Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Director Spotlight #7.12: Ridley Scott's Gladiator

Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. May’s director is the eternally meticulous Ridley Scott.

Grade: 80 (B+)

In my Overlooked Gems piece on Valhalla Rising last year, I wrote that part of the film’s virtue is that the film wasn’t marred with “faux-Shakespearean dialogue like Gladiator or self-important hooey like Braveheart”. “Self-important hooey” still applies to Braveheart, a film that mixes cornball theatrics and queasy, sadistic obsessions with martyrdom that have become Mel Gibson’s forte, but my charge that Gladiator was another mediocrity was a bit harsh. The film lacks the thematic depth of earlier Ridley Scott triumphs like Alien and Blade Runner, the script is often familiar and more than a little over-the-top, and the third act is a bit overextended . But Gladiator is still rousing entertainment, and it marks the beginning of one of Scott’s more successful runs.

Maximus (Russell Crowe) is a general for the Roman Empire under dying Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris). Maximus wishes to return home to his wife and son following their victory against the Germanic tribes, but Marcus Aurelius asks the decent Maximus to temporarily take leadership over Rome and restore power to the Senate. Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), the emperor’s wicked son, is heartbroken and bitter over his father’s decision, and he kills his father and order’s the deaths of Maximus and his family. Maximus escapes, but is too late to save his wife and son. Sold into slavery to gladiator trainer Proximo (the late Oliver Reed in his final role), Maximus and others are forced to compete in the deadly gladiatorial games. But Maximus takes this opportunity to win the favor of the people of Rome, conspire with the enemies of Commodus, and exact his revenge.

Gladiator is no doubt a familiar story- the film takes clear influence from the storylines of William Wyler’s Ben-Hur (former friend to the emperor sold into slavery exacts his revenge) and, more notably, Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus (slave wins favor as a gladiator, plots to rebel against Rome). But Scott is inspired by more than just sword-and-sandals spectacle. The film’s classical hero’s journey certainly reflects the Old Hollywood epics, but the epic scope and violent battles also give Scott a chance to pay tribute to his old influences David Lean and Akira Kurosawa (particularly Lawrence of Arabia and Seven Samurai). Scott’s atmospheric lighting recalls, as always, Orson Welles. The modern violence and frantic editing (more assured here than in G.I. Jane) show clear influence of Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, while the elevated emotions owes more to Greek tragedy than Shakespeare. Scott even fits in a few clever references to Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will for Phoenix’s tyrannical Commodus.

The film works first as spectacle, however. Scott’s command of opening battle sequences is incredible: the editing is much more quickly paced than earlier Scott films, but with few exceptions it’s not confusing or distracting. Because it’s a Ridley Scott film, there’s heavy smoke and a blue haze over the proceedings. It’s easy to joke (as my cousin and I have) that Scott is the master of filming blue mist and rain, but when it establishes such an effectively moody atmosphere it’s hard to complain. Scott’s father was in the military, and the director has a good sense of how military men think. Pronouncements of “strength and honor” might have been overused by the film’s fans in the year’s sine, but they’re highly effective in the film. Maximus uses intelligent military tactics before brute force to keep his men alive, which comes in handy later in the film’s gladiatorial scenes. More importantly, Maximus is not some hulking brute obsessed with killing, but rather a man who’s doing what he has to in order to defend a power he believes in. In all truth, the he just wants to go home (Scott makes effective use of overcast skies for most of the film to contrast with the clear blue skies of Maximus’ home). Held together by Hans Zimmer’s alternatively melancholy and driving score, and it’s powerful filmmaking.

Scott doesn’t hold back on design or filmmaking in the rest of the film, either. The sets, costumes, and bric-a-brac are all astounding (although I got a chuckle out of a mask that made Russell Crowe look like underground hip-hop star MF Doom). Rome, in all of its glory, is Scott’s greatest cityscape since Blade Runner. Scott stages the gladiator matches like more violent and beautiful wrestling matches (there’s a gravelly voiced announcer who practically yells “IN THIS CORNER!”). A claustrophobe, Scott shoots the interiors like cages, both literally and metaphorically: Maximus is trapped by an iron-fisted empire, where members of the Senate and royal family are forced into corners they can’t escape. Scott can get more out of a cleverly placed ray of light or shadow than most directors, so when characters are trapped into dank dungeons or, more importantly, a speck of light flickers through all the darkness, it’s highly effective.

