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‘Gladiator’ at 20: Ridley Scott’s popcorn perfection influenced a generation

Gladiator
Still from 'Gladiator' by Dreamworks via MoviestillsDB
 

Editor’s Note: With a relative lack of new film releases due to the coronavirus pandemic, Vanyaland is taking a look back at some notable films on the anniversary of their release. For the full archive of this series, click here.

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Among other things, Ridley Scott’s Gladiator was responsible for me learning about theatrical release windows. You see, as a particularly nerdy child, I’d devour the weekly reviews published in my hometown newspaper and also pour over the listings for movies I’d never really go and see, and, by the time Gladiator hit theaters, I’d see it in the listings and make a note of it. Much like Titanic before it (which just so happened to hit before I really started paying attention), Gladiator would be present, in some form, in Raleigh cinemas, for the better part of 18 months. I remember being surprised every Friday when it was still there, and, some months after it won Best Picture, being slightly sad that it disappeared from the pages. Gladiator, which turns 20 on May 5, is popcorn entertainment at its most polished and exciting; the film is responsible for a renewed interest in antiquity and was, somewhat unsurprisingly, incredibly influential.

 
 

Scott’s legendary career had hit somewhat of a rough patch in the ’90s, after the release of Thelma and Louise. He’d followed that up with 1492: Conquest of Paradise, which was tepidly received by critics and faced stiff competition from another film looking to capitalize on the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the Americas. Following that, he’d take one of the longest breaks of his career — a full four years — before releasing his next project, White Squall, a sailing disaster movie that was annihilated at the box office when it hit theaters in February 1996. The next year, he’d release G.I. Jane, an ill-advised Demi Moore vehicle that saw her join up with the Navy SEALs. Gladiator would turn all of that around, and Scott would be persuaded to join the project after the producers showed him Jean-Léon Gérôme’s masterful painting Pollice Verso, depicting a Gladiator in the arena, looking to the crowd for their verdict on his vanquished foe’s life.

The historical epic was already somewhat in vogue by the time that Gladiator came out, and the Academy of the ’90s had often rewarded the largest spectacles for their scope, with the previous year’s Best Picture winner, Sam Mendes’ American Beauty, being the first in eight years to be primarily set in the present. Titanic had been a massive financial and critical success, but it was Braveheart that really showed the way forward for the war/action epic, and its influence would extend into fantasy (Peter Jackson would cite it as a major inspiration for his approach to Lord of the Rings) and, somewhat, to films like Scott’s. But the director would find a different model for his massive undertaking’s action sequences: That of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, whose fast-shutter speed and low-shutter angle war cinematography would serve as a basis for Scott’s depiction of ancient warfare and violence. When combined with the rigor and stability of the script — penned by David Franzoni, John Logan, and William Nicholson — it was an intoxicating mixture of old and new, resembling the old sword-and-sandal flicks of yore but offering modern-day thrills accompanied by state-of-the-art effects.

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Inspired in part by Anthony Mann’s The Fall of The Roman Empire, Gladiator sets its tale during the reign of Marcus Aurelias (Richard Harris), who is overseeing the conquest of Germania by his legions. One of his most beloved generals, a farmer-turned-solider by the name of Maximus Decimus Meridius (Russell Crowe), routes the Germanic soldiers in the field, and wins the day for the Romans. He is honored by Aurelias, but the brief, informal ceremony is interrupted by the arrival of the Emperor’s children, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), a petulant loser with ambitions towards the throne, and Lucilla (Connie Nielsen), a former lover of Maximus’. Later on that night, Aurelias reveals to his son that he’s going to recommend that Maximus become emperor after his death, in the hopes of restoring the Roman Republic to its former glory, and Commodus murders him, suffocating the old man against his breast. The general is seized by the Praetorian Guard and sent to be executed in the forest, but Maximus kills his captors and escapes, only to discover, upon his return to his village, that the Guard has already murdered his family and set his fields ablaze.

