***/**** Image A Sound A- Extras A+
starring Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen, Richard Harris
screenplay by David Franzoni and John Logan and William Nicholson
directed by Ridley Scott
by Bill Chambers
"Joey, do you like movies about gladiators?"
-Captain Clarence Oveur (Peter Graves), Airplane!
Ridley Scott's Gladiator is good now. I suppose it was always good, if money and Oscars are indicators of quality, but for me, it was a late bloomer whose virtues have seemingly become more visible since the tide of its success receded. I remember Roger Ebert's review of the film, which he called "Rocky on downers," as one I felt a kinship with. In print and on television, he was especially dismayed by the "shabby" computer-generated Colosseum. The year before, George Lucas had set The Phantom Menace against digital cityscapes, but Gladiator marked one of the first times CGI was used extensively in a non-fantastical setting. (Harping on the Colosseum is a compliment, really, as in all likelihood it means the other products of the mainframe--the flaming arrows, the crowds, the patchwork performance of Oliver Reed--didn't draw attention to themselves.) In a currently-offline article published in 2001, I wrote that "Gladiator provokes meatier discussion as the computer age's first fully dehumanized non-sci-fi film: the late Oliver Reed became a mere mediator for his technologically aided performance, the stony streets of Rome bear an anachronistic (and soulless) patina, and Maximus is the most passive bloodlust-er Hollywood has ever seen, a video game hero on the fritz." Some context: that was me trying to hex Gladiator's chances at the Academy Awards. Needless to say, it didn't work.
I barely remember being this invested in toppling Gladiator. It wasn't just my natural contrarian impulse, I don't think--it was also that people were acting like this silly movie wasn't. Silly, that is. I have nothing against silly movies--some of my best friends are silly movies--but I hate to see one elevated to such lofty heights that its trash pleasures never factor into the conversation. (Hearing the solemn praise for it on the stage of the Shrine Auditorium was like listening to a review of a Big Mac in French.) And it seemed to me that Gladiator fans never adequately reckoned with its derivativeness: No matter how you slice it, it's Spartacus Lite, and it managed to win one more Oscar than Spartacus did despite having nothing in it as cinematically effective as that scene where Spartacus and Draba sit in a box waiting for their turn in the arena, the din of unseen combat, the sight of Spartacus blanching at what he sees through the slats, and the Kubrickian soundtrack flourish of a little Prokofiev combining to create a powerful sense of dread that Scott struggles to emulate. Gladiator notoriously went into production with only 32 pages of script. The rest was filled out over the course of the shoot by a panoply of writers, including star Russell Crowe himself, who was charged with the caretaking of his character. I've often wondered if that's how it came to borrow so much from Spartacus, since that kind of pressure cooker is bound to drive desperate screenwriters to consult a roadmap. Ironically, Gladiator would later be up for Best Original Screenplay--a nomination that eluded the Dalton Trumbo-scripted Spartacus.
It was Ralphie Cifaretto, dismembered killer of strippers, who finally pried Gladiator apart from its pretensions (either intentional or inflicted ex post facto) for me. In an otherwise unpleasant episode of "The Sopranos", Ralphie's enthusiasm for the film manifests as a swashbuckling imitation of Crowe's Maximus that transforms his "Are you not entertained?" speech into wrestlers' patter, the early A.D. Equivalent of "Do you smell what The Rock is cookin'?" That's a far cry from the Haneke-ian scolding for our violent appetites once deemed implicit in Crowe's words, and I'm suddenly inclined to shout back, "Fuck yeah, I'm entertained!" The filmmakers aren't exactly concerned with humanizing the guys Maximus leaves for dead in that scene, who wear face-obscuring masks and communicate in grunts and growls. I don't know that it's even possible to preach antiviolence in a movie like this, with a power-mad villain who kills his father, orders the slaughter of the hero's wife and very young son (last seen as a pair of tiny barbecued legs dangling from a tree), and makes unwanted sexual overtures to his own sister, Lucilla (Connie Nielsen). Asking us to check our bloodlust is practically entrapment.
