Birth, death, resurrection, legacy. Whatever ecclesiastical associations there may be, Gladiator marked the arrival of a bona fide leading man, brought back one of film’s greatest contributors from directorial oblivion, and revived a forgotten genre. Topped off by a swansong appearance from the late Oliver Reed, this will forever be remembered as one of the greatest films to have started the new millennia.
Maximus (Russell Crowe) is a loyal and successful Roman general but is betrayed by the Emperor’s son, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), when he is chosen over him to be the heir to the throne. He manages to escape death but his wife and son do not. Consequently captured by slave traders, he is trained to fight in the ultimate game of death as a gladiator.
Helped in becoming one of the best fighters around by his trainer Proximo (Oliver Reed) and Juba (Djimon Honsou), a fellow gladiator from Namibia, he progresses up the ranks of gladiatorial status to arrive in Rome to seek revenge.
Plot wise, there’s not much to it because, stripped to its core, it’s basically a one-man revenge mission. But what it lacks in subplots and multi-layered storytelling is more than made up for in excitement, pacing and attention to detail in appearance.
Ridley Scott has admittedly been influenced by Spartacus and Ben-Hur, and the scale of the film can be attributed to these historical classics. He has spared no expense at creating lavish sets, in particular the imagery to build an entire amphitheatre filled with a baying crowd. Although aesthetics only scratches the surface of what makes this film great.
Russell Crowe was born to play Maximus, giving a truly outstanding performance with real mettle as a distraught husband and father, drawing us into his agony and despair with every bit of blood, sweat and tears shed in the battleground arena. His broken hero that slowly regains his footing with every swing of his sword is the sort you can’t help but root for.
However, the film is not notable for just being about Crowe’s all-action role; well-defined characters and their gritty portrayal are equally as important, none more so than Joaquin Phoenix as the truly despicable Commodus. He produces a career-defining performance, one of such evil that you can appreciate how he is classed amongst as the most versatile actors around.
Connie Nielsen as Commodus’s sultry sibling Lucilla creates one of the few, yet interesting, sub-plots, while Djimon Honsou, Richard Harris and Derek Jacobi round off the excellent supporting cast. And let’s not forget Oliver Reed, whose death during filming (and subsequent replacement shots of him digitally inserted) adds that extra significance to the film.
Ridley Scott took a three-year break after the critical and commercial failures of 1492, White Squall and G I Jane all in a row, and if he spent all that time crafting this, you would wish he’d always take a longer hiatus in between films. What you can never doubt though is his technical and visionary abilities as a director – he has meshed everything together, from his leading man to the use of special effects, in successful harmony.
But the icing on the cake has to be Hans Zimmer’s score. It’s hard to believe that there was a time when films could be classed as epic without his musical touch, because the scale and range of each chord struck is just as powerful and touching as Crowe’s portrayal as Maximus.
To this day, Gladiator still has the magnitude and influence on its pretenders to its throne (not least Scott’s own Kingdom of Heaven). It’s gripping, engaging from start to end, and forever quotable; “what we do in life echoes in eternity” – indeed it does, Ridley Scott, indeed it does.