Cast: Russell Crowe, Connie Nielson, Derek Jacobi, Joaquin Phoenix, Djimon Hounsou, Richard Harris, Oliver Reed
Screenplay: David Franzoni, John Logan, and William Nicholson
Producer: Douglas Wick
Director: Ridley Scott
*** out of *****
The 1950s were a time of great confusion for Hollywood. A government ruling forced the studios to relinquish their ownership of theaters, depriving them of a guaranteed showcase for their product. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), claiming subversive messages were being planted in Hollywood films, instituted a witch-hunt that gave birth to the still controversial “blacklist.” And a booming post WWII economy meant the American public could afford diversions other than movies, including television, which brought entertainment into the living room free of charge.
If Hollywood was powerless against the government and a vastly altered economy, it did meet the challenge of television. Cinemascope, a process that turned the once square movie screen into a huge rectangle, was introduced along with stereophonic sound. But Hollywood also needed blockbuster themes to fill that space, so they created the “spectacle.” You weren’t going to find a recreation of ancient Rome on I Love Lucy, or a slave rebellion on The Tonight Show, so the movies brought us The Robe, The Ten Commandments, and Ben-Hur.
The fact that most of these films had Biblical themes may have been a way for Hollywood to show HUAC that the industry was not as subversive as Senator Joseph McCarthy claimed, but it was also a way to sneak in something else TV couldn’t offer: SEX! Salome didn’t dance in a raincoat, and Bathsheba didn’t tempt David while wearing a flannel nightgown. "Historical accuracy” (as filmmakers loosely defined it) helped Hollywood slip a lot of cleavage past the censors.
Like any genre, the “spectacle” faded from view, partly due to changing tastes, but also due to economics. A "cast of thousands" actually cost millions, and so did all those sets and costumes. But in 1995, Braveheart showed how computer technology could turn an army of a hundred into an army of thousands. So now, at a still astronomical cost of $100 million, Dreamworks and Universal bring forth Gladiator, directed by Ridley Scott and starring Russell Crowe, a recent Oscar nominee for The Insider, but still better known as Bud White, the short-tempered cop of L.A. Confidential.
What's it about?
In his one of his essays on Hollywood, author Gore Vidal (an uncredited writer on Ben-Hur) let the screenwriter whom he called the Wise Hack, explain the ingredients for a successful movie. The writers of Gladiator haven't strayed from the formula one bit.
"First you identify your characters. Then you show us your problem. Then you bring on your hero. Then you kick him in the balls. Then you show how he takes that kick. Does he feel sorry for himself? Never. Because self-pity is not box-office."
The problem in Gladiator is that the Emperor is dying. As his successor, the Emperor chooses a Roman General named Maximus (yes, Maximus. Names like Bob and Ralph never caught on in ancient Rome). Maximus is our hero. Ah, but the dying Emperor has a son, Commodus, who believes he is entitled to the title. So, before Maximus' appointment is made public, Commodus (commode?), murders his father, proclaims himself Emperor, then provides our hero with a kick to the groin by sentencing Maximus to death.
So, how does our hero take that kick to the groin?
Maximus escapes execution, is sold as a gladiator (ala Spartacus), and soon becomes a big hit with the bloodthirsty crowd, and never does he show self-pity. Can his revenge against Commodus be far behind?
When a movie's running time is in the neighborhood of three hours, yes, it can be, and is, far behind, but we know his revenge is inevitable. After all, this isn't the first movie we've seen.
Whether or not Gladiator's box-office success is inevitable is another matter, but as "spectacles" go, it is sufficiently spectacular. If it lacks the inflated dignity of Ben-Hur and the passion of Spartacus, it easily outstrips any of those made in Italy "spectacles" starring Steve Reeves. There's plenty of violence, including beheadings, the cutting off of hands, and other forms of carnage. These aren't the kind of things Fred Astaire described in the song, "That's Entertainment!" but Fred is dead, my friends, and brutality is apparently what the people prefer these days.
In those rare moments when heads aren't flying off of necks and the blood ceases to flow, Gladiator is often a feast for the eyes, but the role that computers played in the making of the film is obvious once too often. Even when it's not obvious, somehow the "spectacle" isn't as impressive when you know it was generated at a keyboard, rather than built brick by brick by human hands. The somewhat washed-out colors of the sloppily choreographed battle sequences suggest the influence of Saving Private Ryan (also a Dreamworks production), and the script shows the influence of spectacles past with one notable difference. If there is even one fleeting reference to Christianity or anything Biblical, I missed it. There's no longer a Senator Joe McCarthy to appease, and, besides, "political correctness" demands that every religion be given equal time. Self-pity isn't box office, and neither is alienating a ticket buying customer whose own beliefs, or lack thereof, do not gel with the storyline.
Russell Crowe is both strong and sympathetic in the lead role. In beefing up for the film, he wisely resisted the temptation to look like he just stepped out of a Beverly Hills health club. He manages to look like an authentic gladiator rather than a Playgirl centerfold. A good actor who has yet to achieve stardom, Crowe isn't likely to get a better shot at the big time than this.
The rest of the cast is also quite good. Certainly, any movie that finds room for both Richard Harris (as the dying Emperor) and the late Oliver Reed (who died during filming) already has much in its favor. Like Dennis Hopper, Bruce Dern, and Christopher Walken, Harris and Reed are born "characters," and, as such, don't need much assistance from the screenwriter. These two are almost always worth watching.
Even this early into the year 2000, I can safely say that Ridley Scott's film is not the best picture of the year. But since Hollywood loves an epic, it won't surprise me if the voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences smile broadly on Gladiator next year, just as it honored Mel Gibson's forgettable Braveheart in 1995. If Gladiator isn't worthy of the best picture Oscar, it's still a pretty good, generally thoughtful, if predictable, entertainment. In other words, it's exactly what Mr. Vidal's Wise Hack recommended.
For those of us old enough to remember the glory days of the "spectacle," the main appeal of Gladiator may be that it's kind of nostalgic. For younger viewers, it may provide a good introduction to the genre. It certainly beats another sequel to Scream.
Brian W. Fairbanks
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