Jan. 4, 2001


“Gladiator”


       I have made it a habit for the past six or seven years to intentionally not see the big movies when they are released at the theater.  My main reason is to look out for my own mental health.  Seeing the big movies used to aggravate me so terribly that for weeks after seeing the film I would find myself in imaginary script meetings yelling at the stupid writers and directors and producers.  On a social level, however, not seeing the big blockbusters when they’re new spares me having to get into a lot of unnecessary arguments.  When a film is new, particularly a big-budget film, people will oddly defend it as though it were made by a member of their family.
       It finally wearied me deeply to be the only person asking: “’The Deer Hunter’ is a great movie?”  “’Chariots of Fire’ is a great movie?”  “’Out of Africa’ is a great movie?”  “’The English Patient’ is a great movie?  Has everyone gone insane?”  And then getting into arguments about such ridiculous nonsense.  So I stopped seeing the big new films.  Soon thereafter, I stopped seeing pretty much all the new films.
       Well, I finally saw “Gladiator,” the biggest-grossing film of 2000, and a film people seem to be quite fond of, for some reason or another, like a shiny new toy that will break the first time it’s
dropped.
       For me, the key adjective describing this film is “insipid,” meaning both dull and uninteresting.  The story is nothing more than a mish-mosh of elements from “Spartacus” and “Ben Hur,” without any of the characterization or motivation that made those other films so good.
       Although working with the same basic revenge motive as “Ben Hur,” “Gladiator” has removed the logic and irony for the ease and convenience of the modern viewer.  The Emperor, Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris), has decided to not appoint his son, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), as his successor, but has instead chosen the mighty general Maximus (Russell Crowe), whom he loves like a son.  Sadly for Maximus, the Emperor hasn’t told anyone else these plans but him, and when the Emperor does inform Commodus of the news -- entirely alone -- Commodus proceeds to hug Marcus Aurelius to death, then assumes the position of Emperor (there must be someone out there other than myself who also found this scene completely absurd?).  When Maximus finds out what happened he’s so peeved that in his snooty pique he won’t salute the new Caesar, and thus we are theoretically motivated for the next two hours as Maximus goes through hell and back before finally and improbably getting the chance to kill Commodus in the coliseum.
       Well, Ben Hur also goes through hell awaiting his chance to kill Messala, but A). He has far more interesting adventures along the way, like being a galley slave and saving the life of a Roman general, as well as becoming a great charioteer in Rome, but more importantly, B). He has a history with Messala who was his best friend in his youth, and C). Ben Hur didn’t really do anything, he’s taking the rap for his sister who knocked the tile off the roof injuring the new Roman governor.  There’s a certain amount of irony here.  Beyond any of that, revenge isn’t the point of “Ben Hur,” it’s Ben Hur’s spiritual redemption, with the help of Jesus Christ performing a miracle to save his mother and sister from leprosy.
       And, of course, all the gladiator stuff comes straight out of “Spartacus,” where it’s all far better utilized.
       Ridley Scott has this amazing ability to shoot every action sequence so confusingly that I never knew what the hell was going on.  There are many cuts, slashing sword sound effects, then gushy, bloody sound and visual effects, and suddenly other gladiators are now dead, bleeding and missing limbs, but I don’t know exactly what happened.  Worse still, I never care.
       As an aside, all the gladiator training sequences in “Spartacus” were directed by Anthony Mann -- before getting fired by star/executive producer, Kirk Douglas, who subsequently hired the young Stanley Kubrick, whom he had just worked with on “Paths of Glory.”  I just love the way these training scenes are shot, scored and edited.  Not to mention, there’s the beautiful love story intertwined in it.  There is nothing in “Gladiator” that comes anywhere close in the department of plain old good filmmaking and storytelling.
       And with all the blood and guts in “Gladiator,” nothing is nearly as powerful as Spartacus drowning the head of the gladiator school (the great Charles McGraw) in a pot of soup.  It was nice, however, seeing Oliver Reed in his last performance, looking old and mere minutes from death, but sadly having no real relationship to Maximus, so he is utterly wasted.  His character is neither as funny as Peter Ustinov’s gladiator school-owner (“I tingle!”), nor as outlandish at Hugh Griffith’s Arab horse trader (both Oscar-winners, by the way, so perhaps Oliver Reed has a posthumous chance).
       OK, yes, I am very familiar with “Spartacus” and “Ben Hur,” but you’d figure anyone that was going to make a big gladiator, sword & sandal epic, would be familiar with them, too.  For instance,
you have Djimon Hounsou (from “Amistad” and “E.R.”) standing in for Woody Strode, but he doesn’t get anything to do but hang around.  Woody Strode died like a real, true, honest-to-God hero, throwing his spear at Laurence Olivier and actually starting the slave revolt.  In the forty years between “Spartacus” and “Gladiator,” the one single part for a black actor has degenerated from Woody Strode playing a short but crucially important character, to Djimon Hounsou, playing the short, thankless part of the token Negro companion.
       Which brings us to the story’s theme.  What is “Gladiator” trying to say?  Maximus isn’t leading a slave revolt or standing up for the inalienable rights of man or finding redemption from Jesus Christ. Maximus feels gypped, then acts foolishly.  However, since the crowd is behind him, and they cheer so loudly for him, the Emperor himself comes down into the arena, and is promptly slain by the gladiator.  Then the people cheer even more.  The end.  So is the point then, if people cheer, it’s good?  Does that sound like the rationale for a big dumb movie or what?
       Fine, call me a stick-in-the-mud.  I just bought a brand new DVD player and “Gladiator” was the first film I’ve watched that I hadn’t already seen.  When the film began I was awake and eager and cranked up and ready to see a good movie.  For the next 2 hours and 35 minutes the film tried relentlessly to put me to sleep.  Given the choice between sitting through “Gladiator” again (at 154 minutes), or sitting through all of “Spartacus” again (at 184 minutes), then all of “Ben Hur” again (at 212 minutes), I’d choose the latter.  You could throw in the silent version of “Ben Hur,” too (that’s another 141 minutes), and for me it would still be a lot easier.
       And is it just me or does Russell Crowe’s voice seem to not be coming out of his body?  To me his voice always sounds like it’s coming out of the wrong surround speaker, somewhere behind me.  I’m beginning to suspect that Russell Crowe may in fact be nothing more than a digital effect with the wrong voice.  Given the artistically lame times we are presently stuck in, it makes perfect sense that a dull actor like Russell Crowe should be voted “Entertainer of the Year” by People Magazine.


Josh Becker

 

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