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Tom Neven

Movie Review

Ancient Rome is thriving. After General Maximus leads the Roman legions to victory in their final battle against the Germanic tribes, he longs for nothing more than to return to his wife, son and farm in Spain. But Emperor Marcus Aurelius has other plans. Knowing that Maximus holds the utmost loyalty to him and to Rome—and not trusting his own son and heir apparent, Commodus—the aging emperor asks Maximus to succeed him on the throne.

The depraved Commodus gets wind of this and arranges for Maximus to disappear—permanently. Maximus escapes his assassins but winds up as a slave to Proximo, a trainer of gladiators. The general, who becomes a slave forced to fight to entertain the man who tried to have him murdered, plots revenge.

Positive Elements: Maximus is a man of honor and is incorruptible. He turns down an opportunity for power and riches because it violates the principles for which he stands. He tells the decadent Commodus, “What we do in life echoes into eternity.” He tells a scheming Lucilla, “I never acquired your comfort for lying.” Three gladiators form a bond of friendship and self-sacrifice to help each other. And, in a back-door way of affirming what is good, the evil Commodus gets his comeuppance in the end.

Spiritual Content: Many references to “the gods.” Maximus talks about the “Elysian Fields,” a paradise of classical mythology. Maximus carries small statues to represent his family and ancestors and prays to them. The film several times shows Maximus imagining meeting his family in the afterlife, symbolized by going through a door into wide, green fields.

Sexual Content: Nothing explicit. There is a barely hinted-at past between Maximus and Lucilla, and the film leaves open the question of whether Lucilla’s son, Lucius, is Maximus’ child. A gladiator master asks a man, “What do you want, a girl? A boy?” Commodus makes several incestuous advances against his sister, Lucilla.

Violent Content: Frequent and extreme. The film opens with a headless Roman soldier on horseback and the Germanic leader taunting the Romans with the soldier’s head. Opening battle scene shows men impaled by spears, pinned to trees by arrows, and frequent killing by sword. Gladiatorial combat features just about every possible way to kill a man short of nuclear weapons. To his credit, Director Scott does not dwell on gore; once the point is made that a man has been killed, the camera moves elsewhere. Still, the gruesome images burn deep.

Crude or Profane Language: A woman is called a b–ch. One s-word.

Drug and Alcohol Content: Little. Emperor drinks wine.

Summary: Gladiator is a great film cinematically. The acting is powerful and the story is strong, even if it is a bit of a rehash of the Ben-Hur story—without the redemptive ending. Still, I left the theater feeling vaguely ill-at-ease, and it took me several hours to figure out why. I then realized that the degeneracy shown on screen—Emperor Commodus happily clapping his hands as a gladiator is decapitated, the crowd roaring its bloodlust—is too close to some forms of entertainment today, particularly professional wrestling. The gladiators of Rome took on certain contrived personalities, and gladiatorial combat was intended to tell some sort of story, just like today’s equivalent of gladiatorial entertainment. And as the crowd’s appetite was whetted by increasingly bizarre and violent combat, so too are today’s wrestling maniacs. Gladiator serves as an object lesson as to what can happen to a society that proceeds down such a violent path. The extreme violence used to create that lesson, however, prohibits children and teens (and will dissuade many adults) from getting a chance to experience it.

DVD Update: DreamWorks really pulled out all the stops for its DVD presentation of Gladiator. Of course, the usual extras are there. Theatrical trailers. Television commercials. A gallery of full-color photographs. Even an option that allows viewers to hear running commentary by the filmmakers throughout the motion picture (director Ridley Scott, editor Pietro Scalia and director of photography John Mathieson). But that’s just the beginning. There’s so much material that the studio needed to include a second disc to hold all of these fascinating features:

STILLS & STORYBOARDS: Gladiator’s photo gallery includes well over 100 stills, with dozens showing how set designers recreated ancient Rome and its majestic Colosseum. Another section shows scores of conceptual drawings and original storyboards that map out action sequences like a comic book (a brutally graphic one with violent shots charted in detail). A link also describes an omitted scene in which a rhinoceros is released into the arena to wreak havoc on combatants.

