Russell Crowe stars as Maximus in GLADIATOR, a bloody epic set in Ancient Rome. In the story, Maximus is a Roman general who willingly serves the famous Stoic emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Marcus plans to name Maximus his successor, but his evil son, Commodus, murders Marcus, takes the crown for himself and tries to get rid of Maximus. Maximus survives to become a great gladiator. Taken to Rome, Maximus finally gets his chance to overthrow the tyrant.
GLADIATOR is almost a four star movie, with fine acting and high production values. Although vengeance is Maximus’ motivation, he exhibits several virtues, not the least of which is mercy when killing is unnecessary. Furthermore, the movie makes clear that the bloodsport of the coliseum is distracting and destroying Rome. It rebukes dictatorship and mobocracy and commends republican government. However, it seems as if the filmmakers are toying with the audience, attracting them with a violent “blood and guts” epic while positing virtues in the dialogue. Worse, although the movie is set in 180 AD, the year of our Lord, the Lord of heaven and earth, Jesus Christ, whose love and sacrifice overthrew the corrupt Roman Empire, is never mentioned
(PaPa, BB, C, RHRH, L, VVV, S, N, A, D, MMM) Pagan worldview with many moral, redemptive & revisionist history elements as well as evil rebuked; 3 mild obscenities & chants of worship to Roman gods; extreme violence including decapitation, blood spurting, bodies cut in half, arms & legs hacked to pieces, constant violence in warfare & gladiatorial games, threats of violence, patricide, & attempted patricide; suggestions of incest but never consummated & discussions of homosexuality; upper male nudity; alcohol use; potions; and, deception, greed, envy, & gambling.
At first blush (and blush one might after seeing all the violence), GLADIATOR appears to be a classic toga movie which, during the Golden Years, would have starred Kirk Douglas or Tony Curtis. Like the traditional toga movie, the gladiatorial games, which are used to attract an audience to the movie, by the way, are roundly condemned and moral virtues, including the supremacy of the republic over dictatorship, are stressed. From this perspective, the only change is the enhanced intensity of the violence. Special effects allow viewers to linger over spurting blood, decapitations, gashes, and wounds and make them feel as if the movie was really shot during Roman times.
However, looking beyond the surface, there is something missing in GLADIATOR, and it is not just an accurate history of Rome. This movie is purportedly set in 180 AD, but there is no reference to Christ as Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) is succeeded by his son, Commodus.
In real life, Commodus was a (blond not brunette) monster who kept hundreds of concubines, many of whom were boys, and who thought of himself as the god Hercules. He often went into the arena to fight wild beasts, in events that were so rigged that the audience laughed at his charade. However, there were many Christians in Rome at this time, including his morganatic wife, Marsha, who conspired with some in the Senate to remove Commodus from power.
In contrast to history, GLADIATOR telescopes events so that the fight to relieve Commodus of power becomes a battle between two individuals, one of whom is a fictional character based in part on the gladiator who was paid to kill Commodus. As such, GLADIATOR is a carefully drawn universe with a heaven and a hell and plenty of atmosphere, but no Christ and definitely no Christians.
The movie opens at the end of the reign of Marcus Aurelius. Emperor Marcus is watching the last battle against the last German tribe. (In fact, most of the German tribes remained unconquered.) His general Maximus, played by Russell Crowe, leads a vicious Calvary charge against the Germans.
After the battle, Marcus’ son Commodus and his daughter Lucilla arrive from Rome. Realizing that Commodus is twisted by ambition, Marcus tells Maximus that he wants Maximus to assume the throne so that Maximus can turn the government back over to the Roman Senate, and thereby restore the Republic. Maximus asks for time to think about this.
Commodus, expecting the worst, kills his father while Maximus prays to his ancestors and the Roman gods. In this patricidal scene, Commodus tells Marcus that Marcus wanted him to have the four major virtues – wisdom, justice, fortitude, and temperance – but he, Commodus, has other virtues which Marcus fails to value, including ambition.
After he strangles Marcus, Commodus orders the death of Maximus, but Maximus, in a fancy bit of wordplay, defeats his guards, and although he is wounded, he escapes. After riding for days to reach his home, he finds that his wife and son have been crucified by order of Commodus.
A slaver finds Maximus near death, on top of the graves that he dug for his family. The slaver takes him to North Africa Zucchabar, a Roman province. There he sells Maximus, along with some other slaves to Proximo, who runs a vicious gladiatorial arena. Proximo tells the slaves that they will all die in the arena, but Maximus organizes the slaves and helps them triumph.
Maximus is such an impressive killing machine that Proximo takes him to Rome to gain fame and fortune. The emperor, Commodus, is intrigued by this new gladiator, until he finds out who he is when Maximus removes his helmut. A few senators plot to overthrow Commodus using Maximus. Commodus imprisons the senator leading the conspiracy and challenges Maximus to a rigged gladiatorial combat.
Although vengeance is Maximus’ primary motivation, he exhibits several virtues, not the least of which is mercy when killing is unnecessary. Furthermore, the movie makes clear that the bloodsport of the coliseum is distracting and destroying Rome. The movie rebukes dictatorship and mobocracy and commends republican government. There are several instances of laying down one’s life for another. There are prayers to the Father, God, visions of heaven, commendation of monogamy, refutation of incest, and several other virtues. For these reasons, conservative reviewers may appreciate this movie in spite of its violence. However, it seems as if the filmmakers are toying with the audience, attracting them with a violent “blood and guts” epic while positing and parading these virtues in the dialogue.
This is almost a four star movie. The battle scenes are well filmed. Russell Crowe does his usual tremendous job of acting; Connie Nielsen is terrific as Lucilla; and, the late Oliver Reed is unsurpassed as Proximo. The quality of the acting must be attributed to the director, Ridley Scott, who clearly cared about this production. Regrettably, there are moments when the movie drags, especially when the fighting is too drawn out, and these moments prevent the movie from reaching four stars.
The screening was packed, and this will probably be the case with the theaters, but GLADIATOR is missing something. After all, the story opens in 180 AD, the year of our Lord, but the Lord of heaven and earth, Jesus Christ, whose love and sacrifice overthrew the corrupt Roman Empire, is never mentioned. Perhaps, screen QUO VADIS for your teenagers before they waste their money on GLADIATOR.
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