(This film review of Gladiator was originally published in the Australian Jewish News on 5 May 2000. I am reprinting it now in “honour” of Scott’s new film Exodus: Gods and Kings – my review coming soon – and Russell Crowe’s upcoming The Water Diviner, due for release on 26 December 2014.)
Directed by Ridley Scott
Written by David Franzoni, John Logan and William Nicholson
Starring Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen, Oliver Reed, Derek Jacobi, Djimon Hounsou and Richard Harris
In movies, there is little need to invent new stories; re-use and adaptation are the name of the game. Back in 1880, Lew Wallace wrote a novel called Ben-Hur about a Jewish nobleman named Judah in Roman-occupied Israel around the time of Jesus. Unjustly accused of treason, he was sentenced to slavery in the galleys, and later made his way up to nobility again through his star chariot-racing in Rome. It was made into a blockbuster silent film in 1926 (with Ramon Navarro in the lead role), and re-made again in 1959 by William Wyler with Charlton Heston as Judah. Ben-Hur resonated strongly with Jewish audiences because the major theme was dual allegiances, one of the perennial issues facing Jews in foreign lands.
Ben-Hur, along with Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) were the obvious forerunners to the Roman epic Gladiator, directed by Ridley Scott (Blade Runner, Thelma and Louise, Alien). Gladiator is based on an original story by writer David Franzoni (who wrote Spielberg’s Amistad), but all of the familiar elements are there: the outsider (in this case Russell Crowe playing Spanish-born Roman general Maximus) falls from grace through the political manipulations of the wily son (Joaquin Phoenix as Commodus) of emperor Marcus Aurelius (classic British actor Richard Harris). In doing so, his family is decimated, and he falls into slavery: in this case, becoming an arena gladiator for entrepreneur Proximo (the late Oliver Reed). Along the way, there is the hint of a past romance with Commodus’ sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen). With the assistance of his loyal fellow gladiators – including Juba (Djimon Hounsou, who played the lead black character Cinque in Amistad) and maverick senator Gracchus (Derek Jacobi), Maximus attempts his vengeance.
It may sound a bit like I, Claudius, but in reality this is an action film with hyper-realistic battles (think Braveheart) and some truly astonishing arena fighting, with some of the most thrilling choreographed violence you will see this year. There is a cast of thousands, and the re-creation of Rome circa 180 CE has never been better; in other words, Gladiator is a major spectacle – don’t wait for the video release if you like seeing your heroic action big and loud.
Some of the performances are outstanding, notably Crowe (in his follow-up to his wimpy Insider character) as the brawny but smart hero and the classic supporting actors (Harris, Reed, Jacobi), but they are given pretty weak dialogue to work with. The film opens with an amazingly staged, bloody, dirty – and seemingly unending – battle scene, which is then followed by a lot of talky political intrigue. It’s an awfully long set-up, so emotionally the film only gets going about one-third of the way through when we really start to “feel” Maximus’ pain.
Part of the difficulty may be that Maximus the outsider is never given the same mythical and spiritual sense that the Jewish Judah had in Ben-Hur. Unlike the Jews under the Romans, he has no political objective other than simple survival. But as a (literally) bone-crunching story of survival, Gladiator – despite its faults – succeeds very well. Interesting to note that Gladiator came from DreamWorks, and was co-produced by Holocaust survivor Branko Lustig, who also co-produced Schindler’s List.