Film Commentary [5-9-00]
Roman mishmash - - Gladiator
Genre: Historical/Action
Grade = B-


Tigers!
This is a film with a very simple plot. The year is 160 A.D., during the reign of the great Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris - The Field, Camelot). The film opens as a Roman Legion led by General Maximus (Richard Crowe - the brutal terror to wife-beaters in L.A. Confidential) prepares for battle in a wet forest in Germania against the local tribe of barbarians who just donít seem to know when theyíre beaten. He leads his army to victory. Afterward, he is confronted by the Emperor and informed that the Emperorís son, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), is unfit to rule and succeed him. The Emperor informs Maximus that he has chosen him for his successor because of Maximusí love of Rome and his morality.

Maximus then calls Commodus to his tent and informs him of his decision. Commodus, unsurprisingly, is not exactly pleased. If a fit of weeping, wailing, whining and telling Marcus how hard he had tried to please him all his life, he kills him. Commodus acts quickly and orders Maximus arrested and his family killed. Taken out into the forest to be executed, Maximus turns the tails on his executioners and escapes. He travels to Spain seeking to save his wife and son only to find them crucified on the Emperorís order. He is captured and sold as a slave to a gladiator trainer named Proximo (Oliver Reed - Tommy, Oliver!). He eventually turns into the greatest gladiator of all time and wins the day in the end, slaying Commodus in the arena and revenging his family.

I really had high expectations for this film. One, I really love the old Roman epic films that Hollywood used to make in the fifties and early sixties. I really love historical films of all kinds, but especially the epics. Two, it was directed by Ridley Scott, who has directed such cinematic gems as Alien and Bladerunner. Thus, I was sorely disappointed by the result.

To begin with, in the opening battle sequence, as the Roman and barbarian armies clash, the film goes into a sort of Saving Private Ryan action mode. However, where in Saving Private Ryan, although the film was jerky and grainy to try to show the point of view of the soldier in combat, Spielberg relied on open wide shots for the main action sequences which allowed you to follow the action and the characters. In this case, what Iím sure could have been a really great action scene devolves into a confusing and incoherent mess. Gladiator shoves a bunch of irrationally put together close-in and face shots to try to show the action. And this is not the only time in the film it happens, they do it again and again, especially in the arena scenes. It is a horrible mess. Basically, the director and editor gutted the entire film with this technique. It is an action movie where you just canít follow the action.


There are also several glaring historical deviations. Emperor Commodus did not die in the arena fighting a gladiator. Indeed, he ruled for 12 years. Commodus is written in this film as some sort of a Caligula junior, lusting after his sister and drunk with arrogance and power. Secondly, the Roman legion never threw their pilum (spears, more properly javelins), instead fighting with them with their shields. This is utter nonsense, the Romans used the pilum throw to devastate the front ranks of their enemy and force them to throw down their shields. They would then draw their famous short swords and finish the lot of them off. Thirdly, there is a dramatic arena scene where Maximus not only has to fight the only undefeated gladiator around (a big Gaul with a silver helmet), he also has to deal with tigers. Tigers? Tigers? Where the hell would Romans get Tigers? Tigers are native to south and east Asia, not the middle east, Africa or Europe. The Romans never came near a tiger in their entire history. Lions yes. They used to have lions out the wazoo in the arena. If fact, the Romans hunger for lions for the arena (presumably well fed with Christians) was responsible for the extinction of the European lion. Clearing the Balkans and the middle east of all large cats. Fourth, Maximus (until his identity is discovered) is called ĎThe Spaniardí. There was never any place called Spain under the Romans. Spain and Portugal were called Iberia. He should have been called ĎThe Iberianí, but then 99.9% of the audience wouldnít have a clue of where or what Iberia was. Oh yeah, the Roman calvary had stirrups, which were not introduced into Europe until the 600s (i.e. by invading barbarians).

Notwithstanding the complaints, this film has some very good things going for it. Both Richard Harris and Oliver Reed give outstanding performances. Had he lived through filming, Reed might have earned a best supporting actor nomination. They both show what a lifetime of learning the skill of their craft can do (between getting drunk and into fights as they both tended to do; in fact, Reed died in a pub during filming). The costuming and set design were incredible and realistically historical. The Roman legion was properly equipped and an awesome sight to see reminding you of just how an effectively led and trained legion could take on barbarians at great odds and still be victorious. Too bad they didnít throw their pilum. But best, were the computer generated shots of Rome and of the Coliseum. The Coliseum is shown in incredible detail including its once famous awnings, marble and statuary. Marvelous, just like artistís conceptions I used to see in history books.

My best advise would be to wait and see it in the dollar theater so you can see the grand shots of Rome. Otherwise, thereís no point in seeing it on tape or disk.

The mighty Roman legion


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