Gladiator uses real historical names and events, which leased it a certain amount of credibility, though it strays, to put it mildly, from documented fact, which Tarantino's revisionist fantasies have in recent years made not only more palatable but also fashionable. In this alternate universe, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) is next in line for the throne, but his dying father, Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris, who briefly imbues this material with a genuine frisson of tragedy), wants to name Maximus, his best general, as his successor. Maximus has just defeated the Germanic tribes at Vindobona, and Marcus believes that he would be more likely than Commodus to root out corruption in the senate and fulfill Marcus's vision of a restored Republic. After Commodus hugs Marcus to death, a battle of wills ensues between him and Maximus, one that always struck me as vaguely homophobic in its masculine/feminine coding: beefy vs. bony, rugged vs. stylish, macho vs. effete. Yet the passage of time has completely altered my perception of Commodus, a formerly retrograde stereotype who has come to predict a political archetype: the sullen heir that Bush II introduced and Trump perfected. Blame the Song of Trump that currently plays in the collective consciousness 24 hours a day, but after the following exchange between Commodus and Marcus, my mother and I looked at each other and said, in unison, "Trump."
COMMODUS: You wrote to me once, listing the four chief virtues: wisdom, justice, fortitude, and temperance. As I read the list I knew I had none of them. But I have other virtues, Father. Ambition, that can be a virtue when it drives us to excel. Resourcefulness. Courage, perhaps not on the battlefield but there are many forms of courage. Devotion, to my family, to you. But none of my virtues were on your list. Even then, it was as if you didn't want me for your son.
MARCUS: Oh, Commodus, you go too far.
COMMODUS: I searched the faces of the gods for ways to please you, to make you proud. One kind word, one full hug while you pressed me to your chest and held me tight, would have been like the sun on my heart for a thousand years. What is it in me you hate so much? All I ever wanted was to live up to you, Caesar, Father.
MARCUS: Commodus, your faults as a son is my failure as a father.
COMMODUS: Father, I would have butchered the whole world if you would have only loved me!
The snivelling tone, the championing of diseased values, the urge to scorch the earth because daddy never said "I love you"--all vintage Trump. Ditto Commodus's pre-stabbing of Maximus before their climactic showdown, which feels like it falls into the same bitch-move category as gassing protestors before walking through an area of civil unrest. Even Commodus opting for a tournament of gladiator games over a sewer system that could prevent the spread of plague has proved to be an uncanny commentary on Trump's perpetual misdirection of resources. These parallels juice the movie's tension considerably, turning it into an anxious countdown to Commodus's highly cathartic demise. Despite his Byronic countenance, adult hands, and ability to speak English, Phoenix is more evocative of our mass-murdering rapist POTUS than many of the countless impersonations that have flooded late-night television.
Similarly, Crowe's Maximus Decimus Meridius (he's Spanish) has scant forward drive as a character. He is, rather fascinatingly, ambivalent about--bordering on disinterested in--the opportunity to lead Rome. What sets off his beef with Commodus isn't that Commodus usurps the power promised him--it's that he knows Commodus putting himself in charge goes against Marcus's wishes. A soldier, Maximus would be ridiculing his commander by joining Team Commodus. When Marcus asks him about his plans for the future, Maximus has no delusions of grandeur. He speaks of wanting to be a farmer and spend quality time with his family, for which he is lightly teased. But he means it. The key image of the film, copied countless times since (mainly by advertisers hawking the American/Canadian dream), is of Maximus running his fingers through a field of wheat like one of Terrence Malick's dreamers. I always remembered these shots as being a warm and lush contrast to Maximus's often icy-blue reality, but that's only the case the first time they appear, after which they become even more grimly monochromatic than the present. It's a barren fantasy, much like Marcus's utopian vision of the future. While Gladiator isn't completely hopeless, "Rocky on downers" more or less covers it. The hero is vengeance-minded but virtually paralyzed by grief; the villain is listless without a grudge to define him (again, shades of Trump). There is no real tension in the film until fate puts Commodus and Maximus in close proximity again, which takes a long time in the theatrical cut and longer still in the extended cut--not a director's cut, Ridley "King of the Director's Cuts" Scott is careful to clarify in an optional introduction on disc. The extended cut is Scott scratching an itch without second-guessing the Academy.
