This week marks the ten-year anniversary of the release of Ridley Scott’s Gladiator based on its American theatrical release. During the few months before its opening, something inside my 17-year-old brain told me that this was something special and eventful, and so after buying the American poster and the first of the film’s two soundtracks in April of that year, I made the claim on the cover of the SMCHS Film Club’s Celluloid Newsletter (designed by club VP Geoff Doleman and President yours truly) that it would win the Oscar for Best Picture, despite the fact that 1.) I hadn’t seen the movie yet, and 2.) there was still two-thirds of the year left. To say that this was a big movie in my life was an understatement.
(Oddly, I changed my mind months later and made a major gamble in predicting that underdog Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a movie I prefer, would steal the prize. This would mark the last time I would take such a chance in the Best Picture race. [The Crash Crash of the 2006 Oscars was not my fault. The good money was on Brokeback Mountain.])
So it’s with a bit of trepidation that I rewatched Gladiator on its anniversary after a Corona-soaked Cinco De Mayo lunch at the Wedgwood Broiler. Nostalgia is a very strong emotion, but I feel that I’m good at putting films into perspective. Meaning, this big honking epic I loved so much in my high school junior year, under closer examination, could potentially come across now as a shallow and cynical pastiche of older and better films during the 1940s-1960s, when swords-and-sandals extravaganzas were all the rage.
So how is it ten years later? I am almost surprised to say that I don’t think I have ever enjoyed the film more, and this is coming from somebody who saw it four times in theatres during its initial run. It’s powerful, it’s full of ridiculously overwrought intrigue, and good Lord is it fun. It’s not brilliant, but removing the seriousness I forced upon it so long ago seemingly allowed me to view it for what it actually was: one of the best B-movies released in my lifetime.
The same things still bug me:
- The editing during the opening battle scene. (If you wanted shots in slo-mo, you should have filmed it in slo-mo, assholes. That slowed-frame-rate crap bugs the shit out of me in Moulin Rouge!)
- Maximus’ gobs of mucus rolling down his face upon his discovery of his slain family’s bodies
- The jackal reaction shot
- The Maltese extras during the Colosseum scenes, who it appears were told by an AD to just raise their fists and shake them whenever they were excited
- How we never see the death blow that ends Commodus’ life
- The CGI Oliver Reed during the final 30 minutes (it looked like shit 10 years ago, so it looks even more like shit now)
- How Maximus, after his botched execution, takes two horses and rides all the way from Germania to Spain in a quick montage, then gets picked up and is suddenly in Algeria, all over the course of about five minutes.
- Derek Jacobi’s overwrought speech: “I think he knows what Rome is. Rome is the mob. Conjure magic for them and they’ll be distracted. Take away their freedom and still they’ll roar. The beating heart of Rome is not the marble of the senate, it’s the sand of the Colosseum. He’ll bring them death – and they will love him for it. ” If that goofy line doesn’t give you goosebumps, I can’t help you.
- The Busy Little Bee monologue
- The stuffed tiger puppet
- How Lucilla clutches her head over Maximus’ corpse
- Anything with Lucius.
So what has improved upon this ten-years-later viewing?
- The almost offensive historical inaccuracies now seem quaint and kind of hilarious.
- I have a completely new respect for Russell Crowe’s performance as Maximus. Ten years ago, I thought it was mostly just bad-ass and tough. This time I noticed how subtle much of his work is and most importantly noticed how subversive it was compared to everybody else. He plays it as a modern man in the midst of a Roman epic, with a Brando-Bronson swagger that made me giggle (in the good way). I wasn’t sure if he deserved the Oscar back then, but now I think it’s better than his main competition that year in Tom Hanks Cast Away performance.
- Joaquin Phoenix’s work as Commodus is even slimier than I remember it. He’s a neurotic, incestuous, sniveling mess of a man railing against the progress of the Roman republic as if playing it as a dangerously intelligent but impetuous child. It’s delightful.
- I don’t care how much it rips off from Holst and Wagner: Hans Zimmer’s bombastic score is one of the most evocative of the last 20 years. He gets a lot of shit nowadays, but the score fits the film like a glove, and ten years later I am now questioning whether Crouching Tiger‘s deserved the Oscar over this. Both work for their respective films, but this one has such a staying power that I was in awe of its insanity.
- Reality television wouldn’t invade our lives until a few months after the film’s release during the first season of “Survivor” that summer. Now, the crowds’ obsession with the gladiatorial barbarism seems almost prescient, as it’s something we American viewers participate in several times a week.
What doesn’t work so much anymore?
- Connie Nielsen, who I thought was perfect back then, is the film’s weak link. She brings almost nothing to the table in terms of her performance, and is merely used as a pretty face. A stronger actress could have deepened the tragic undertones of the familial strife.
- I realized how surface-level the politics are, and I found myself glossing over some of the later scenes as a result. It’s not bad, but it’s not nearly as important to the film’s power as I once thought.
- Ebert, in his notorious two-star review, was partially right: the CGI Rome looks like a video game. Most of the Roman exteriors look half-assed, and it seems they spent all of their (Oscar-winning) SFX money on the Colosseum interiors, which admittedly look top-notch even now.
I hope I can start some kind of discussion with this page. Even if you don’t have time to rewatch the film, it’s just as important to consider your own experience watching it ten years ago. How did you feel about Gladiator then, and how do you feel about it now? Have the memories deteriorated? Have you caught the film on television over the years and thought it was better or worse than you remember? How many times did you see it? Do you have any anecdotes or experiences in relation to the film? (I have a few which I may include as status updates.)
The general who became a slave. The slave who became a gladiator. The gladiator who defied an empire. The Best Picture winner of 2000. Ten years later.