In the style of old-fashioned Roman epics, Scott has assembled a gigantic cast. If there’s more proof needed that he’s more of an actor’s director than he’s been given credit, look no further. Character-roles are well played by respected British actors like Derek Jacobi (as the moral senator Gracchus), Oliver Reed (as stone-hearted, steely-eyed Proximo), and David Schofield (as sycophant Falco). Beninese actor Djimon Hounsou is fascinating, as always, in his role as Numidian gladiator Juba, although his interplay with Crowe is so good that you’d wish it amounted to more or he had more to work with. Richard Harris, in one of his final roles, brings a mixture gravity and frailty that’s perfect for Marcus Aurelius. Danish actress Connie Nielsen’s Lucilla is another strong female role in Scott’s filmography, a woman with a “talent for survival” who’s far more compassionate and just than her brother Commodus.

Some might find Phoenix’s performance as the almost comically nasty Commodus a bit much, but in truth he brings exactly the kind of fun, hammy venomousness that the role requires. Commodus is a vile creature, a man of great ambition and resourcefulness with little compassion or sense of justice. Like Anne Bancroft in G.I. Jane before him, Phoenix sinks his teeth into each overwritten line (“it vexes me, I’m terribly vexed!”; “busy, busy little bee…”) like it’s a juicy steak, threatening each character with an effete whisper or hiss. He’s a bad guy in the Old Hollywood sense, and that’s why it works. But Commodus also showcases Scott’s interest in difficult father-son relationships, the strongest since Blade Runner. Commodus might be an unambiguously evil character, but it’s in part because his father never loved him. Whenever his father rejects him, you can see the sense of pain and rejection on his face. “One kind word, one full hug where you pressed me to your chest and held me tight would have been like the sun on my heart for a thousand years.” His murder of his father (deliberately staged in a similar fashion to the Roy-Tyrell murder in Blade Runner) is horrifying and tragic, but while it’s not possible to excuse his actions, it’s easy to understand them.

I’ve been dismissive of Russell Crowe’s performance in Gladiator in the past, calling it “two-and-a-half hours of glowering”. It’s more than a little reductive, and more reflective of the subpar sword-and-sandals films that followed in Gladiator’s wake (see: Gerard Butler in 300, a performance sans Crowe’s charisma or thoughtfulness). Maximus is a man of great strength, but he’s also a sharp military tactician and a man who appreciates life at its fullest. He fights for the emperor, but only to protect what he has. Crowe brings more sensitivity to Maximus than most actors would have, and more humor than I’ve given him credit in the past (“what I say to my wife…that is none of your business”). He certainly broods after his wife and child are killed, but his death wish is understandable, and after some time he’s overcome with single-minded obsession to bring righteous vengeance on the head of Commodus (Scott’s interest in obsession rears its head again). The big “my name is Maximus Decimus Meridius” speech could easily be a goofy, comically grim Oscar speech from another actor, but Crowe makes it work. Word has it that on set, the eternally surly Crowe told the third screenwriter that his problematic lines “are garbage, but I’m the greatest actor in the world, and I can make even garbage sound good”. Crowe might be kind of a dick, but watching Gladiator, it’s hard not to think he has some point. It’s a worthy Best Actor winning performance.

Being a Ridley Scott film, Gladiator is interested, above all else, in mortality. An early line from Maximus, “Do not be troubled by death”, grows bitterly ironic given the events of the film. Marcus Aurelius’ death has world-changing consequences when a dictator like Commodus takes over. The dehumanizing murders of Maximus’ family leaves him with nothing to live for but his vengeance. Now Commodus’ death is all-important. A line near the end between Maximus and Commodus, “death smiles at us all…all we can do is smile back”. Maximus greets death as a friend after he’s mortally wounded Commodus whimpers and chokes as he gasps his final breaths. Their deaths mark the new change for the Roman Empire: Rome is now a republic, and the people have the power, as Marcus Aurelius wanted (not historically accurate, but who cares?). As for Maximus: death, in this case, is not the end. It’s one of the more open embraces of mortality in Scott’s filmography, as he’ll now rejoin his family in the afterlife. His friend Juba will one day join him. “But not yet”.


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