Reel Matt

This blog started as my movie marathon — watching a movie a day for a whole year — and has continued as a place for me to write reviews about movies, TV, and various other items.

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Gladiator

Film #198

THE PLOT

When a Roman general is betrayed and his family murdered by an emperor’s corrupt son, he comes to Rome as a gladiator to seek revenge.

Year 1, Day 195

BEFORE: Ridley Scott is back in the director’s chair for today’s historical film about Ancient Rome, Gladiator. Nominated for twelve Academy Awards and only winning five, although it won Best Picture and Best Actor (Russell Crowe), Gladiator also continues the pattern in the marathon recently of films that are longer than 150 minutes. Some of these films have benefitted from the length and some films have suffered from their long runtime. Let’s see which category Gladiator falls under.

AFTER: Gladiator is a great example of a modern day epic. It tells an incredibly large and historic tale, that of Ancient Rome, with an equally important look at the characters behind the tale, Maximus (Russell Crowe) and Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix). But unlike a film like Lawrence of Arabia (which I would say is the pinnacle of classic film epics), Gladiator relies on more modern storytelling tools such as visual effects (compared to real extras) and intense actions scenes (compared to slower character development).

This difference in style I view as nothing more than a sign of the times. As technology has progressed in the 21st century, films have become much more reliant on it and the number of big-budget blockbusters increase. But this doesn’t mean we can no longer have great films. CGI is just another tool to use when making films, another way to tell stories, and without a great story and characters, among other things, you’ll have a flop just like the 1900s.

Gladiator has a great story and characters that are easily identifiable and easy to connect with. While the premise of Gladiator seems eerily similar to Ben-Hur, another Best Picture winner that deals with gladiators and Ancient Rome, it doesn’t change the fact that I found it entertaining. You can tell a story over and over again but as long as you can keep things interesting and entertaining, people will still come to see it. The strength of Gladiator for me was the character Maximus. Russell Crowe does a terrific job playing this strong, loyal, and dedicated leader who rallies his men together, and later on the gladiators, to fight as one unit, united against the enemy. Crowe makes Maximus someone I would want to follow and fight for, someone who inspires bravery and courage. Maximus is more than just the quintessential hero who is betrayed and then forced to work his way back to the top. Maximus is someone who cares deeply about those he loves and will do anything to do what is right. Contrast that with Phoneix’s portrayal of the incestuous, king-slaying (I made so many connections to the wonderful A Song of Ice and Fire), and corrupt Commodus and you get a great rivalry. I became fully invested in these characters and found myself concerned for Maximus’ safety and rooting for Commodus’ downfall.

While I found Gladiator to be highly entertaining with a well-told (although oft-heard) story of good vs. evil in Ancient Rome and highly relatable characters, I am a bit surprised at the winning of Best Picture. Not that I don’t think it deserves the title (although I’ve only seen one of the competitors, Traffic), but Gladiator does not strike me as the typical Oscar fare. Looking at the list of winners in the past decade, the only other film I would consider a big epic is The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King in 2003. While I’m a big fan of smaller, more character-driven films, I’m also pleased when a larger, more action-based film wins as well. Both types of films have their place in the world and Gladiator is among the best.

RATING: 5 out of 5