Gladiator Tries to Resuscitate the Sword-and-Sandals Picture

Written by Godfrey Cheshire on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.

Made at the
crest of Hollywood’s infatuation with togas and tridents, the 1960 Spartacus
almost didn’t get off the ground because of competition from a planned
picture titled The Gladiators, which was to be directed by Martin Ritt
and star Yul Brynner. Spartacus producer-star Kirk Douglas, though, rushed
his movie into production with Anthony Mann, the studio’s choice for director,
at the helm. After a dissatisfied Douglas fired Mann and brought in Kubrick,
his own choice, three weeks into shooting, Mann went on to direct 1964’s
The Fall of the Roman Empire, which has quite a lot in common with Scott’s

The new movie’s
presskit makes no mention of Fall of the Roman Empire, and when I called
my local video store to see if it was in stock, I was told that it had been
removed from circulation and was currently not available for sale or rental.
This is what studios do when they don’t want competition or comparison
with previous versions of a new film, but Gladiator is nowhere described
as a remake of Fall. I assume that Scott and his producers would simply
prefer that you not know there’s an earlier movie that also opens in 180
AD as the philosophic emperor Marcus Aurelius, who’s soon to be replaced
by his evil and nutty son Commodus, is in the dank woods of Germany battling
hordes of ferocious savages.

In Mann’s
film, Marcus is played by Alec Guinness. In Scott’s, he’s played by
Richard Harris, whose beard and hooded costume give him an uncanny resemblance
to Guinness as Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars. I assume that this little
joke is intentional, and indicates that Scott or others connected with Gladiator
are well aware of Fall, even if they’re perhaps keen that audiences
not be.

In any case,
Scott’s movie centers on a figure who appears neither in history nor Anthony
Mann’s version of it. He is Maximus (Crowe), the valorous and hardy general
who leads Marcus’ army in the pitched flaming-arrows-amid-the-forests battle
that gives the film its rousing opening reel. That Maximus is also the son Marcus
wishes he’d had is doubly unfortunate since the son he did have,
Commodus (Joachim Phoenix), proved to be, as at least one historian has noted,
a prime argument against emperors being succeeded by their progeny.

in his book The Ancient World in the Cinema, Jon Solomon faults Fall
for portraying Commodus (there played by Christopher Plummer) "too temperately.
History tells us that while participating in gladiatorial battles he wore a
lionskin over his head and carried a club in imitation of Hercules. These eccentricities
are mild in comparison to the information that he slept with his sister and
then had her put to death; she had tried to assassinate him because he was not
showing her enough affection!"

Commodus, rather than being so colorfully lunatic and depraved, is more programatically
villainous. He kills his aged father, then decrees the death of his sturdy rival
Maximus, who intends to follow through on Marcus’ plan to return Rome to
republican rule. Though Maximus escapes his execution, his wife and son back
at the villa are slaughtered by imperial goons. The scene then shifts to north
Africa, where Maximus, now a slave, becomes a gladiator in the troupe of a feisty
impresario named Proximo (Oliver Reed, in a scene-stealing final performance).
This is only 30 or so minutes into the two and a half hour movie, but you can
easily see the rest of the plot looming up: like a provincial showgirl hoofing
toward the Great White Way, Maximus will climb the gladiatorial ladder until,
after many strained muscles and bested opponents, he faces Emperor Commodus
in Rome’s Colosseum.

It’s a
safe bet, I think, that audiences will go for Gladiator in numbers sufficient
to gladden DreamWorks/Universal. Besides packing regular doses of action into
a story that’s well-paced and reassuringly predictable, the film has the
advantage of being the first big summer movie out of the gate, and the novelty
of reviving a genre that’s been out of circulation for decades. Indeed,
apart from the musical’s collapse at around the same time, few popular
genres have ever disappeared so suddenly, a rupture that means that Gladiator
will exercise different appeals for two different audiences: those over 40 who
recall the sword-and-sandal movies of the 1950s and 60s, and younger viewers
to whom it’s largely new.

It might seem
surprising that any genre so thoroughly dead and buried could spring back to
life, except that movies at the turn of the millennium seem to be in the midst
of a wholesale resuscitation of genres. Some of that arrives under the aegis
of Steven Spielberg, whose name doesn’t appear in the credits of Gladiator
but whose influence is everywhere felt. The movie’s big opening battle,
for example, honors the precedent set by Saving Private Ryan, which is
also quoted in the moment when novice gladiators await their first battle with
trembling and trepidation. But perhaps most Spielbergian of all is the film’s
mix of confidence and caution, risky boldness and bet-hedging conventionality.

