GLADIATOR (DIR: RIDLEY SCOTT) (SCR: DAVID FRANZONI, JOHN LOGAN AND WILLIAM NICHOLSON)
In an interesting bit of irony, the Academy started the new millennium off by awarding Ridley Scott's GLADIATOR as best picture, which was a conscious throw back to filmmaking of a different era. In the 1950's and '60's, when Hollywood was competing with television, the studios often used big budget spectacle to lure audiences into theaters, leading to what would be known as sword and sandal films. Usually set in ancient Rome (like GLADIATOR), movies like BEN HUR and SPARTICUS featured epic battle scenes and casts of thousands. Unfortunately, GLADIATOR is also like many of those films in that it doesn't hold up well and goes on for too long; while generally well made and acted, it is a reasonably entertaining movie with some good action but I think far better films were made that year.
Screenwriter David Franzoni first came up with the idea in the 1970's after reading the book THOSE WHO ARE ABOUT TO DIE, a history of the Roman games, by Daniel P Mannix. In 1997, while working with Steven Spielberg on ARMISTAD, Franzoni pitched the idea of a film about a Roman gladiator to the director, who got the film green lit through the DreamWorks film studio. (Given the film's inevitably big budget, co-financing was provided by Universal Studios). Franzoni wrote a script that combined fictional characters (the hero Maximus) and historical ones (the villain Commodus) while the studio approached veteran director Ridley Scott to helm the film; eventually producer Douglas Wick won Scott over by showing him a copy of the 1872 gladiator painting "Pollice Verso" by Jean-Leon Gerome. Mel Gibson was offered the lead role of Maximus, but he felt he was too old, and eventually it came to Russell Crowe, who at that point was best known for starring in serious dramas like 1999's THE INSIDER, for which he was nominated for an Oscar. But the choice of Crowe proved correct, as the role both won him an Oscar and established him as a credible action hero. As the other roles were quickly filled in with both newcomers (Joaqin Phoenix) and vetereans (Richard Harris, Oliver Reed) the film went into production. At first, Scott caught a lucky break when a section of woods that set to be deforested anyway could be burned down for the film's opening battle scene. But then trouble began: first, it took months to build a one third replica of the Roman Colosseum (which would be augmented with computer effects in the film). And then Crowe's legendarily difficult behavior reared its head, as he began to complain about the film's script. Scott, who had already had writer John Logan rewrite Franzoni's original screenplay, brought in yet another writer, William Nicholson, to appease Crowe. But the star was still unhappy, sometimes walking off the set when he didn't get his way. At one point Crowe was quoted as saying to Nicholson "Your lines are garbage but I'm the greatest actor in the world and I can make even garbage sound good."(!) To top everything off, Oliver Reed died of a heart attack before finishing the film, so a body double and more computer effects had to be used to cover for him, adding to the cost of the film. Despite all of this, GLADIATOR would become a sizable hit, returning around $187,000,000 in the US on a budget of around $103,000,000.
Set in 810 AD, it's about Maximus (Russell Crowe) a great Roman general, who, after leading his army into victory against the barbarians in Germania, wants nothing more to return home to his wife and child. But Roman leader Marcus Aurelius(Richard Harris) wants Maximus to be the next leader of Rome; when Marcus's son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) hears of this, he kills his father and orders Maximus's family killed and Maximus executed. Maximus escapes and eventually becomes a gladiator; after winning fame, he eventually heads to Rome and an inevitable conflict with Commodus.
GLADIATOR may resemble the sword and sandal films of the 50's and 60's in its story and location, but Scott clearly wanted to make a more gritty view of the past than those films portrayed; so, gone are the scenes of Roman leaders drinking wine out of huge goblets while slave girls hold grapes over their heads, instead, taking full advantage of an "R" rating, Scott gives us brutal fight scenes with decapitations and stabbings that could never have been shown in older films. (Interestingly, Scott mentions Steven Spielberg's SAVING PRIVATE RYAN as an influence). Clearly, the director realizes that modern audiences, like the Roman audiences of old, expect plenty of action in a movie called GLADIATOR, and so he gives it to us, cramming in numerous combat scenes in the film's two and half hours; from the opening huge battle scene to one on one sword duels to arena melees featuring snapping tigers and chariots, Scott delivers. And all of the scenes are well staged and exciting, letting us see Maximus use both his fighting ability and his leadership skills. Unfortunately, it is when it's out of the arena that the film sometimes falters; while beautifully shot (Scott's films always are) it's simple plot sometimes feels overly stretched, and the completely serious tone of the proceedings, with dialogue often delivered in a stentorian style, can also get a bit wearing. To the film's detriment, and despite its historical setting, the story often feels like one from a modern action film, with it's improbably noble (and practically indestructible) hero and cliched revenge plot. Still, those violent scenes are undeniably rousing, and Scott understands that the build up to the action is as important as the action itself, especially in the lead up to Maximus's debut in the arena, which is given a big drum pounding lead in as we see the nervous warriors preparing for battle.
I've already mentioned that Crowe won a best actor award for the film, but I personally don't think it was deserved. Oh sure, he's a more than credible action hero who seems right at home slashing away in an arena, but there's not much range to his character: when he isn't fighting, he mostly glowers and sulks. In many scenes he merely reacts to other actors expressing more emotion than he does. Really, I prefer Crowe's performances in other films, like 1999's THE INSIDER, than the work he does here.
As for Joaquin Phoenix as Commodus, well, actors often say that it's more fun to play a villain than a good guy, and Phoenix certainly seems to be having a blast here! (Phoenix also won an Oscar as best supporting actor). Commodus is cowardly (he doesn't show up for a battle until after it's over), perverse (he lusts for his sister), and a tantrum throwing brat, and yet Phoenix gives him just enough humanity to make him often more pathetic than outright evil, especially when he admits to his father Marcus (Richard Harris) that he has fallen short of the old man's expectations; he's almost likable in his honesty, until he has his hands around the emperor's throat. I love the way that Phoenix absently spins a sword in his hand like a bored schoolboy while listening to the Roman senate, or the way that he chillingly threatens the life of his nephew while telling the young boy a story in front of his deceitful sister. The dead eyed stare Phoenix gives his sister is memorable enough that he probably won his Oscar on this scene alone. The rest of the film's cast are all solid, despite the film's self serious tone, and I especially like Oliver Reed as the warrior trainer Proximo; Reed may not have known that this was his final role, but he goes out on a high note, playing the character with full flinty vigor.
SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?
As a straightforward piece of entertainment, GLADIATOR delivers with exciting action, but I don't think it ranks as the best film of that year. I'm far more impressed with Steven Soderburgh's TRAFFIC, which took a long hard look at the drug war and may be that rare movie that could actually change the political attitudes of the viewer. I'm also a big fan of Cameron Crowe's ALMOST FAMOUS and Ang Lee's gorgeous martial arts fantasy CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON. Still, GLADIATOR is an enjoyable film, and therefore not a bad choice.