JUMP CUT 45, Fall 2002
copyright 2002, Jump Cut:
A Review of Contemporary Media

Nation, Family and Violence in Gladiator

by Deborah Tudor

Gladiator tells the story of Roman General Maximus Decimus Meridius, loyal to Caesar Marcus Aurelius. Maximum defeats the rebellious Germans in battle, and Caesar asks him to become Protector of Rome during a transition back to the Republic. Maximus does not want this; he tells Caesar he only wants to return home to Spain, to his wife and son. He promises the Emperor to think about it.

Marcus Aurelius’ plan angers hisson, Commodus, who wants to succeed him as Caesar. Commodus kills his father, orders Maximus executed, and send Praetorians to murder Maximus’ family. Maximus escapes death, but is unable to save his family. Weakened by an injury, he is captured by slave traders and winds up in the North African gladiator school of the entrepreneur Proximo. Maximus becomes a famed gladiator called “The Spaniard.” Here he gains two companions, the German Hagen, and the African Juba, who becomes his confidante. Proximo takes his gladiators to Rome to fight in Commodus’ games. Maximus forms a plan. He will win in the Colosseum, get close to the new Emperor, and kill Commodus to avenge his family.

Maximus nearly succeeds. During his first gladiatorial bout, he uses military tactics to defeat his group’s opponents. Maximus’ spectacular win excites the crowd to a frenzy, and they hail him as a hero. The Emperor comes into the arena to congratulate him. Maximus picks up an arrowhead intending to stab him but is prevented by the presence of the Emperor’s nephew Lucius. Commodus forces Maximus to reveal his identity.

In the cells that night, Lucilla, Commodus’ sister and Maximus’ ex-love, tries to recruit him to help overthrow her brother. She claims that he has great power over the mob and could use it to get rid of his enemy. Maximus is unconvinced at first, but eventually Lucilla and Gracchus, a senator, convince him to help. They plan to return him secretly to his troops who are quartered outside of Rome. Maximus will then march on Rome and dethrone Commodus. Their plot is uncovered. Maximus is taken prisoner by Commodus, who stabs him, and then fights him in the arena. Despite his wound, Maximus wins the fight. Before he dies, he orders the Praetorian Guard to free his men. His death reunites him with his wife and son in Elysium.

What is this film about?

The U.S. press hailed Gladiator as a revival of a moribund Hollywood genre, the sword and sandal epic. However the film became a number of things to different people: Roman epic, moral drama, chance to view attractive male bodies, a high-concept, special-effects spectacle, action film, and a commentary on violent spectacle.

The film contains a central revenge plot that presents itself as a story of a noble hero by using violence, family images, and slavery as plot devices to create sympathy for Maximus. Although the “spectacle as entertainment” thread is a strong part of the plot, the vengeance plot uses the spectacle of the gladiator sequences with their emphasis on violence and the male body to foreground Maximus’ degradation from honored general to slave. The gladiatorial combat that Maximus is forced to engage in also reinforces his status as a pragmatic man who does what he must. As he says to Proximo, “I kill because I am required to.”

Maximus lacks self-reflectance, and his moral dilemmas are selective. He desires only political disengagement and retreat to the family circle. His heroism operates in the service of personal revenge. Thus, in the film ethical and moral dilemmas are expressed through feelings. This clearly moves the film into melodrama (Gledhill, 210). The melodramatic plot and characters and the visual spectacle merge into a post-classical, high-concept film.

Gladiator can be considered post-classical in that it is a high-concept film that emphasizes strong, simple images with compositions that are able to convey a condensed version of the plot action. Justin Wyatt defines high-concept films as containing a “simplification of character and narrative, and a strong match between image and soundtrack throughout the film (Wyatt 16). In contemporary Hollywood, these characteristics of a high-concept film emerge from and are used to enhance marketing by having a “through-line” that is easily represented in star persona and strong simple graphics which are then used to advertise the film.

High concept films also rely on character types, strict genre parameters and a modular structure.”(Wyatt 195). All three of these narrative elements also help in marketing the product down the line, as the clearly defined, segmented narrative lends itself to future television sales, for example. In this case, the high concept nature of Gladiator affects the plot by draining complexity from the characters and the narrative situation. This aspect of high-concept film echoes the melodramatic genre, now merged with many other genres in blockbuster films, since it effectively uses emblematic character types that personalize social dilemmas. In its social effect, especially in the film Gladiator, this merging creating a high degree of masking for the ideological work of the film, which uses images of slavery, family, and violence to create an ersatz political morality tale with an apolitical hero.

