Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Sh!#ting on the Classics: Gladiator

This past weekend I wasted three hours of my life re-watching Gladiator — three hours that I will never get back. After the jump, I unleash hell.

I will now proceed to make seemingly random comments about this awful, pedestrian film, interspersed with seemingly random fart sounds.

•  Did Ancient Romans wear wedding rings? There is a wedding ring in the first shot of the film. It is a shot we keep going back to again and again and again, only each time we see a little more of it. This is a technique first-year film students frequently use and every single one of them thinks that it is clever. We soon learn that our hero, Maximus (Russell Crowe) is wearing the ring, and it reminded me of the caption they placed under John Lennon’s mug the first time the Beatles played Ed Sullivan—“Sorry girls, he’s married!”


•  Damn, this movie is colorless and drab. The filmmakers were undoubtedly going for that “burnished” look that screams “important,” and “art,” and “important art.” Or are the toned-down colors all a ruse to avoid a dreaded NC-17 for the bloody Colosseum battles? In the film’s latter, hand-to-hand combat scenes, the blood looks black. I was not sure if Russell Crowe was committing murder or striking oil.


•  The film starts with a sequence that would not be out of place in a late nineties army recruiting ad. It just makes war look like so much fun. I half expected Russell Crowe to shout, “Last guy to decapitate a barbarian buys the beer!” The release of this film seems perfectly positioned both historically and philosophically — it anticipates the election of George W. Bush, but it is clearly pre 9/11.


•  The film borrows a page from Independence Day (and countless action movies) by having a dog outrun a fireball, thus breaking all rules of physics. This “suspension of logic” will be handy later during the Colosseum battles, when Russell Crowe actually FLIES. Wait a minute, I do not think that actually happened in the film; I dreamt that after I nodded off. I also dreamt that I had to clap and clap hard to prove that I believed in Russell Crowe, so that he might LIVE!


•  The film’s first battle sequence aptly demonstrates the hypocrisy of the entire enterprise. The filmmakers incite our blood lust by using staging, editing, and music to make the battle exciting, then switch halfway through to slow motion and sad music to make the audience feel guilty for enjoying the violence. In fact, this film never says anything significant about violence, which is odd since the film concerns itself with gladiatorial combat. The closest the film ever gets to a point of view on the proceedings is that good guys use violence often and well. Bad guys are all cowards who are afraid of violence. This is simple minded, to say the least.


•  It is interesting that in the year 2000 AD, the filmmakers felt they had to start with a mighty battle sequence just to grab the audience’s attention – a battle sequence that would have been a fitting climax to any film made in the forties or fifties. Apparently audiences need a blood-soaked 30-minute battle before they will sit still for exposition. Maybe it is true that audience attention spans are… Squirrel!


•  Once it occurred to me that Richard Harris as Marcus Aurelius looks exactly like George Carlin, the first thirty minutes of the film took on a quite demented spin. I expected Harris to start ranting about the seven words you can’t say in the Roman Senate, which would have at least added some levity to this otherwise leaden film.
Poot poot poot poot poot!

•  Halfway through, I realized that Gladiator was nothing more than a Steven Segal or Jean Claude Van Damme movie (and by that I mean HEAVY ACTION) masquerading as a historical epic! Perhaps the real key to the film’s popularity was its simple revenge plot, familiar from hundreds of direct-to-video actioners. I can hear the trailer now: “They took his shield! They took his wife and son! Now, he’s OUT FOR ROME!”

Like other bad action movies, Gladiator contains the tired trope of Maximus fighting six armed warriors and defeating them, but only because each warrior attacks him individually. If only these bad guys would learn to rush the hero en-masse, they could easily kick the shit out of him: “You two hold him, I will stab him!” They always allow the good guy to kill them one by one, while the others stand around politely waiting their turn.


•  I was also struck by how serious this movie is. It has no sense of humor whatsoever about anything, even the risible thought of Oliver Reed, as Proximo, having once been a great gladiator himself. This film is like when your buddy starts dating a girl who is absolutely no fun. She does not get a single joke. She does not like when anyone jokes around. Everyone starts avoiding this friend. Then he wins Best Picture.


•  Gladiator’s R rating (just like the R rating for Saving Private Ryan) reveals the true hypocrisy of the MPAA. When the film is based on “history,” even the most disgusting decapitations, dismemberments, arterial spray, and viscera receive an “R” rating. Put any of that material into an independent film or a horror film and it would automatically receive an NC-17. Of course, Gladiator’s confusing, jarring editing helps to hide some of the gore.


•  Gladiator actually comes across as “bread and circuses” for the late twentieth century — the same need that gladiatorial combat satisfied in the Roman soul is being proffered here for more modern intellects.

The film schizophrenically veers between satisfying our innate bloodlust and assuring us that violence is really bad. It reminded me of Francois Truffaut’s famous quote that it was impossible to make an anti-war film — that once the filmmaker presented war on screen it would be inherently exciting to many filmgoers.


•  To show that cardboard villain Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) is getting nuttier and nuttier, his hair gets messier and messier (like John Lithgow in Rise of the Planet of the Apes of) and his eyes get darker and darker. Near the end of the film, he begins to resemble Edward Scissorhands.


•  One might think the interminable ending is saying that “violence is for naught,” but one would be wrong. Like other hypocritically cheesy filmed entertainments (Dead Poets Society and Braveheart come to mind), that is just a shuck so that the film can have it both ways: a rebel hero who achieves everything through bloody violence AND a sad, sad martyr figure so audiences can leave the theater with a little tear in their eye and Russell Crowe can win the Oscar.