I have to assume this is a feature, not a bug, given the echoes of Scott's feature debut, The Duellists, another movie about enemies taking forever to kill each other. Gladiator borrows one of that film's visual hallmarks, the creeping zoom-ins on the actors' faces--a technique popularized by Altman and Kubrick, who obviously used it to very different ends. (For Scott, it functions like an attempted X-ray of these characters at their most dissembling.) The crucial distinction between the two pictures is that The Duellists has twin protagonists, or twin antagonists, a pair of French lieutenants whose years-long feud is a love story after a fashion, with the Napoleonic wars repeatedly thwarting their efforts at consummation. It's structured the way it is because it's a cosmic joke, whereas Maximus and Commodus are merely caught in a narrative tractor beam pulling them towards the centre; the delayed gratification of Gladiator is the film following a genre imperative since High Noon and time immemorial. Unfortunately, Scott had become more of a, er, maximalist over the years, and all of this stalling--Maximus's prison-movie camaraderie with the other gladiators, played by the likes of Ralf Moeller and Djimon Hounsou (cast as a slave in two DreamWorks productions in a row); the antiheroics of slave-owner Proximo (Oliver Reed); Lucilla's behind-the-scenes wrangling on Maximus's behalf--is crying out for a lighter touch. Gladiator is an old-fashioned peplum down to its enervating dramaturgy. Particularly problematic, nay, inappropriate, the revelation that Lucilla and Maximus once were lovers lingers stalely in the air while Maximus waxes poetic about his late wife. Lucilla also has a young son, Lucius (Spencer Treat Clark), who vexes his uncle by idolizing Maximus the Merciful. Is Maximus Lucius's birth father, as the occasionally loaded exchange of glances suggests? Is Deckard a replicant? Scott is as gratuitously cagey as ever, mistaking loose ends for provocation.
These are criticisms I had in 2000 and they haven't gone away, although the dulcet tones of Dead Can Dance's Lisa Gerrard on the soundtrack do soften the bumps. But watching Gladiator in 2020, I found myself nostalgic for these white-elephant movies that used to falter organically due to genre convention or simple commercial compromise, as opposed to the new corporate burdens of burnishing brands and building worlds. If I dreaded a glut of wannabes competing for its sloppy seconds at the box office and beyond (the copycats that trail any monster hit are exhausting enough when you love the original), the five-year gap between Braveheart and Gladiator should've quelled my fears. We were witnessing the last gasp of a certain kind of summertime juggernaut; as it turned out, the most conspicuous contenders in the Gladiator sweepstakes came from Scott himself, whose Kingdom of Heaven opened to empty theatres and whose Exodus: Gods and Kings made a mockery of his pet genre. Even the one non-Scott flick indebted to Gladiator, Zack Snyder's 300, is based on a comic and sired an unlikely sequel, while the aforementioned Exodus: Gods and Kings was a stealth remake of The Ten Commandments. Oh, to have "original" blockbusters back--no franchise aspirations and nothing to sell except the star's charisma and 150 ounces of popcorn. Fortunately, Gladiator rewards one's nostalgia for them. It has tigers and shit!
