*This is rather poorly written by my standards, although I can’t see myself improving it… so here it is. Don’t read it if you haven’t seen the film*
I rewatched Gladiator today, and I have to say it’s as good as I remember it. Honestly, it’s one of my favourite films of the current decade and while not a perfect film it’s much better than people give credit for. Part of my affection for it may be nostalgia as this was one of the first films I latched onto as a favoruite when I began to discover film, although more than that Gladiator weaves it’s visuals, mythology and explores history and the present with a subtle touch. It’s perhaps why the film is so easily written off as a disposal epic.
I think as a viewer it’s important to remember when watching historical fiction, that history is interpreted by artists not to accurately depict an event, rather to twist and bend it to what the artists’ intention is. I personally believe historical accuracy should not be a goal, or a criteria in a film, especially when it is so deliberately disregarded as in this film. There was intent behind “changing” history, that becomes evident in the final scene when history is in effect re-written. It’s important that the Emperor at the time was Marcus Aurelius and Commodus, because they were the last great emperors before the collapse. In effect, the film takes place at the height of the Roman Empire, right before it’s fall. The final note we are left on is ambiguous, and forces the audience to think what could have been. More importantly, as part of a bigger picture, it suggests something about the world we live in today, that perhaps we are being blinded by “games” and that our democracy is not quite as democratic as we would like to believe. However, that there is hope for change, so that we can change history and perhaps endure peacefully. Our empire will not collapse like the Roman’s.
What also intrigued me (more as a one-time history of art student), was the use of architecture, in particular the Colosseum as a symbol of the might of Rome, as well as the strength of the people. At one point, one of the Senator’s even says “The beating heart of Rome is not the marble of the senate it’s the sand of the Colosseum.” It is at the centre of the city, it is the heart, and yet it also represents the Empire’s moral decay. Their fondness for blood, and disregard for human life. It is however, through the power of the Colosseum that Maximus is able to rise to power even if he is nothing more than a slave. It’s the only place in the Empire where he could accomplish his goal, however frightening his journey there might have been. The climatic fight between Commodus and Maximus take place in the Colosseum and both of their deaths represent an almost certain end for tyranny. The final shot of the film could not be more appropriate in it’s emphasis of the centrality and importance as the camera raises from the centre of the stadium, until all we see is the the Coloseum and the sun setting, as an era finally ends.
Visually, I also really love the contrast between the cold colour schemes, and the warm ones. This is really playe up in the opening sequences, and I think it’s for the better, as it could easily have become overbearing. The shift back and forth is playing up the ideas of fire and ice (I can’t help thinking of Robert Frost), as well as blood and death. As the film progresses the “blood” and “fire” sequences take over almost completely, as that is what dominates Maximus’ existence and quest; blood and fire. There is no longer the peace and tranquility of the ice, or bloodless existence. His vision of heaven is entirely a cold colour monochromatic landscape. There is no blood or fire to be seen. Scott has a beautiful sense of colour and framing, and really strengthens thematically the struggle of the character.
Maximus himself is never attainably human, as he must forgo his own emotions to reach his goal. His reward is death, and ironically the gifts of humanity; love, peace, and work (not as a soldier, but as a farmer). Crowe is wonderfully subdued in his performance, and really helps sell the character. Most of the cast is great though, Phoenix especially who is especially pathetic and slimy as Commodus (colour scheme-wise, he lacks “blood”, although contrasting from Maximus’ heaven, it’s more a reflection on his lack of humanity and his cowardice).
I don’t think Gladiator is a perfect film, by any means, I think a good deal of it could have been cut as the pacing is somewhat awkward. It is however, a film that has been unjustly cast aside by cinephiles (as many recent Best Picture winners have, some more deservedly than others). I think it’s worth seeing again with fresh eyes, is my point.
*I didn’t even mention the non-too subtle allusions to Triumph of the Will, that would be interesting to get into, but another time.