Gladiator: Why?!!

David Spade once said of the latest Michael Bolton album "It's sold 40 million copies, but guess what? I don't know anyone that has one." That quote came to mind at the February meeting of the Cinema Lounge, the Washington D.C. Film Society's monthly film discussion group. Moderator Brian Niemiec went around the room asking everyone what film they believed should win Best Picture and which one probably would end up taking home the big prize. Participant's personal choices varied, going from Cast Away to Traffic to Dancer in the Dark to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to Requiem for a Dream. When it came time for predictions, everyone, with their own air of sadness, frustration and resignation said the winner would be Gladiator. We are not alone in seeing Gladiator as the odds-on favorite. The film has already won Best Picture honors from the Broadcast Film Critics Association, the Producers Guild of America, and the British Academy Awards. It has also won the Golden Globe for Best Dramatic Film. Most importantly, it received 12 Oscar nominations, leading the pack and making it the top contender for Best Picture honors on March 25. I know I'm not alone in asking why.

Let me be clear: Gladiator is an enjoyable fun film. Director Ridley Scott shows his customary visual flair, orchestrating a dazzling opening battle scene and some thrilling gladiator fights. Russell Crowe shines as the charismatic hero Maximus as does Joaquin Phoenix as the sniveling villain Commodus. Gladiator also features a fine supporting cast, particularly Oliver Reed in his final role.

Now let me be equally clear. Gladiator is not the best film of 2000. It is not one of the top five, top ten, or even top 25 films of the year. The films's strengths cannot hide severe story problems. I'll just name a few, starting near the beginning, when Maximus declares that Commodus murdered the emperor Marcus Arelius. How does he know? Commodus and Marcus Arelius were the only ones in the tent at the time. Maybe a skilled medical examiner could figure out that the emperor was suffocated. But to the blind eye, how can one deduce that he did not die of a heart attack, stroke, or any number of natural causes? The only way Maximus could know is if he read the script.

The troubles go from bad to worse quickly when Commodus decrees that not only will Maximus be executed, but so will the hero's wife and son. A Roman garrison travels all the way to Spain just to murder a harmless woman and young boy. Why? Some have offered the theory that Romans sometimes killed a criminal's family so that they would not try to avenge his death. But how would Maximus's family know exactly how their he died in Germania? If Commodus was at all concerned he could have sent word to them that Maximus had died in battle. His wife and son would never know that reason to be false and it would be much easier than killing them. Never mind the unlikelihood of a woman and young child trying to kill an emperor in the first place. The only reason to kill off Maximus's wife and child is pure audience manipulation. It's not enough that Maximus was stripped of power and his freedom. To really pull for Maximus and hate Commodus we need an innocent family murdered in cold-blood. Why not have the Romans kill Maximus's dog for that matter? Every film manipulates an audience. But when events occur solely for manipulation and don't makes sense otherwise, it reveals a certain emptiness to a film.

This emptiness comes to a boil with Gladiator's weak anticlimactic ending. The film is unique in that it telegraphs its problem. Commodus tells Maximus "Now they all want to see how the story ends." So did the writers. A sizable chunk of the film is devoted to the Maximus, the emperor's sister and others planning an insurrection against Commodus. After all the planning, Commodus quashes the revolt, eliminates the rebellion and secures his power. The story should be over. But he's the bad guy, he can't win. So he inexplicably forces Maximus into a duel, after previously wounding him. After a dull flat fight, the Roman soldiers suddenly turn against Commodus. Once Commodus dies the soldiers are perfectly willing to let their emperor rot while giving Maximus a hero's burial. So let's review -- Commodus tuns all the screws to crush Maximus, and then gives his adversary a chance to kill him. People who were steadfastly loyal to Commodus instantly recognize his evil and abandon him. None of this makes sense in any way other to being the film to a quick end.

These plots and transparent plot machinations are not unique to Gladiator. You find them in plenty of films, mostly action movies. Far all but the best of these pictures, you need to be willing to except some story flaws in return for visceral thrills. And that was the bargain I made with Gladiator. Interesting characters, some strong performances, stylishly shot and edited fight scenes were enough for me to overlook the story's problems and enjoy the film as a fun summer action flick. But Best Picture?!!! Again, why?

The answers to those questions vary. Some say it's because Gladiator resurrected a dead subgenere -- the "sword and sandals" film, popularized through epics such as Ben-Hur and Spartacus. Some cited the computer-aided depiction of ancient Rome. Others credited the charisma and flair of Crowe and Phoenix. These theories may both have credence, but possibly as part of a larger problem. So many critics and entertainment journalists labeled 2000 as a horrible film year that people started to believe it. If it's a bad year, there must not be anything out there worth seeing. So why not go with a film everyone likes, that's accessible and inoffensive? Not only that, it's a period piece so it must be prestigious.

What's the harm? Plenty. 2000 was not a bad year for films. You just had to go out and find them. Before you say that Gladiator was the best film of the year, tell me -- Did you see You Can Count on Me? Did you see Almost Famous? Did you see Requiem for a Dream? I don't believe many people did. I also don't believe they are willing to look any further than what is right in front of them. It's easier to write off 2000 and to make a safe choice than to strive for something greater, something that stays with you when you leave the theater, something where the story is as finely crafted as the production. Shouldn't we expect more from a Best Picture? Shouldn't we look higher than the lowest common denominator? A Gladiator win on Oscar night will be a sad commentary. Not about the movies, but about the moviegoers.

Adam Spector
March 11, 2001

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