THE 4K UHD DISC
To commemorate the 20th anniversary of Gladiator, Paramount has reissued its 2018 4K Ultra HD release of the film in a handsome steelbook adorned with Russell Crowe's Maximus in full fight stance, prepared to cut a bitch. When Gladiator first came out on Blu-ray, it was met with controversy for being overzealously degrained and edge-enhanced, but the studio was quick to correct their mistake, and thankfully this UHD upgrade exhibits no such flaws. The disc presents the film in its 155- and 171-minute versions on the same side of a BD-100 via seamless branching, with no measurable qualitative difference in the restored footage. The 2.35:1, 2160p transfer includes 12-bit (Dolby Vision) and 10-bit HDR enhancement, the latter of which is what I audited for this review. I was spellbound by the detail of the image and its sharp depth of contrast, by the finely resolved Super 35 grain structure, by the richness of the highlights and how they make vivid beacons of firelight and daybreak. I love the way the shafts of light in the bullpen beneath the arena transform that tableau into a baroque painting--a signature Scott effect that's usually lost in translation on the small screen. While the accompanying SDR presentation on Blu-ray is no slouch, the upticks in clarity and dynamic range are evident from the first closeup of Crowe (his fur collar doesn't catch the sunlight as it does in HDR), and the blue grade of the prologue is far denser in 1080p, making the image look underexposed. In its 7.1 DTS-HD MA mixdown, the attendant DTS:X remix boasts an expansive, elastic soundstage; Gladiator sounds huge from the first charge of soldiers on horseback, genuinely challenging my memories of the film in a THX auditorium. I did find the track a little cluttered and front-heavy, and I'm not sure the ADR has ever been more conspicuous, but this is big audio dynamite from frame one.
There are separate Ridley Scott audio commentaries for the theatrical and extended cuts. Recorded in 2000, the former teams him with editor Pietro Scalia and DP Mathieson, while the latter reunites him with Crowe around the time of Body of Lies. Unquestionably, I preferred his conversation with Crowe: Scalia and Mathieson don't bring enough of themselves to the table and instead fall into the trap of narrating the film and justifying the characters' motivations--something I would've sooner expected from the Crowe pairing. Crowe and Scott discuss the picture's preoccupation with death, Crowe's mercurial co-stars (Richard Harris told Scott "piss off" when he was asked to learn new dialogue after already memorizing his part), and directorial flourishes such as Scott's "Kurosawa snow thing," as Crowe puts it. Joaquin Phoenix is a subject of fascination for them, maybe inevitably; Harris apparently called him a poet. The highlight of the group yakker has Scott's collaborators reminding him he was accused of ripping off Triumph of the Will when the crowds salute Commodus's 'motorcade.' Scott manages to convince himself that because the Nazi party modelled their iconography on that of the Romans, this is a case of Leni Riefenstahl ripping him off.
A second platter contains the film on Blu-ray along with the abovementioned yakkers and a "topic portal" ("Visions from Elysium") that branches to relevant featurettes. Meanwhile, a third platter, again a Blu-ray, is dedicated to special features, all of which are recycled from the 2005 Extended Edition DVD in 480i--except for the costume gallery and the theatrical trailer, both of which get bumped up to HD. The centrepiece is the feature-length (i.e., 197-minute) consolidation of the "Visions from Elysium" segments, Strength and Honor: Creating the World of 'Gladiator', an imposing making-of divided into seven parts--"Tale of the Scribes: Story Development" (34 mins.), "The Tools of War: Weapons" (13 mins.), "Attire of the Realm: Costume Design" (20 mins.), "The Heat of the Battle: Production Journals" (66 mins.), "Shadows and Dust: Resurrecting Proximo" (25 mins.), "The Glory of Rome: Visual Effects" (20 mins.), and "Echoes in Eternity: Release and Impact" (18 mins.)--to aid digestion, and there's an "advanced viewing mode" exclusive to Blu-ray that provides access to additional vignettes, such as "Story: 'Gladiator' Compared to Modern Sports," in which Scott equates classic gladiatorial combat with modern American football, hitting the nail on the head perhaps harder than he meant to. This is another stellar effort from DVD superproducer Charles de Lauzirika that rests comfortably alongside his other comprehensive documentaries on Scott's most epochal works. No stone is left unturned, from the Jean-Léon Gérôme painting ("Pollice Verso") that hooked Ridley on the project to the cautious handling of the tigers (not just Crowe, either); from the guesswork involved in recreating the Colosseum to the digital resurrection of Oliver Reed, who passed away during filming--but not before de Lauzirika could interview him. Recalling that he was told Ridley Scott would be sending him a screenplay, Reed says, "...I opened the bag when it came through the door, and the first thing that slipped out was, 'The sending of this script does not constitute an offer.' So I thought, 'Fuck him.'"
