Those ugly damned tigers

Gladiator movies, sometimes known as Sword and Sandal epics, are a staple of American cinema. Most of the genre has been awful, but a few films stand above the rest. Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus, for example, was able to transcend the banality of the subject matter in order to address serious issues such as blacklisting.

Another film connected to the genre, if not exactly a gladiator film, that shines is Ben-Hur, directed by William Wyler. Ben-Hur elevates the material into a truly classic film.
It is interesting to note that Spartacus began under the helm of director Anthony Mann, and was taken over by Kubrick. The reason that this is of interest is because the film that Gladiator most resembles is Mann’s Fall of the Roman Empire. The two films are set against similar events, and have similar story lines.

Gladiator is directed by Ridley Scott (Alien, Legend, Bladerunner). It stars Russell Crowe (L.A. Confidential), as Roman General Maximus.

When Emperor Marcus Aurelius dies suddenly his son, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) claims the right to the throne and orders Maximus, along with his family, executed. Maximus escapes and is sold into slavery. He enters training in what appears to be a scaled down version of the gladiator school from Spartacus, which is owned by former gladiator Proximo (Oliver Reed, who died during filming).

Soon he finds himself transported to Rome, to fight in the coliseum. There he begins to plot his revenge. His only desire is to kill the man responsible for the deaths of his wife and son. That man is, of course, the Emperor.

Director Scott first experimented with blurred images, varying frame rates, step printing processes, and shaky hand-held camera work in G.I. Jane. In Gladiator he goes absolutely overboard with these techniques. The battle scenes are utter chaos. At times the action is impossible to follow. Considering Scott’s talents I have to assume that this outcome is intentional. I can only imagine two reasons for it: one to hide, or obscure the amount of carnage to satisfy the MPAA. The other possibility is that these scenes were badly choreographed and Scott was attempting to hide this fact.

Crowe’s character is barely more than a cliché, yet he gives the part the needed stature. There is something in his bearing that exudes leadership and power. In lesser hands this role would have been laughable. The dialogue is often sub-B Movie quality, but Crowe plays it straight and doesn’t wink to the camera. We believe  that he believes it, even if we can’t do so ourselves.

It is interesting that the film does not address the moral, or even political issues of slavery or gladiatorial combat. It seems to completely ignore what is the most interesting issue this genre has to talk about.  Spartacus had things to say about the moral horror of slavery, Gladiator doesn’t seen to care. It is also noteworthy that the political struggle for control of Rome, which is the true driving force behind the events, is barely touched upon. It is as if Scott wanted to reach the next battle as quickly as possible and decided to jettison everything that could get in the way.

One last thing that bothered me about this film were the CGI tigers. I don’t know why, but I couldn’t stand to look at them. The effects have not aged well, but then they didn’t really work when they were new either. This is one of the worst looking films to ever be nominated for Oscars.

In conclusion, Rome was a land of contrasts.

-Nathan Tyree