After collapsing from the wounds he suffered in his flight from Germania and return home, Maximus is captured by slavers, taken to Northern Africa, and sold to a former gladiator named Proximo (Oliver Reed). Initially hesitant to fight, the once-proud general gives in and engages in the bloodsport, using similar tactics to the ones that he perfected on the battlefield. It’s around then that Proximo takes his men to Rome, which has seen a rise in “games” after the new Emperor returned to the city as a method of placating the masses (fun fact: Commodus’ parade through the streets upon his arrival shot and edited as an intentional echo of Hitler’s entrance to the Nuremberg Rally in Leni Reifenstahl’s Triumph of the Will). The gladiators are assigned to play the parts of the Carthenigans in a recreation of the Battle of Zama, which ended the Second Punic War, which, of course, Rome won triumphantly. Maximus has other plans, and leads his men to a stunning victory over the chariot-equipped Romans, leading to cheers from the crowds, ecstatic to see this upset victory and the annihilation of the representatives of their state. Commodus heads to the field to commend the victors, and Maximus reveals to him — and the crowd — his true identity. What follows will end Commodus’ reign and the Pax Romana, and ascend Maximus into legend (and mythological status, depending on whether or not the Nick Cave-penned sequel script ever gets made).

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Scott’s filmmaking is as accomplished as ever, but it’s also cast extraordinarily well, with Crowe delivering one of the best performances of his career. He was in the middle of an epic run, beginning with Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential in 1997 and continuing through Michael Mann’s The Insider, and Gladiator would be followed by Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind, and Peter Weir’s Master and Commander. All five of those films would be nominated for Best Picture, with both Gladiator and A Beautiful Mind taking home the top prize. He’s extraordinarily charismatic as Maximus, and you get a great sense as to why men would follow him where he leads, even if it means their deaths await them. He’s given some astonishing scenes here — the classic “Are you not entertained?” moment, after having slain all of his opponents in the arena, and the revelation of his identity to Commodus in the center of the coliseum (analyzed to perfection here by The AV Club) — and rises to the occasion at every turn. Countless actors would imitate him in similar roles in the years to come, most of which would attempt to substitute loudness for presence (i.e, Gerard Butler in 300), but none would even come close.

 
 

The rest of the ensemble is equally strong. Phoenix’s Commodus is gleefully slimy and evil, his anemic pallor suggesting the rot at his core, and his attempts to seduce his sister are as gross and skin-crawling as anything in Caligula without him having to resort to off-screen fisting. Nielsen anchors the film’s political subplots, and she does a good job at helping to keep them intriguing when only metaphorical heads are rolling, as opposed to the gory spectacle in the arena. Djimon Hounsou, familiar to American audiences as Joseph Cinque in Spielberg’s Amistad, would parlay his successes here as Juba, fellow Gladiator and friend of Maximus, into a lengthy career in action cinema. And, as befitting a sword-and-sandal picture, classically-trained English actors such as Richard Harris, Oliver Reed, and Derek Jacobi would bring additional respectability to the proceedings, with Harris’s career seeing a significant boost

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Technologically, Scott’s film would anticipate and innovate in a sector that only grew as we moved into the new century: That of the digital recreation of a deceased actor. Oliver Reed’s Proximo was originally supposed to survive the events of the film, but Reed died from a heart attack during the shoot after challenging a bunch of young British sailors to a drinking contest (the legendary alcoholic’s final binge: Eight pints of lager, 12 double rums, and half a bottle of whiskey). Using a combination of CGI, smart re-writing, and alternate takes from production, the visual effects team managed to create a passable version of Reed for his remaining scenes in the film, the stitchwork only revealing itself to the viewer if they’re looking for the seams. This has become common practice over the years, and it’s been done much more extensively in the interim, in films like Furious 7 or Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, after the untimely deaths of Paul Walker and Carrie Fisher, respectively. It comes with its own ethical quandaries, of course, but Gladiator provided a template for one to do it with some amount of respect.

Of even greater interest is its immediate-and-long-term effects on other films, some of which continue to the present day. Gladiator spawned a new wave of blockbusters interested in Greco-Roman history and mythology, few of which came close to equaling the dizzying heights that Scott achieved. It took about four years for the Best Picture winner’s influence to truly manifest itself, but when 2004 hit, a series of big-budget disappointments nearly screwed the pooch. One could argue that aspects of its influence were felt in a few projects released before that point — the genre’s newfound popularity surely had helped to convince the suits at Universal to greenlight The Scorpion King for release in 2002, and John Logan’s next big historical project, the 2003 Tom Cruise vehicle The Last Samurai, shares a small amount of DNA with the project in its exploration of a warrior culture on the precipice of great change.