“MAKING OF” SPECIAL: A 30-minute behind-the-scenes look at Gladiator captures both the greatness and corruption of the Roman empire. It takes viewers to filming locations such as Morocco and Malta. It also emphasizes the cinematic choreography of Gladiator’s extreme violence (showing the filming from a distance with ball-capped crew and boom microphones in full view), which takes the edge off the carnage somewhat and looks more like big kids in costume playing war. Viewers get mini history lessons and a deeper appreciation for the movie’s remarkable art direction and set design. They’ll also meet a Russell Crowe far less stoic and irritated than he typically appears on camera. Instead of looking like he’s been baptized in lemon juice, the Aussie actor displays a delightful sense of humor and is quite likable in these interview clips from the set.

INTERVIEW WITH HANS ZIMMER: The brilliant composer behind this film, The Prince of Egypt, Mission: Impossible 2, The Lion King and many others offers audiences an educational glimpse at the creative process of scoring a film. He talks about his various forms of inspiration, “method composing” and how artists in diverse areas of filmmaking work together as a team. While very informative, this featurette flashes some of Gladiator’s most violent images on the screen behind Zimmer’s commentary, which is unfortunate.

SCENES THAT DIDN’T MAKE IT: Numerous scenes—some of them quite powerful—landed on the cutting room floor never to be seen by theater audiences. But they’re included here. Viewers have the option of viewing them “as is” or with comments by director Ridley Scott concerning why those clips were excised from the final product. One especially poignant scene finds Maximus in the underbelly of the Colosseum as lions are being let into the arena to devour innocent Christians. It’s not a violent moment, but a soul-stirring reminder of the price paid by early Christ followers. This bonus section is not without its problems, however. Additional violence appears in the form of men being burned alive, eaten by vultures and executed by a firing squad of archers. A fallen combatant is impaled in the head with a large spear. The bloody stumps of amputated limbs are also pretty gruesome.

A CHILD’S JOURNAL: Spencer Treat Clark, the child actor who plays the role of heir-apparent Lucius, kept a detailed daily journal throughout the making of Gladiator. It is reprinted along with a veritable scrapbook of photos and memorabilia from his tour of duty on the set. It’s a unique and interesting backstage pass that offers a look at the filmmaking process through the eyes of a boy. If there’s a down side, it’s how he takes pleasure in describing some of the movie’s more graphic scenes and how they were shot.

HOUR-LONG DOCUMENTARY: The crown jewel of this package may be “Gladiator Games: The Roman Bloodsport,” a riveting, hour-long documentary peppered with film footage. The emphasis is on revisiting Roman culture and understanding the historical significance of gladiatorial combat. Interviews with academicians and archaeologists offer tremendous insights, not just into the nature of brutal entertainment and its stranglehold on one of the world’s largest civilizations, but into the cultural climate that is connected with so much of New Testament history. From Jesus to Paul, vital figures of the faith spoke of and interacted with the people and leadership of Rome.

The documentary explains the dual social status of the gladiator—an outcast who can become a superstar, if only for a short time. It analyzes the lure of wealth, fame and possible freedom. And the bloodlust of ancient times is compared to modern sport. Professor Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, director of the British School of Rome, addresses the issue of desensitization by stating, “The Romans, the more they watched, the more they see people being killed, the more used to it they become and the more indifferent to it, morally, they become.” Its similarity to modern pop culture isn’t lost on Professor David Potter, who teaches Greek and Latin at the University of Michigan. He explains, “We think that it’s so beyond our comprehension that we can’t understand how 80,000 people could watch people wave swords at each other in the Colosseum. On the other hand, you turn on television nowadays any day of the week and you’ll see wild animal attacks, advertisements for people being washed away in floods and what have you.”

Indeed, some might not unreasonably argue that Gladiator exploits that very mentality, pandering to the bloodlust of desensitized audiences. It grossed more than $180 million in the U.S. alone and features extreme violence. And while some of that carnage spills over into these DVD extras, DreamWorks has certainly created an engaging, often educational bonus package.

DVD special features review by Bob Smithouser

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Tom Neven