus and not his own son as his successor,  Maximus refuses to swear allegiance and is sentenced to death. Although he manages to thwart his executioners and escape, he fails to make it back to his villa in time to prevent the soldiers dispatched by Commodus from violating his wife and then crucifying her and his son. Upon his return home, he is seized by slave handlers and eventually falls into the hands of Proximo (Oliver Reed) who trains gladiators to fight in an arena in North Africa. Just at this moment Commodus fortuitously reinstates the games which his father had abolished, and Maximus is soon back on the road to Rome and new fame as a champion fighter. If Gladiator had stuck with this straightforward if not terribly inspired story line, it might have made an acceptable action picture, but the movie throws in a dispensable subplot about a patrician senator named Gracchus (Derek Jacobi) who wants to clean up Rome and restore the senate to power, as well as a more sensationalistic one about the incestuous lust of Commodus for his sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen)--an old Roman custom familiar to readers of Suetonius. As Maximus, Russell Crowe gives a performance that is more solid than exciting, while Commodus as portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix resembles the psychotic spoiled son of a rich father who has seized the family business and gotten in over his head.  In the role of Lucilla, Connie Nielsen is quite attractive and has a lovely face, but the movie gives her little to do other than to stand around decoratively and serve as the object of her driveling brother's unholy passion.

The screenplay is credited to David H.Franzoni, John Logan, and William Nicholson, but it draws on bits and pieces of so many older movies that watching Gladiator is like browsing through a photo album of long dead relatives. The most conspicuous affinity is with Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus through the gladiatorial games, but it also covers many of the same events depicted in Anthony Mann's Fall of the Roman Empire--in which Christopher Plummer masterfully played Commodus--and its story of a hero who falls from a high position and must overcome all sorts of formidable obstacles to reestablish himself has its prototype in Lew Wallace's novel Ben-Hur, the subject of two famous screen adaptations, by Fred Niblo (1925) and William Wyler (1959). Nevertheless, if Gladiator borrows heavily from its predecessors, it by no means improves on them, but falls back on the tritest conventions of realistic drama where it does not drag in wildly inappropriate anachronisms. On the one hand, Commodus, like the hero of a bad American play from the 1950's, kills his father not out of of unbridled ambition but because the old man doesn't love him, while on the other, Marcus Aurelius, as if he were the hero of Frank Capra's Mr.Smith Goes to Washington, improbably plans on restoring the senate to power and returning  Rome to a  state of republican purity. In Julius Caesar, Shakespeare, with only Sir Thomas North's translation of Plutarch's Parallel Lives to rely on, showed the war of wills between the senate and the first of the Caesars for what it was: an amoral contest for power. The history of Rome was never anything but an epic struggle for power--power which itself become the most intense form of sexual gratification for those who enjoyed it.  Power, most of all the power of life and death, was the preferred vice of the rulers of Rome--not incest. The Chief of Police in Jean Genet's The Balcony who announces he is going to appear before the populace as a phallus to symbolize the nation gets far closer to the spirit of Ancient Rome than Gladiator does.     

Gladiator falls uneasily between two stools. It is too shallow, and too dependent upon its models to qualify as a serious historical picture on a par with the great television adaptation of Robert Graves's I, Claudius (1976),directed by Herbert Wise, but at the same time it is far too heavy to serve as entertainment. Its sole innovation, as far as I can see, lies in presenting the brutality of Roman life in the late empire in excruciating detail; however, Gladiator doesn't illustrate Roman brutality--the movie uses Roman brutality as a pretext for brutalizing the audience. From its opening moment, the film relentlessly hits the viewer with a succession of glacially imposing camera setups. Before the film had gone on for long, I felt as if I were being force-fed a whole succession of nauseatingly sweet deserts, and I came to despise the fatiguing procession of exquisitely composed and lit shots. Ridley Scott had his first great box office success with Alien. As I sat there watching Gladiator unspool, I began to wonder if its plot were not a metaphor for Scott's philosophy of filmmaking. Was the audience shut up inside the theater a surrogate for the crew of the Nostromo, at the mercy of a director bent on getting them by the throat?  Whether that is true or not, no one could miss the incredible strain of masochism that runs like a polluted river through the director's work. Scott's invariable strategy is to establish the audience's identification with characters who are then doomed to be torn to pieces, rent asunder, or cut limb from limb to limb. Alien worked so effectively because of the way it tapped into infantile fantasies about mommy's body--underlined by the uterine imagery which opens the movie, continuing on through the exploration of the egg chamber inside the alien buried on the strange planet, and by the constant references to the traitorous computer as "mother"--but isn't it reasonable to expect that an adult director would graduate from infantile fantasy to something more interesting?  Confronted by far more challenging material when he filmed Philip K. Dick's great science fiction novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep as Blade Runner, Scott could do no more than contemptibly drag it down to the same level of scabrous fantasy in what might be described as a case of Dick envy.