 
 

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Wolfgang Peterson’s Troy, released in May, was among the first of these. It was a star-studded adaptation of Homer’s Illiad and its ephemera, starring Brad Pitt as Achilles, and attempted to merge the myth of the poetic epic with what Peterson and company assumed was the reality on the ground during the Trojan War. A realist take on King Arthur, starring Clive Owen and Keira Knightly and set after the fall of Rome, would bow in July, and it would really only be remembered for a controversy surrounding the digital manipulation of Knightly’s bust in the advertising. Oliver Stone’s Alexander would follow in the fall of that same year, and completely flop, barely making its budget back despite a prime awards-bait release date. While certainly rosier than Alexander‘s utter failure, Troy‘s relative underperformance in the United States (it had far greater success overseas) would put a halt to some of the bigger-budget efforts set in antiquity, at least until Clash of the Titans hit in 2010.

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Surprisingly enough, the genre thrived in the modestly-budgeted sectors of the studio system and overseas. The greatest success of these was Zack Snyder’s 300, which tells the story of the Battle of Thermopylae, and whose writer, comic-book maestro Frank Miller, adapting his own work, was similarly inspired by a late-period studio sword and sandal flick from the ’60s, The 300 Spartans. It offered a complimentary and rosy vision of the past (the perpetually-stated of republican values from characters, who, in reality, held no such views, offers a nice counterpoint to Snyder’s presentation of the Spartan society as upholders of democracy and freedom), made additionally distorted by the addition of a post-9/11 jingoism and stoking of culture war embers that, thankfully, didn’t exist to the same extent when Scott was crafting his film. There were other small successes (The Eagle, Neil Marshall’s Centurian), and failures (The Last Legion) along the way, and by the time that 300: Rise of an Empire rolled around in 2014, cinema had moved on.

 
 

Yet, perhaps Gladiator‘s biggest impact would be on the television landscape. Adaptations of Greek and Roman myths and history had always played well on the smaller screen — there have to be miniseries versions of The Odyssey or The Illiad at any given point because what the hell are hungover English or Latin teachers supposed to show when they can’t keep their eyes open at work? The difference, perhaps, was that we’d fully entered the Prestige TV era, where networks were willing to throw a decent amount of cash at whatever would get them subscriptions. The biggest of these efforts, HBO’s Rome, feels practically like a spiritual brother to Gladiator, though the series was set in the time of Julius Caesar, some 250 years before Maximus would enter the Coliseum for the first time.

Its premiere aired in 2005 and attracted a lot of attention, yet it would only last two seasons before the costs of production outweighed the number of viewers that it drew, and HBO canned it. Around two years later, Starz would greenlight a new take on Spartacus, influenced, in part, by Scott’s vision, and it would go on to be a relatively beloved cult hit. But HBO’s experience of making Rome would have long-reaching effects on the television industry, and, early on, it was regularly held up as a point of comparison by industry figures to another expensive and expansive show: Game of Thrones.

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Scott would take the lessons that he learned from this project and apply them to some of his next films, though the legendarily prolific filmmaker’s style is too broad to claim that it influenced all of them. His newfound sturdiness as an action director would elevate Black Hawk Down, which, over time, would come to hold a similar place in the hearts of Dad Cinema enthusiasts everywhere. He would also return more frequently to the well of historical cinema, and 2005’s Kingdom of Heaven, butchered by the studio, would come to hold a special place in the hearts of film nerds everywhere upon the release of its Director’s Cut (more on that at a later date). Some five years later, he’d reteam with Crowe for a revisionist retelling of Robin Hood along the same lines as Gladiator, and aside from introducing a number of viewers to Oscar Issac, the movie wouldn’t be nearly as successful, financially and creatively. His 2014 effort, Exodus: Gods and Kings, would attract controversy and condemnation in equal measure, and, frankly, the less said about that film, the better. Scott’s next film, The Last Duel, sees him tackling similar historical territory, telling the story of a duel between two knights (Ben Affleck and Matt Damon) who are ordered to fight to the death, and here’s to hoping that it turns out to be as strong as Gladiator.