Gladiator: Extended Cut – Art 3/5 Ent 6/5 Worth 6/5
As you’d expect, I kind of have a love-hate relationship with Gladiator. I love it because it brought back into being an awareness and love for the Classics (that is to say Herodotus, Thucydides, Suetonius and Tacitus, not Elizabeth Taylor in an Egyptian wig on a Los Angeles set). The long-forgotten spear and sandal epic came back with a fury, for better or mostly worse. The performance by Russel Crowe was perhaps the only time other than L.A. Confidential that American audiences genuinely liked him. Ridley Scott’s career was rejuvenated, we were blessed with one of the best cinematic villains in Joaquin Phoenix’s Commodus, and we got to see Oliver Reed and Richard Harris deliver two of their best and final performances for a new generation. The thrilling epic story worked, the action entertained as much as the arena entertained Ancient Romans, and the very Romanesque soundtrack by Hans Zimmer was the absolute height of heart-thumping pomp.
One of my history professors deeply hated this film, and loved nothing more than exploring digressions in how inaccurate it was (and he was teaching American history!). Yes Professor, the Roman Republic was not restored by a disgraced general-turned-gladiator who killed the Emperor Commodus in the sands. In reality, the plotting and very villainous Lucilla was killed in exile and Commodus had legitimate reason to become paranoid after the plot on his life, taking the typical curve of a Roman tyrant (even Caligula began well). And it’s probably the apogee of insincerity if Marcus Aurelius said what was written in the script (that didn’t make it into the film): “Imagine a place devoted to the rights of the citizen. Where every free man has a voice. That was the dream”. Yeah, right, apparently the writers never heard of laesa maiestas.
Also of important note that Elysium isn’t exactly a widely accepted thing in so far as it exists, and yet it’s also a prominent feature in the film (disprove THAT Professor!). And I’m pretty sure that regardless of Imperial gossip, Commodus didn’t murder his own father. The ticket-generating paean to a glorified Amphitheatrum Flavium (the Coliseum) cheapens the movie into being little more than an action film about a tourist destination (“The Pyramids 3: The Pharoahning”). And most importantly, as far as I’m concerned, is that Russell Crowe looks as Latin as Carrot Top. So this film is 100% ahistorical rubbish, and is difficult to defend on those grounds.
Tell me, if you will, what about that makes this a bad film? I can accept reservations people might hold for sweeping epics or simple action films in general, or a general hatred for Russel Crowe. People have their constituent tastes and that’s what makes the diversity of life so great. But there’s nothing functionally bad about treating history as fiction, just as there’s not something necessarily superb about art that constricts to accepted history. Gladiator walks a fine line of revisionist historical fiction and a standalone epic related to no specific history. The Roman mirage is very pleasing to look at, however.
Despite giving us a “Rome of the imagination” with an even bigger Coliseum and shiny Nuremberg-like fascist aesthetics where all the streets are clean and paved, the film doesn’t generally fail us in giving at least some bit of Romanness. The arc of Maximus is a very ancient story of egoist revenge and Nietzschean master morality. He achieves Elysium with his family as a matter of earning his personal honor back with the blood of Commodus. But the film presents Commodus almost in a sympathetic light, and his motivations, though villainous to our minds, are not inconsistent with the historical Commodus and his probable rationalizations. That is a very ancient idea. The story is framed by the Stoic philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, as espoused in his Meditations and briefly given as a primer in the opening act as the major themes: justice, selflessness, and equity. The pastiche of Stoic philosophy filters well into Richard Harris’ lines.
But the film is awfully hammy, there’s no escaping that. It’s mostly a wannabe MMA match (Chuck Norris vs. Asterix and Obelix). A few extra scenes added in to the Extended Cut give it a bit more depth, especially one demonstrating how Joaquin’s Commodus is more inspirational leader than bloodthirsty brat. However, the difference isn’t as vast as that for Kingdom of Heaven‘s Director’s Cut, where the studio comprehensively gutted Ridley’s baby for pointless and failed commercial ends. Sure, Gladiator maintains important place in cultural history, whether you like it or not, but can we do better? Bona Dea!
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