Film Score: Hans Zimmer Cinematography: John Mathieson
Starring: Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen and Oliver Reed
Gladiator is one of his all time great films. It’s a powerful story, derivative of Spartacus and The Fall of the Roman Empire, but going in a very different direction. Where the Kirk Douglas film was all about a slave rebellion, the Russell Crow venture focuses on individual vengeance, and while the Roman epic emphasizes realism and historical accuracy, Scott’s story sacrifices that for action and suspense. It’s really the best of both worlds. But the comparisons are also appropriate as the scope of the film demonstrates a revival of the kind of epic rarely seen in Hollywood since the sixties. There’s simply nothing to complain about in this picture. The photography by John Mathieson is stunningly beautiful, and combined with the color manipulation and CGI work it makes for a hyper-realistic experience. Hans Zimmer’s score provides the kind of rousing, mirror image of the visuals that he is known for. And the acting is first rate, although Russell Crowe engenders the same kind of opposing reactions as the director, but his presence is nevertheless an example of the perfect casting for the kinds of characters that inhabit Scott’s film. The ultimate recognition for the picture came in the form of an Academy Award for best picture, and four more Oscars to go along with it, including one for Crowe as best actor.
The film begins with an action sequence, the Roman Legions preparing for war in the north with Teutonic barbarians who threaten their northern frontier. They are led by their general, Russell Crowe, and overseen by the emperor, Richard Harris. The battle is filmed and edited in a similar fashion as the opening to Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan two years earlier and is just as effective. After the victory Harris’s children, Joaquin Phoenix and Connie Nielsen, along with several senators make their way north to hear who Harris will choose as his successor. When the scheming Phoenix learns that it is going to be Crowe instead of himself, he kills his father and tries to do the same to Crowe, but the general manages to escape. Back in Italy Phoenix has Crowe’s entire family killed and then sells him into slavery. Crowe is assisted in his recovery by fellow slave Djimon Hounsou, and eventually they meet their master, Oliver Reed, who trains gladiators. Crowe doesn’t let on that he knows how to fight until Reed puts him into the ring for the first time chained to Hounsou, but he defeats everyone he goes up against. Back in Rome, Phoenix has ignored the Senate and instituted regular games of death in the Coliseum in order to distract the people from the neglect of the government. Derek Jacobi and John Schrapnel are the two senators who attempt to resist, but the mob loves the games. All of which sets up the return of Crowe to Rome in the guise of a skilled and victorious gladiator who threatens to win the people’s hearts away from Phoenix.
Joaquin Phoenix and Russell Crowe are the two sides of the central conflict, one is for complete dictatorial rule while the other has been urged by Harris to reinstate the Senate as the ruling body in Rome. While Phoenix attempts to dissolve the Senate altogether, Crowe seeks only revenge for his family. But Connie Nielsen also does a tremendous job as Phoenix’s sister, especially considering the new emperor essentially wants her to be his wife rather than his sister, with all that implies. She walks a dangerous line as she is in league with the Senate and in love with Crowe, and must do so while trying to keep her son, Spencer Treat Clark, from being seduced away from her by Phoenix. The film is also notable for being the final screen performance of the great Oliver Reed, who is commanding onscreen, but cost the production tremendously when some scenes had to be computer created as he died before principal photography had ended. Djimon Hounsou is also a great addition to the cast, from another culture but connected to Crowe by his humanity. And fellow gladiator Ralf Moeller is equally great as he comes to respect Crowe for his prodigious skill in the ring. Tommy Flanagan, as Crowe’s servant, is the other major player who is integral to the plot toward the end of the film.
The film was made by Ridley Scott in association with Steven Spielberg’s Dreamworks. Screenwriter David Franzoni had, in fact, written Spielberg’s historical drama Amistad, which also starred Djimon Hounsou. But Scott brought in John Logan to re-write the dialogue more to his liking, and on the strength of the director and the huge budget, one hundred million dollars, Russell Crowe was eager to sign on. But trouble began prior to production, and several other uncredited screenwriters were brought onboard to sculpt Crowe’s character more to the actor’s liking. In terms of historical accuracy, this was never really a consideration for Scott, who was intent on making a picture with mass audience appeal. Some critics had a problem with the kind of cartoon-like effects that were a major part of the film, something that would become ubiquitous in subsequent years and resulted in films like 300 that were nearly all special effects. Others were unimpressed with the acting, especially by Crowe, but like Titanic a few years earlier, it is the spectacle that is really the major point of the film rather than artistic merit or brilliant acting. Oscar wins for costume design and visual effects only reinforce that idea. Ultimately, Gladiator is one of those best picture Oscar winners that gives audiences something they can only experience through the magic of the movies, an impressive feat in its own right.