To venture
$100 million in a long-forsworn genre must be counted daring, surely. But Spielberg
has learned not to be too daring. The primary writer of Gladiator,
David Franzoni (story and co-screenwriting credits), also authored Spielberg’s
Amistad. I counted that movie as one of the most intelligent period dramas
I’d ever seen for the way it spread the quality of heroism among many characters,
but I’d also bet that Spielberg blamed this same nervy gambit for the movie’s
disappointing commercial returns. Henceforward, as Pvt. Ryan suggests,
heroism in Spielberg-sponsored films will be of the old-fashioned, singular
variety. Indeed, the slogan emblazoned on Gladiator’s posters–"A
Hero Will Rise"–is likely to remain the implicit promise of every
period action drama to emerge from DreamWorks, no matter the genre.

Yet consider
what thin stuff these neotraditional heroes are made of. In stories and movies
of old, heroes fought for a cause, an ideal, a dream–or just because they
were heroes. Nowadays, in our culture of personal grievance and dysfunction,
there’s but one motivation, which seemingly became set in stone with the
success of Braveheart: the hero fights because the baddies have raped/killed
his wife and otherwise decimated his immediate family. When this oppressively
invariable cliche popped up early in Gladiator, I knew that the rest
of the ride would consist of little but action interspersed with the most obvious
dramatic filler.

For viewers
too young to recall, it’s worth noting that the old sword-and-sandal epic,
which reigned from the success of De Mille’s Samson and Delilah
in 1949 to the disaster of Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra in 1963, was nothing
if not varied. To me it always looked like a three-tiered cosmos. At bottom
were the pulpy "muscleman" pictures that starred Steve Reeves and
other hulks as heroes like Hercules and Jason; this was kids’ stuff, and
proud of it. In the capacious middle came Ben-Hur, Alexander the Great,
The Robe and other lavish costumers that brought classical spectacle
and moral uplift to the general audience. Then there was the form’s arty
upper tier, which encompassed films from Pasolini’s Gospel According
to St. Matthew
to Fellini Satyricon.

You certainly
don’t get anything like those modernist provocations in Gladiator,
yet the satisfactions of the other tiers are also in short supply. In contrast
to the old muscleman movies’ almost comic reliance on beefcake, Scott’s
film features the most overelaborate and concealing of Roman costumes, for both
sexes; skin-wise, it’s practically Calvinist. Deeper urges seem even more
suspect. We’re now at a point, it appears, where religion and any belief
more potent than lukewarm republicanism are apparently unwelcome in our visions
of history. Thus, not only are Christian martyrs notably absent from Scott’s
bloody arenas, but no pagan dares mention his gods either. Any previous age
surely would find this scrupulously faithless Rome curious indeed, yet such
are the imperatives of our commercial secularists, who blandify in the name
of inoffensiveness.

With the hope
of any revealing parallels between the second century and our own era likewise
blunted, Gladiator ends up with little to engage the viewer beyond spectacle
and action, which, respectively, find themselves qualified by two features of
cinema’s new era: computer generated imagery (CGI) and digital editing.

When Mankiewicz
staged Liz Taylor’s grand entrance to Rome in Cleopatra, you knew
that all those costly extras and gargantuan sets were real. In Gladiator,
where so many of both are conjured by CGI, that subliminal sense of tangible
reality evaporates. Somewhere between De Chirico and Disney, the film’s
Forum and Colosseum are foreshortened, overstuffed, overstylized, sternly insubstantial;
it’s hard to be impressed with impossible vistas that are so clearly cartoonish.
(The concentration of special effects may partly account for the film’s
unappealingly dark and flat look.)

Regarding the
atomized feel of the movie’s action scenes, digital editing certainly isn’t
the only culprit. Scott–who’s made a few good movies, including Alien
and Thelma and Louise, and lots of lame ones–has roots in tv and
commercials, so he’s perhaps predisposed toward an overreliance on close-ups
and cutting. But practically none of Gladiator’s combat scenes have
any sense of spatial integrity or character-to-character physical dynamics.
With every flurry of action accomplished via rapid-fire editing, staccato jump
cuts, fast motion and sound effects, you often can’t quite tell who’s
doing what to whom. Though the immediate impact may be dazzling, the impression
that lingers is hollow and mechanical.

In summer-movie
terms, sure, it’s better than Twister. But a more clever film would
register at least some recognition that, just as "bread and circuses"
once signaled a public overeager for mindless distraction, "event movie"
does much the same today. Like Titanic, Gladiator seems willfully
unaware that its historic premise has long been taken as a metaphor for a civilization
heedlessly approaching disaster. But hey, it’s just entertainment.

fake Italy to the real thing. Fans of Italian cinema should take note that MOMA
is in the midst of an excellent series of classic (and a few recent) Italian
movies, including some of the hard-to-see variety. Running through May 12, "Second
Act: Third Season" brings back films that were overlooked back when or,
in some cases, never released in this country. Most are screened in new prints.
Titles appearing this week in the series include Marco Bellocchio’s Fists
in the Pocket
(1965); two famous featurettes, Fellini’s Temptation
of Doctor Antonio
(1962) and De Sica’s Il funeralino (1954);
Elio Petri’s I giorni contati (1962), and the Roberto Benigni comedy
Nothing Left to Do But Cry (1984).