•  In the final analysis, I compare re-watching Gladiator to an epic attack of flatulence – full of sound and fury and signifying… nothing. I suppose it made me feel better, but ultimately it left me feeling rather empty inside. And it cleared the room. PFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFT!

Excuse me. My farts will echo in eternity.


  1. Just curious, did you watch the theatrical cut or Ridley Scott's extended version? Because, while I agree with you completely that "Gladiator" is not a very good movie (let alone Best Picture material), the Scott-approved version is allowed to breath more (like "Kingdom of Heaven") and it's a notable improvement over the paced-for-dummies (and still too long!) theatrical cut.

    You forgot to single out that this is the movie that unleashed to the world the ego-without-bounds monster that Russell Crowe turned out to be. Before "Gladiator" he was a good character actor in a leading man's body (the Brad Pitt curse): "L.A. Confidential," "The Insider," etc. After "Gladiator" though Crowe began to think he really could fly (or at least gently float at floor level) and did star vehicles or humorless dramatic stuff. Some ("Master and Commander") were better than others ("Proof of Life"). The quality of Ridley's output also went down the same boat with the egocentric actor that turned out to be his DeNiro/Mifune. Three word: "A Good Year."

    I had an Architect friend that minored in Ancient History while attending college. The weekend "Gladiator" came out (and for weeks after) he couldn't stop himself every time we met from bitching about/pointing out how absurd, inaccurate and just-plain bad this movie was. I gently tried to tell him that it was the inaccuracies and bloody mayhem that were the reason the film was a giant hit. This is the movie, like "The English Patient" was for me, that got my former friend off the 'Oscars matter' bandwagon for good.

    Me? I've seen it a couple of times (once in theaters) and it still shocks me how sloppy-looking the action/fighting sequences (the money shots the flick is selling) are. From the so-bad-its-laughable slow-motion of the opening fight's arrow attack (like Patrick says, plan ahead your slo-mo shots so they don't look so framey when you're in Post) to the way the jerky camera and constant cutting undermine the impact of most of the fights/battles (to get an 'R' rating?), "Gladiator" makes it hard for audiences to look (let alone enjoy) what they came to see. It's as if Tony Scott came to the set and became his bro's 2nd unit director, or he talked Ridley into adopting his "Domino" shooting style for the parts of the movie people wanted to see. It's a FUgly movie where it shouldn't: the mayhem/action shots.

    All that said, if you're an average movie person and just wants to turn off the brain while watching good-looking men kill each other with weapons (the direct-to-video type of person) you can do a lot worse than "Gladiator." It's trash, but it's glossy and well-made trash that gives patrons looking for blood, guts and toga/sandals more than their money's worth. Establishing shots, interior sets and the drama with the actors when they're not fighting (especially Oliver Reed, Richard Harris and Djimon Hounsou) actually feels epic, but inconsequential if historical accuracy is of any concern.

    Plus, unlike Randall Wallace in "Braveheart," Maximus is faithful to the memory of his dead wife and kid throughout the movie. I got into a mini-argument with Patrick about his comments on the "Braveheart" podcast that Wallace sleeping with Queen Isabelle undermined his final scene in which Wallace is in near-death ecstacy that he's about to meet again with his beloved Murron (!). I disagreed. Just mentioning this because, despite Maximus earning the 'happiness' of his after-life reunion with his wife/child, "Braveheart" is the better of the two epics by far despite the lead character 'cheating' on the memory of his dead wife (and having an anti-climactic 'fight for the memory of Wallace' ending).

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    2. I actually enjoyed A Good Year, I thought it was an unpretentious fun time and a relief from Rid's ''Historical Dramas''. I won,t pretend it's great, but IMO it's a fine film which I'd compare to a bottle of good 20$ wine, not champagne but not ''piquette'' either. I completley agree with J.B. about Gladiator though.

    3. Happy that you liked "A Good Year." I caught it on cable and couldn't shake the feeling it was made just so that Crowe, Scott and their family/friends could have a paid vacation on the studio's dime. It's the definition of a Hollywood-sized 'what I did during my summer vacation' home movie.

  2. Sometimes I feel like Ridley Scott made this just so he can make Kingdom of Heaven (Directors Cut, not the horrible Theatrical Cut) which also glamorizes violence but at least is about SOMETHING rather than how awesome the main character is.

    Also the comparison of Gladiator to a friend who dates a humorless girlfriend: perfect!

  3. I must respectfully disagree with your take on Gladiator. Other than your complaints about style, it seems that they boil down to expecting the movie to give you a modern interpretation of war and violence.

    If it seems schizophrenic that is because the ancient view of violence was just as confused. Gladiator is a great example of the tension between violence and reason that existed in the ancient world. It many ways, it is a film in the vein of Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian War, where the Peloponnesians and Delians first bully the Melians, threatening annihilation, but in the end regret the necessity of their violence are themselves destroyed.

    If the villains and heros seem too good or too evil, it is precisely because the movie moves in this same Roman way, like Ovid's Metamorphosis, making the characters universals instead of particular people with differing motivations.

    Your complaints seem to miss both the point and the intention of the movie.

    And the Ancient Romans invented the wedding ring.

  4. No, I believe you have missed both the point and the intention of my column. I was just making a bunch of fart jokes.

    Thank you for the history lesson though.