Gladiator is the first such toga-decadence-colosseum epic since, probably, Von Sternberg’s unfinished I, Claudius of 1936 to have an actor of the first rank in the lead role and a cast that is not elsewhere unnerving (Tony Curtis, you will remember, was a bit of a worry in Spartacus, Victor Mature a pungently heaving menace in The Robe, Charlton Heston a teeth-flexing hunk of marble in both The Ten Commandments and Ben Hur, Edmond Purdom an oily Mediterranean gigolo in The Egyptian, Elizabeth Taylor a shrill spoiled shrieking schoolgirl in Cleopatra, Jeffrey Hunter just a pretty face in King of Kings and John Wayne’s Golgotha-surveying centurion in The Greatest Story Ever Told – ‘Surely this man was the Son of God’ – an instant world classic of Coarse Acting, while their various co-stars Laughton, Ustinov, Harrison, Burton, Hawkins and Thring as a rule were excellent).
For I found Russell Crowe’s impersonation of blood-drenched Roman honour – integritas I think it is called – every bit as good as Brando’s Antony or Olivier’s Crassus or Ian McKellen’s Coriolanus on the stage. What he does is a kind of deep telepathy: his is a deadpan as communicative as Ian Holm’s and as charismatic-heroic (I refer in particular to Romper Stomper) as Richard Burton’s or Anthony Hopkins’.
The film is not, I suppose, good history (there were as few gladiator-demagogues then as there are wrestler-messiahs now), but it is refreshingly and, for Hollywood, unusually free of all taint of Christianity (a minor cult then and for two hundred more years till Constantine converted to it and forced it down the throat of the Roman world), preferring as its underpinning theology Maximus’s yearning for an old soldier’s Other World and stirring and scary throughout, very like The Duellist, the director Ridley Scott’s other sword-flick, set in revolutionary France.
The story is this. Maximus (Crowe), a dedicated warrior-general too long steeped in barbarians’ blood wins yet another famous victory in the snow-swirling forests of Germany and asks his philosopher-emperor, Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) if he might go home (deep shades of Doug Macarthur in Korea) to his wife and young son and his farm in Spain. Aurelius the gentle stoic says no, he wants him, not his pampered insipid son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix plus hare lip) to succeed him as First Consul and reveals this to Commodus too. Commodus smothers him and brazenly and unpopularly seizes the succession. He orders Maximus’s execution. Maximus escapes and galloping vainly arrives home just in time to beweep the corpses of his crucified wife and son in the courtyard of his burnt-out farm. In Learish grief he is captured by what our local Caesar Wiranto would call rogue elements, sold into slavery and bought in a Levantine meat market by Proximo (Oliver Reed), a Roman showman specialising in gladiatorial butchery and fallen on hard times, who sees promise in him after he wins proficiently many fatal battles in the ring.
He arrives at last at the Colosseum where Commodus and his noble sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen) severally recognise him and the fickle mob applaud his victories against chariots, tigers, new cutting-edge weaponry and impossible odds; and the insipid, envious and increasingly crazy Commodus grows less popular by the day. Will Maximus achieve the consulship at last? and the bed of Lucilla who loved him once and loves him still? Will he have his revenge on Commodus at last? Will Commodus beguile his noble sister into incest with murderous threats to her son the imperial heir? Now read on.
It has a few faults, some of them historical. The actual Commodus, for instance, had no surviving sister and did not die in the Colosseum fighting with a mere gladiator. No slave-trading butcher of captured men was ever as beloved as Oliver Reed. No Spaniards in Roman times had, to the best of my knowledge, Australian accents. The battle sequences, moreover, are overcut (like rock clips) and very hard to follow. Maximus’s unending survival, like Ben Hur’s and Indiana Jones’s, exceeds belief, and so does his post-battle chastity. He would so placed have rogered, in Emma Thompson’s fine phrase, anything with a pulse.
And yet it rings true in larger ways, as Julius Caesar does despite its ghost, and Hamlet, another revenge tragedy with considerable flaws. We never doubt Maximus’s love and grief, or the oedipal well-springs of Commodus’s wickedness, or Lucilla’s mother love, romantic nostalgia and watchful corridor-tiptoeing guile. We never doubt the danger everywhere in this bloody pagan world of perpetual battle and spectacular slaughter before hooting and cheering crowds, the DieHard or footy fans of their day. We never doubt the aerial shots of ancient Rome or the random decapitations or the locker-room comradeship of gladiators who must someday soon perhaps kill one another for the multitude’s amusement.
It’s a work that ranks high, therefore, as cinema and as drama, and I yearn in vain for the two missing scenes of Oliver Reed, a mighty carbuncular furious presence who died carousing on the shoot, but there you are.