Several segments fall under the heading "Images and Design," beginning with "Production Design Primer: Arthur Max" (9 mins.), which sees the titular production designer crediting Orientalist and Pre-Raphaelite paintings with having the most influence on his and Scott's vision for the film. He says the Colosseum presented the biggest challenge and ruefully remembers DreamWorks pushing to re-create it in a warehouse in Los Angeles, much to Scott's chagrin. A production design gallery consisting of 169 images follows. "Storyboarding Demonstration: Sylvain Despretz" (14 mins.) is an inspiring tutorial of sorts from the gifted Despertz, whose 'boards for Gladiator resemble a comic book. Despertz also narrates "Multi-Angle Comparisons" that contrast his sketches for three set-pieces--"Germania Battlefront," "Chain Fight," and "Battle of Carthage"--with the finished product. An additional storyboard gallery, some 800 images strong, comes next. Finishing off this strand, "Weapons Primer: Simon Atherton" (5 mins.) is exactly as advertised. TIL the Roman soldier's sword is known as a "gladius." Atherton suspects that's where the word "gladiator" originated.
A selection of "Abandoned Sequences and Deleted Scenes" begins with "Alternate Title Design: Nick Livesey" (9 mins.), a splitscreen feature in which Livesey's previously unseen title treatment appears in one window while Livesey discusses its germination in another. It's a gorgeous, Star Wars-esque crawl that required casting reams of text in a bronze relief...and it was cut for time. Livesey hopes it will be restored if there's ever an extended cut, but it was not to be. The other elisions--"Blood Vision," "Rhino Fight," and "Choose Your Weapon"--aren't so meaty and, indeed, the first two contain a mix of storyboards and commentary from Scott or Despertz to compensate for missing footage. To cap things off, another batch of featurettes launches with "Gladiator Games: The Roman Bloodsport" (50 mins.), a mix of electronic press kit and History Channel special featuring goony reenactments of Roman games. In "Hans Zimmer: Scoring Gladiator" (21 mins.), Zimmer, back when he was a person rather than a brand, reflects on his visit to the set, during which he touched the earth the way Crowe does in the film to get a feeling for the character of Maximus.
Speaking of, the 27-minute "An Evening with Russell Crowe" finds the actor in his phone-throwing, wife-stealing days doing squirm-inducingly aggro comedy as he takes questions from an unseen audience, whereas a more authentically jovial Crowe is spotlighted in "Maximus Uncut: Between Takes with Russell Crowe" (8 mins.). Lastly, "VFX Explorations: Germania & Rome" (24 mins.) makes abundantly clear that the film's compositing, carried out by British effects house The Mill (later of "Doctor Who" fame), was highly sophisticated for its time and remains an impressive achievement. So many shots consist of elements photographed in isolation and seamlessly combined in post. Unfortunately for them, none of the FX artists who walk us through their work here are identified by name. Rounding out the disc and these exhaustive/ing extras is a block of 20 (!) TV ads for Gladiator, plus the text-based diary of young Spencer Treat Clark; I'm sure it's a delight. A voucher for a digital copy of the film is tucked inside the case.
155 minutes (Theatrical Edition), 171 minutes (Extended Edition); R; UHD: 2.35:1 (2160p/MPEG-H), Dolby Vision|HDR10, BD: 2.35:1 (1080p/MPEG-4); UHD: English DTS:X (7.1 DTS-HD MA core), English DTS Headphone:X, French DD 5.1, Spanish DD 5.1, BD: English 5.1 DTS-HD MA, French DD 5.1, Spanish DD 5.1; English, English SDH, French, Spanish, Korean subtitles; BD-100 + 2 BD-50s; Region-free (UHD), Region A (BD); Paramount