Year Released: 2000
Directed by: Ridley Scott
Starring: Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen, Oliver Reed, Richard Harris
(R, 171 min.)
Genre: Action and Adventure, Classics, Drama
Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Actor - Russell Crowe
“We who are about to die salute you. “ - Tigris
The only 21st century sword and sandal film that deserves a place next to those other classics, Spartacus and Ben Hur. Winner of five Oscars, most notably Best Picture and Best Actor (a magnificent Russell Crowe) as well as seven other nominations, this is a classic for all time and well worth watching again.
First of all, there is the acting. Absolutely magnificent! Russell Crowe as Maximus (“The general who became a slave. The slave who became a gladiator. The gladiator who defied an emperor.” – Commodus) has nobility that grounds his brilliance as a warrior.
It is this inner nobility that defines him and shows the difference between merely seeking revenge and being an avenging Angel of Death, as Maximus is.
It echoes in his prose, which is almost poetic:
My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius, Commander of the Armies of the North, General of the Felix Legions, loyal servant to the true Emperor Marcus Aurelius, father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife – and I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next. – Maximus
This integrity even transforms his fellow gladiators and the cynical gladiator trainer himself, Proximo (Oliver Reed).
“Strength and honor,” he reminds his fellow gladiators, used to fighting each other, but now under his command fighting as a group to defeat certain death meted out by lethal chariots and ferocious tigers.
In the tradition of classic tragedy, Maximus has a fall from grace. He goes from being a favorite of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, and privately Aurelius’ choice for next emperor, to a man betrayed, left for dead and “rescued” into the ranks of gladiators.
How very different from the typical revenge/vigilante films today!
Keanu Reeves’ John Wick is a former assassin, once “redeemed” and now in a sort of retirement. The only excuse of the slickly choreographed killing spree in John Wick Chapter 2 is the blood oath he gave to one very bad actor in order to get out of the assassin game in the first place. (The first film, which DD never saw, is about avenging the death of his dog, or something like that.)
Jody Foster is a radio host in The Brave One. She is at best “ the thinking man’s vigilante,” as she peppers her artsy NPR radio monologue with quotes by D. H. Lawrence and Emily Dickinson. I guess that makes her brutal vengeance AOK with hypocritical Hollywood.
And finally, the recent Cold Pursuit, billed as black comedy, is instead a sordid saga using violent death for a punch line. Not a very steep fall from grace for Liam Neeson portraying a taciturn snow plow operator, his only heights – except the cab of his machine – being his award for Man of the Year in his small Colorado hamlet. And he is someone who hales from a family of thugs, we later find out. Somehow, “I’m going to kill those guys” doesn’t quite stack up against any one of Maximus’s lines.
Gladiator’s supporting actor Joaquin Phoenix is superb as the complex villain as reflected in his Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. It seems no coincidence that his first name, “Joaquin,” translates from Spanish into “Cane.” Yet his villain, Commodus, is no cardboard one. He is perhaps as tortured as Shakespeare’s Iago,, who says of Othello ( his Maximus), “He hath a daily beauty in his life / That makes me ugly.“ Great actor that he is, Joaquin Phoenix portrays similarly tormented souls in both The Master and The Immigrant.
Finally, unlike the films of today that rely on computer generated effects to massage our eyeballs, with action over dialogue so they can more easily sell their mediocrity overseas, this film is brimming with wonderful dialogue that illuminates the characters.
Some of it s comes from Lucilia, daughter of Marcus Aurelius, sister to the evil Commodus, and one time lover of Maximus:
"Today I saw a slave become more powerful than the Emperor of Rome."
Lucilla: My brother hates all the world and you most of all.
Maximus: Because your father chose me.
Lucilla: No. Because my father loved you. And because I loved you.
Or from the former gladiator and now trainer of them, Proximo (Oliver Reed, who incidentally died during filming). At times his is almost avuncular:
Listen to me. Learn from me. I was not the best because I killed quickly. I was the best because the crowd loved me. Win the crowd and you will win your freedom.
And other times ruthlessly honest:
I am Proximo! I shall be closer to you for the next few days, which will be the last of your miserable lives, than that bitch of a mother who first brought you screaming into this world! I did not pay good money for your company. I paid it so that I might profit from your death.
And little of each to Maximus, dubbed “The Spaniard” after the country from which he hails:
So Spaniard, we shall go to Rome together and have bloody adventures. And the great whore will suckle us until we are fat and happy and can suckle no more. And then, when enough men have died, perhaps you will have your freedom.
Gladiator (2000), like fine wine, ages well. See it again and curse the violent, vapid mediocritry we now witness all too often on the big screen.
If we really wanted to be authentic and have what the poor peasants supporting Gladiator Maximus might eat and drink, here it is:
Unlike the rich Romans, the common peasant diets were more dependent on vegetables than any other food items. The staple vegetables were the legumes which consisted of three primary legume items – beans, lentils and peas. They were often mixed into bread and since they were much easily available sources of protein, these legumes became a routine item in Roman meals.
Posca was a popular drink among ancient Roman soldiers and poor peasants. It was usually made by watering down low quality wine and then adding spices to make it taste better. The Roman legions used to receive a lot of vinegar in rations. The soldiers used to add water to the vinegar to turn it into drinkable posca. Water, sanitation in those times was quite sub-standard and normal drinking water was usually contaminated. This only added to posca’s popularity as its acidity killed most of the germs and kept the drink from early stagnation. –Saugat Adhikari
Well, I say, fuhgeddaboudit. (“Forget about it,” for those unfamiliar with New York Italian slang.)
Here is something a little more interesting, the Gladiator Cocktail, appropriately in hues from blood red to sandy orange. Different Drummer has taken a little poetic license and renamed it Gladiator Blood and Sand Cocktail, to echo the two components of the Roman Coliseum.
Gladiator Blood and Sand Cocktail
1 fluid ounce amaretto liqueur
1 fluid ounce peach-flavored bourbon liqueur (such as Southern Comfort)
1 fluid ounce orange juice
1 fluid ounce lemon-lime soda, such a Sprite
Stir amaretto liqueur, bourbon liqueur, orange juice, and lemon-lime soda together in a glass.