For an instant,  with its editorial pyrotechnics courtesy of Pietro Scalia, Gladiator reminded me of Any Given Sunday. But where Stone is a director with his heart in the right place whose head seems to often go astray, Ridley Scott has a heart of ice and a computer in his head--no doubt adding up box office grosses. This is a film of calculation, not one of intelligence. Scott is so busy exactly plotting each effect he leaves no room for drama. Ben-Hur is not one of William Wyler's most artistically successful productions, but it contains one quite powerful moment when Judah Ben-Hur  (Charlton Heston) confronts his mangled, fatally injured rival Messala (Stephen Boyd). Nothing comparable ever occurs in Gladiator. When the film reaches what should be its climax--the scene in which Commodus meets Maximus in the arena and realizes the otherwise nameless gladiator is his most formidable antagonist--I only yawned, and waited for the action to proceed. Nevertheless, it would be wrong to simply dismiss Gladiator as a piece of junk. In fact, in a very striking way, the movie poses the question "What is a bad movie?" far more acutely than does any run-of-the-mill piece of celluloid schlock. Typically viewers and even many critics tend to see this question in purely open-and-shut terms: a movie is either good or bad. But aesthetic failure like aesthetic achievement comes in more than one variety and in all fairness I would have to admit Gladiator is no bad movie in the ordinary sense of the word. If I can think of better ways to spend an afternoon than looking at Gladiator, I would hardly deny Ridley Scott's ability to effectively pace a movie or his talent for orchestrating effects. In addition, the movie, like many of the 1960's epics, boasts an excellent supporting cast that includes Djimon Hounsou as an African gladiator, and Richard Harris as Marcus Aurelius as well as Derek Jacobi and Oliver Reed in a posthumous appearance as Proximo.  

The badness of Gladiator is not that of unskilled filmmaking but of a fundamentally rotten conception of how movies should be made. Although this conception pervades every frame of the movie, for me its most offensive manifestation occurs in the final scene when Maximus lies dying after having vanquished Commodus. For reasons which are by no means explained by the movie itself, most of the "good" characters in Gladiator are obsessed with wanting to know whether they will be reunited with their loved ones after death--and the film answers the question in the affirmative for Maximus by vouchsafing him a vision of his wife and child beckoning from the great beyond. With the memory of Frequency still fresh in my mind, I began to wonder if this was the season for bogus cinematic transfigurations. But to encounter this kind of kitschy spirituality in a pseudo-Capra vehicle is one thing and to behold it at the end of a violently exploitative movie like Gladiator something quite different. Here, the most appropriate comparison would be with the astounding conclusion of DeMille's The Sign of the Cross in which the Roman commander Marcus Superbus (Frederic March), after undergoing an on-the-spot conversion to Christianity by Mercia (Elissa Landi), accompanies her to certain death in the arena under the gloating, demented gaze of Nero (Charles Laughton)--a far madder emperor than Joaquin Phoenix's Commodus ever succeeds in being. Surprisingly, DeMille, who was hardly any piker when it came to exploitation, followed a wise intuition and ended the action at that moment in a grandiose gesture--and resisted the temptation to throw in a final apotheosis. If DeMille's worst instincts were truly reprehensible, the end of Sign of the Cross should be enough to convince any unbeliever of his genius as a director. In Gladiator, Ridley Scott had the chance to join the great directors of historical epics like Griffith or  DeMille, or even the lesser ones like Wyler and Mann, but the finale by itself would be enough to compromise any movie--even if the director had not already flogged it to death as Scott has done with this picture.

Frequency   Liliom  Boys Don't Cry   Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai  The Green Mile  Erin Brockovich  The Beach  U-571

E-mail Dave at daveclayton@worldnet.att.net
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