Published on May 1st, 2020 | by Keegan Barker0
20 Years of Gladiator
Keegan takes a deep dive into Gladiator, Ridley Scott’s historical epic that busted the box office open and made Russell Crowe a star. Thumbs up?
I was 12 years old when I first watched Ridley Scott’s historical epic, and it left a lasting impression on a young mind freshly exposed to drama, violence, and spectacle. The film nurtured my budding interests in both history and cinema, and I have continued to pursue those passions to this day. May 1st, 2020 marks the 20th anniversary of Gladiator’s release and, even though it is not a film on everyone’s minds nowadays, its influence reignited interest in historical films for years afterward.
While this article is not intended to be a full-blown review, I feel that a brief synopsis and reflection of the film is in order. The film takes place in 180 AD, during the height of the Roman Empire. The hero of our story is Maximus, a Hispano-Roman General who desires to leave his impressive military career behind to live on his farm estate with his wife and son. When Emperor Marcus Aurelius dies, his power-hungry son Commodus becomes emperor and orders Maximus and his family to be killed. While Maximus escapes his intended fate, his family is not so fortunate. Following his return to the remains of his life and family, Maximus is captured, sold into slavery, and forced to become a gladiator: a professional combatant who fought for the glory and admiration of the crowd. Slowly, Maximus climbs the ranks from the small venues in distant provinces, all the way to the Roman Coliseum, in order to exact vengeance on the man who murdered his family.
While the father/husband revenge plot is a reliable plot device, Gladiator uses the trope effectively to drive the heart of the story. The cinematography and direction of the film give it a larger-than-life quality, and the characters and audience discover the vast world together. Maximus is somewhat of a fish-out-of-water character, and his character is the audience’s analog for inhabiting and exploring the film’s world. Speaking of world-building, the film feels fully realized as a believable historical environment, complete with fleshed-out characters; despite his hit-or-miss film career, Ridley Scott has proven himself to be an outstanding atmospheric director. The grand nature of the film is elevated by its impressive score, composed by Hans Zimmer. If Zimmer’s score was an ice cream sundae, then Lisa Gerrard’s vocal performance is the cherry on top; in no better place is this heard than in the film’s conclusive track, “Now we are free.” Through its score and impressive undertaking in world-building, the aesthetic and tone of Gladiator inspires the same awe and amazement birthed by the historical Roman Empire.
Gladiator is flawed in ways, such as in its script and its slight revisionist historical narrative. However, I believe Gladiator’s success comes from its historical atmosphere, narrative, and sensibilities being used in conjunction with its engaging story and compelling characters; I would even call it an ideal historical film, despite its numerous inaccuracies. While you can see cracks in the details, the big picture remains authentic.
Gladiator’s success can also be attributed to its genre and film release. Ancient and medieval history had been portrayed on the silver screen since the genesis of cinema, starting with Italian epics and swashbuckling adventures. Ben-Hur (1959) was, arguably, the height of historical film from the Golden Age of Hollywood and is still considered a classic film. Italian sword-and-sandal films began to rise in the 1960s, with Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus (1961) being one of the more recognizable films from the era. But by the 1970s and 80s, historical film fell out of favour as cinema began to evolve and diversify. Even the 1990s saw only a few ancient/medieval films, with the most prominent being Braveheart (1995); that film, however, really stretches the definition of “history.”
In 2000, Gladiator was released, and it changed the cinematic landscape for over 10 years.
Gladiator was not a schlocky Italian film thrown together to make a quick buck. It was not a film that had contemporary morality set in a past era with vastly different morals. It had an engaging story with a sympathetic protagonist and a magnetic antagonist, and it just happened to be set in a very grand and dynamic part of history. While the aesthetic bears some resemblance to the “Holly-Rome” of yesteryear, the world feels more grounded and realistic, and bears the physical and tonal markings of a culture which was significantly crueler than ours. But, despite the increased proclivity for cruelty and violence, the film does not go so completely into authentic socio-cultural ideas and customs that it becomes impossible for the audience to develop any connection to the characters or the story. This is a delicate balancing act, as a historical film should make the world feel ethically and morally reminiscent of the time period, but not so wholly enveloped in recreating socio-cultural attributes that it becomes foreign or problematic for the audience. This becomes especially apparent when a film needs to include practices like xenophobia, sexualized violence, and slavery.
Gladiator was undoubtedly a success, both critically and financially, and Hollywood recognized its success. And, like all successful one-off movies, the Hollywood machine decided to start cranking out ancient and medieval movies to catch the wave of success. For the first decade of the 21st century, numerous history films were released to differing degrees of success. There was Troy (2004): a mythological story turned into a historical conflict, and there was 300 (2007): a historical conflict turned into a mythological story. There was Oliver Stone’s Alexander (2004) which, by all accounts, is historically accurate, but suffers from a bloated script, poor editing, and god-awful acting. Even Ridley Scott himself rode the wave of his own creation, directing Kingdom of Heaven (2005), Robin Hood (2010), and Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014). And if you might recall, Star Wars: Attack of the Clones (2002) did happen to have a giant gladiatorial arena. Even Gladiator’s dialogue became referential, often being cited in different films, many of which were outside the genre.
I don’t think any of these films set in antiquity or the middle ages quite reached the standard which Gladiator had set. First, most of the films are quite boring, with the monotony of world-building, plot and dialogue being intermittently replaced with combat sequences. Gladiator overcame this with its deep characters and its ability to make the spectacle sequences meaningful and advance the plot. Gladiator was also able to balance time appropriate ideas and sensibilities with modern ones, so the audience could make a meaningful connection. Oftentimes, historical films swing too far towards accommodating modern sensibilities and, in doing so, they completely shatter the world they are trying to replicate. Ultimately, Gladiator’s success can be attributed to the fact that it was unique for the time of its release. The film was a risk before its release, but that risk was rewarded with an unbelievable amount of success which very few of its symptomatic descendants were ever able to match. Its a film with a great story and great characters and, whether it meant to or not, it revived the older tradition of historical film for the 21st century.