Gladiator is not a complicated film. It’s a loose retelling of the Spartacus slave rebellion with extensive historical liberties. It pits the common man, Russell Crowe’s Maximus, against the weight of the Roman Empire in the hands of a cruel, pitiless, juvenile, Joaquin Phoenix as Emperor Commodus. Themes of family, love, brotherhood, greed, honor, and corruption support the narrative of revenge. Maximus is the favorite commander of aging Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) but is betrayed along with his patron by Aurelius’ neglected son Commodus. Maximus’ family pays the gruesome price of his association and only by his epic skills of combat and survival he escapes the same fate.
“Brothers, what we do in life… echoes in eternity.”
He is at first resigned to die having lost all that he cared for but then a glimmer of hope to exact revenge spurs him on through several wonderfully choreographed gladiator combat scenes. With a slight nod to history, Maximus is caught up in a possible gladiator rebellion, a la Spartacus, but its a minor side plot on the way to the ultimate showdown between the key players. In the end, revenge is sweet but the prize is not Rome but instead eternal rest with his family in the Fields of Elysium.
One particularly effective plot device is the comparison of the two primaries. Crowe is the man’s man with a bellowing voice and arms like trees. He stares death down without fear; in the opening of the film, he gives a cohort of Roman cavalry a pep talk that’ll have you running through walls. He’s inspiring, loyal, committed to his Emperor, his gods, and his family. An ideal man.
Phoenix’s Commodus, on the other hand, is a twisted weasel with inordinate affections for his sister. He has lusts of every kind from flesh to blood. He even eats with a sense of waste and gluttony. He uses his sister’s child as leverage unscrupulously and cheats in every encounter. His haughtiness has the burn of desperation behind it brilliantly portrayed in Phoenix’s show-stealing performance. The contrast between the two men is palpable.
Ridley Scott has produced excellent work in an impressively varying set of genres: from Alien to All the Money in the World, from Matchstick Men to Thelma & Louise. He’s created iconic Sci-Fi such as Blade Runner, The Martian, and Prometheus. He’s tackled historical fantasy in films like Robin Hood and Kingdom of Heaven. He’s ventured into actual historical record with Black Hawk Down and American Gangster. He even made a horror novel adaptation with Hannibal. He’s done it all and most of it very well. It is the opinion of this filmgoer that Gladiator (one of Sir Ridley’s 4 Oscar nominations) is the pinnacle of his career to date and will be hard to top.