Gladiator | Eastern North Carolina Now | Ridley Scott employed the perfect balance of narrative, cinematic imagery and adventure to build the timeless tale of a once great empire beginning its fall into the moral decay that was Rome.
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"My Name is Gladiator"
I remember the day I saw the greatest movie ever – Ridley Scott’s "Gladiator." I was in my sixth month of pregnancy and had just finishedor taking a final exam in my last year of law school. I had read the book and just loved the story, and couldn’t wait to see it on the big screen. I called my husband to meet me at the theatre but he was busy so I went by myself. I got a big tub of buttered popcorn and a diet soda (of course) and was ready to experience my most memorable theatre experience.
The movie takes place in the year 180 AD, the time of the great Roman Empire. By 180 AD, the Roman Empire encompassed most of the known world, from northern England to North Africa and from Spain to the Middle East (Turkey). There is civil unrest and the Republic is in potential danger from corrupt politicians. The Roman ruler is the noble Marcus Aurelius. He has been away from the capital of Rome too long, trying to quash rebellions and maintain peace in the Empire.
The movie opens with General Maximus Decimus Meridius (Russell Crowe), the Commander of the Roman Army in the North, winning his last battle against the barbaric tribes of Germania. As Maximus reminds his army: “What we do in life echoes in eternity!” Marcus Aurelius(the late Richard Harris) arrives in time to witness the victory and to congratulate Maximus. Marcus Aurelius spent most of his life fighting to bring peace to the Empire and to expand it, but he knows that his time is coming to an end. He is dying. He knows that Rome is corrupt but wants to ensure that the Roman Republic will not fall. He confides in Maximus: “I am dying, Maximus. When a man sees his end, he wants to know there was some purpose to his life. How will the world speak my name in years to come? Will I be known as the warrior? The tyrant...? Or will I be the emperor who gave Rome back her true self? There was once a dream that was Rome. You could only whisper it. Anything more than a whisper and it would vanish... It was so fragile. And I fear that it will not survive the winter.” He tells Maximus that he wants him to become Protector of Rome before handing power to the Senate rather than to his own heir. He tells him that his son, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), must not be allowed to rule after his death because “Commodus is not a moral man.”
When Marcus Aurelius tells his son what he is planning, Commodus kills his father, orders Maximus arrested and killed, and orders his family murdered as well. Maximus is able to fight off and kill his captors and heads back to Spain to save his family. But he is too late. They’ve been brutally murdered and burned on crosses, and his property is destroyed. Maximus collapses and is eventually found and taken captive. He is sold into slavery in Morocco, to a gladiator trainer named Proximo (the late Oliver Reed). As Proximo tells him: “Ultimately, we're all dead men. Sadly, we cannot choose how but, what we can decide is how we meet that end, in order that we are remembered, as men.”
Back in Rome, Commodus has made himself the new Caesar. He wants to be a dictator, but is opposed by the Senate, led by Senator Gracchus (Derek Jacobi). It becomes apparent to Commodus that he is not popular, not well-liked, or even trusted, and this eats at his vanity. He knows he has to win over the people. The Senators ask him to provide sewers for the city's Greek district, where the plague is raging, but Commodus decides instead on a season of games. He wants to give the citizens of Rome something to believe in and so he organizes one hundred and fifty days of games in the Colosseum, including gladiator matches. Once he was able to win the love of the Roman people, Commodus would then kill off the Senators, make the Senate obsolete, and rule Rome alone. “Rome is the mob. Conjure magic for them and they'll be distracted. Take away their freedom and still they'll roar. The beating heart of Rome is not the marble of the Senate, it's the sand of the coliseum. I'll bring them death - and they will love me for it.”
Maximus fights for his life and his honor as a gladiator: Above. Maximus stands tall as the charismatic leader of the gladiators: Below.
As fate would have it, the Gladiator matches bring Maximus and Commodus together again, eventually for the very future of Rome. Maximus’ identity is revealed to Commodus after a spectacular gladiator show, and it is the scene which takes the audience’s breath away. Commodus asks the gladiator to remove his helmet and reveal himself, but Maximus responds by walking away in defiance . “How dare you show your back to me! Slave, you will remove your helmet and tell me your name.” With that Maximus takes off his helmet, turns around, and faces Commodus, with a determined and hateful stare: “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.”
When Commodus realizes that Maximus has won the hearts and loyalty of the crowds – something he himself still could not do as Emperor - Commodus steps in to offer the crowds something they have not seen before – their Emperor in the gladiator ring with Rome’s best gladiator, a fight to the death. As Commodus says to his enemy, Maximus: “The general who became a slave. The slave who became a gladiator. The gladiator who defied an emperor. Striking story! But now, the people want to know how the story ends. Only a famous death will do. And what could be more glorious than to challenge the Emperor himself in the great arena?”
Proximo suddenly grows a conscious and helps Maximus escape, in collaboration with Commodus’ sister, Lucilla (Connie Nielson) and Senator Gracchus. Maximus was to help the Senate regain its power through military means. Unfortunately, Maximus is caught and will have to face Commodus in the Colloseum.
A coward to the end, Commodus stabs a chained Maximus while they are in transport to the Colosseum to fight before the crowds. He has the guard cover the wound with armor. A weakened Maximus fights valiantly until he drops, but not before stabbing and killing Commodus and ordering the fallen Emperor’s guards to transfer the power of Rome to the Senate. “These are the dying wishes of Marcus Aurelius.” Maximus, the hero of Rome, then joins his beloved family in the afterlife.
Maximus and Commodus come together again, and in an instant Maximus sees his, and Commodus's, future end: Above. The opulent glory that was Rome: Below.
Gladiator is a classic story of good v. evil, with the prize being Rome itself. Russell Crowe plays the loyal and heroic General who knows that his leader Marcus Aurelius is honorable in intention. His masterful performance earned him the Academy Award for Best Actor in 2001. Marcus Aurelius, played by the late actor Richard Harris, is frail yet devoted to the ideals of Rome. Commodus, played diabolically by Joaquin Phoenix, is an ill-tempered, spoiled, self-indulgent, and immoral son and then ruler. History records Commodus as slightly worse. Connie Nielson plays Lucilla with icy-cold perfection. She handles her depraved brother well, even as he makes it clear he intends to become her lover. She once loved Maximus but that love she still holds inside is surpassed only by her respect for him and his devotion to Rome and her late father. And the late great Oliver Reed entertains audiences for the last time as the greedy and irritable Proximo. Reed passed away before filming was complete. The story is so inspiring and moving because of the love Maximus carries inside for his wife and young son and the devotion he continues to show to his Emperor. We all want to root for such heroes.
The scenery is breathtaking, as Scott re-creates Rome and the magnificent Colosseum. It is spectacular. The fight scenes are choreographed perfectly and blended with a perfect score. The end theme is a perfect tribute to Maximus. It is a haunting yet majestic theme that easily takes the audience from the death of a hero amid the grandeur of the Colosseum to the personal journey to the afterlife. A perfect movie, from start to finish, and for all of one’s senses.
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