It's ironic — in an Alanis Morissette kinda way — that a new breed of action hero should have been born of a film that harks back so resolutely to a past era. Not the era of ancient Rome as such, but of the Hollywood period epic which presided over the blockbuster pantheon from the days of silent cinema to the 1970s, when it was usurped by the more contemporary spectacles of blazing skyscrapers and overturned ocean liners.
Grand scale sci-fi and the FX revolution of the late 70s/early 80s effectively delivered the deathblow to the sword'n'sandal monolith. We can be grateful then that it was Scott, a director renowned for his majestic cinematic vision, who chose to breathe new life into the old war-horse. And what life it is.
After an initial period of uncertainty, Scott leapt aboard when he was shown a Victorian painting of two gladiators locked in mortal combat, the sunlight streaming into the arena and the vast crowd baying for blood. It's not hard to see what appealed to him: the intensity of the moment, the sweeping spectacle and the image itself, a portrait of a fantastically advanced society resplendent in cultural riches yet underpinned by obscene cruelty and recreational violence.
The opening battle scene, visceral, mud-spattered and drenched in blood, sets the tone. Hordes of extras crashing against each other in waves; agonising hand-to-hand combat; a deluge of flaming arrows and exploding fireballs turning the forest into a hellish conflagration; the noise and stench and chaos of the melee. And Scott puts us right in the thick of it. Brilliant use of Steadicam and stroboscopic editing give you a taste of military conflict from a time when to kill a man in battle meant standing close enough to feel his breath on your face.
The sequence is one of many stunning set pieces that punctuate the story of Maximus Decimus Meridius (Crowe), the star general of the Roman army who is betrayed by the Emperor Commodus, sold into slavery and forced to become a gladiator. Plotting revenge for the murder of his wife and child, he becomes a hero of the people, ultimately confronting his nemesis on the killing floor of the Colosseum. Originally the part of Maximus was earmarked for Antonio Banderas (that's why, presumably, he's Spanish). Banderas makes a lot of sense — he has the looks, the physicality and screen presence. But luckily, he bailed, leaving the way open for Crowe. Crowe has all the qualifications that Banderas has, but where Banderas' prowess as an action star is essentially cinematic (he looks good firing a handgun in slo-mo, basically), Crowe gives the impression that he genuinely is quite a bit harder than the average nail.
He is worlds away from the ludicrous, neo-narcissist musclemen of the 80s (Arnie, Sly et al) and doesn't fit comfortably into the mid 90s school of lithe pretty boys (Keanu, Nic Cage etc.) either. Instead, like the film itself, he's a throwback to the action stars of yesteryear. Kirk Douglas is, for several reasons, the obvious example: unconventionally handsome, athletic without being showy and, most importantly, as solid as a rock. (Douglas also played a gladiator in some film or other.) Crowe is not a big man, he certainly doesn't have a bodybuilder's physique, but in the fight scenes his victories are totally convincing, even when he's pitted against seemingly insuperable odds. The look in his eyes, wracked with pain, boiling with testosterone and burning with hate has a singular message: don't fucking mess.
The fights themselves are thrillingly orchestrated and again feature fractured, kinetic editing and dynamic camerawork. They are so exciting, in fact, particularly the one where Maximus fights the retired champion while snarling tigers hem them into the centre of the arena, you get the slightly uncomfortable feeling that the emotions they stir are not so very far removed from those experienced by the roaring crowd. Scott's Rome — part ancient metropolis, part modern Manhattan, part Speer's Nazi Berlin — are suitably awe-inspiring; Joaquin Phoenix enjoys himself immensely as the loopy Commodus and there's a host of fruity English thesps filling up the type of roles that were once the preserve of Jack Hawkins, Peter Ustinov and Larry Olivier.
David Hemmings is tremendous as the ringmaster Cassius, Richard Harris cuts the ham thick as Emperor Marcus Aurelius and Derek Jacobi (no stranger to a toga) is typically solid as a liberal senator. But of the character players it is, of course, Oliver Reed who leaves the most indelible impression. Reed died during the production, but his gruff, bravura performance as gladiator trainer Proximo is a fitting swansong and his final line of dialogue — "We mortals are but shadows and dust" — a hauntingly apt epitaph. That said, "You sold me queer giraffes!" is an even better one.
What filmmaker would not relish the challenge of rendering the dichotomy of Rome the enlightenment and discipline that conquered the world versus the cancerous corruption that destroyed it? And Scott, with Crowe, rise to the challenge with typical gusto
Maximus was the general of Rome and a really good general at that. He lead Rome to many victories. He was so great and loyal that in the movie, Marcus Aurelius actually asked him to succeed him in the throne. When Commodus heard this from his father, he killed him and sentenced Maximus to death. When Maximus escaped, he was picked up by a group of men and sold as a slave to become a gladiator. As a gladiator, he fought many different types of gladiators. Quicker ones had nets with tridents and slower ones had curved swords with shields. There were some gladiators that even had chariots. In the actual history of Rome, there really were different types of gladiators. The gladiators with the net and trident were called the retarius. The gladiator with the curved sword and shield were called the samnite. There’s a scene in the movie where it’s a one on one battle between Maximus and a champion gladiator. Maximus is barely armed and protected. The other man has two swords, a mask for protection, and heavy armor. This shows how each type of gladiator was to fight a different kind of gladiator so the match would be even and fair.
In the movie, Commodus is very sneaky and vengeful. He uses murder in his politics also. He killed his father, tried to kill Maximus and even wanted to get rid of the senate in order for him to become a “true emperor.” He thinks the senate is unneeded and believes himself to be more of a people’s person then the actual senators. In history, there was much murder in the government also. The Gracchis were murdered as well as Caesar. Commodus tries to assassinate and kill Maximus since Maximus is supposed to be the successor to the throne after Marcus Aurelius. In Roman History, the Romans never developed a formal policy of succession. Although many emperors named their successors, the Roman army often refused to accept the new emperors and assassinated them. This is what Commodus tried to do with Maximus in order for himself to become emperor and rule.
Gracchus wants the citizens of Rome to be happy in the movie and makes sure the emperor hears the problems and needs of the people when he councils with him. He even suggests possible solutions to the problems. He seems to be a people’s person very much and knows how some of the senators can be crooked. In Roman history, there were actually two Gracchis who were actually both murdered because they were disliked by crooked senators who used violence to get ahead. The real Gracchis wanted to help the citizens out also. They even used public funds to purchase grain to be sold to the poor at low prices so they can afford it. They also improved the political status of the equites (business and land owning people.)
Lucillia, sister of Commodus, has a son named Lucius. Her son was named after his father who died in 169 A.D. His name was Lucius Veras. In the movie, she is portrayed as a widow, but, in real history, she remarries to Tiberius Claudius Pompeianus Quintianus of Antioch. In the movie, she joins the plot for the good of the Roman people but she really participated in this plot because she lusted after power. She also supports her brother in the movie but was actually involved in a plot with her cousin to assassinate Commodus and raise her husband up as emperor. The plan was figured out and she was banished to the island of Capri. In the movie, it shows her as out- living her brother but she is actually executed at the island because he changed his mind.