Slavery

Gladiator depicts Maximus as a noble, incorruptible Spaniard who serves the Roman Empire as its “greatest general. “ In the film’s opening sequence, he leads his cavalry into battle against an army of Germans and destroys them with a combination of superior technology, and disciplined troop tactics. His personal courage is never in doubt. The opening battle, filmed with a skip-frame technique that creates a choppy, vicious-looking flow of action, focuses on his individual acts of stalwart bravery.

After Maximus’ family dies he becomes a slave living in the gladiatorial school of Proximo. Gladiator uses slavery to represent the most degrading thing that can happen to a free person, in this case, a white man who has lost his powerful position in the government. Elements of the film thus create a comfort zone within which the audience can perceive slavery outside its usual historical context in the United States: the use of a white protagonist and the setting in ancient Rome.

In terms of films that treat slavery, consider that Gladiator amassed $158 million in five weeks of release, and currently (May 2001) has worldwide box office revenues of $455 million dollars (Variety 10). In contrast, Beloved finished with a total of $22 million, and Amistad ended its U.S. run with a total of $44 million. While their different versions of slavery narratives are not the only reason for these features’ relative success, the way slavery is represented may affect audience response to each film. Fictionalized accounts of U.S. slavery make audiences uncomfortable. Since Maximus and many other slaves in Gladiator are white men, slavery can be attributed to other things than race. Using the enslavement of a white protagonist in ancient Rome allows the audience to feel pity and righteous indignation for the hero without feeling any accompanying guilt.

The film encourages the audience’s cathartic identification with Maximus’ enslavement. This is because he doesn't deserve it. He was not born a slave like other slaves in the film who mostly huddle in the background as extras. He is a free man who was part of the dominant political/military system and is now stripped of everything important to him. Therefore the audience is asked to feel that his slavery is somehow worse for him than for the other slaves in the film.

Except for two gladiator companions, the African Juba (Djimon Hounsou) and the German Hagen (Rolf Mueller), the other slaves simply provide colorful background to Maximus’ tale. Even Juba and Hagen remain relatively unknown to the audiences. We learn that Juba has a family but the film reveals nothing about Hagen. The presence of Juba, who becomes Maximus’ friend and fighting partner, only emphasizes the centrality of Maximus to the slavery thread of the narrative. This is no story of a man who fosters brotherhood or creates a slave revolt, but the story of one character with one personal goal. In terms of Maximus’ morality, his focus on revenge reveals the selectivity of his moral dilemmas. That some critics called the film a morality tale is perplexing.

To hightlight this point, when Maximus succeeds in his goal of vengeance, he orders his former captain to free “his” men, i.e., the other gladiators, but this is only the favor granted by a generous general to his fighting troops. The film never presents an awakening within Maximus to the nature of slavery. Althouugh the filmmakers deserve credit for casting Djimon Hounsou as a gladiator, reminding us that history does not belong exclusively to white folks, the narrative ultimately has a noble white man freeing slaves for his own purposes.

Violence

The violence of the gladiatorial spectacles is one of the primary plot devices used to reveal the character of former General Maximus. Violent excess also is a consistently appearing element of melodrama (Gledhill 212). In a combination of melodrama with action film form, Maximus becomes “known” to the audience in the film’s second act through hyperbolic images of entertainment-combat which allow him to express his identity. But that identity is simplistic. The spectacles’ excess reduces the character to a one-dimensional, killing machine bent upon vengeance. The film also uses the gladiator scenes to contrast the “ennobled” violence of soldiering with the debased violence of gladiatorial combat, a contrast which then reinforces our understanding of Maximus’ basic “nobility” of character.

The film presents these contrasts through visual parallels as well. The opening battle scene against the German begins with Maximus walking between two lines of soldiers who repeatedly salute him, calling him “General.” As the soldiers’ faces are featured in close-ups, their expressions indicate their faith in the general’s abilities. Maximus occasionally stops and has a word with a soldier, creating images of comradeship. This scene of war preparation and the subsequent battle scenes in Germania are shot with a cold blue light. This light appears again in the scene where Commodus and Lucilla stage a triumphal entrance into Rome, tying the two places together into an image of Empire. In these scenes, Maximus wears the full armor and fur-trimmed cape of his rank. Underlings seek his opinion, defer to him, and treat him with respect.

Maximus is generally framed straight-on as he interacts with his troops before the battle, often with one or more of his men with him. Two exceptions are the opening shots in which he dreams of home and watches a European robin fly away and a shot in which he exhorts the cavalry to victory. This strategy of framing Maximus with his men indicates the bond between the General and the troops, a motif that becomes narratively important as it establishes their loyalty to him.

A parallel scene occurs in the Zucchabar sequence. An extreme long shot establishes the scene outside the local arena. The camera tilts down and tracks into a medium close-up ending behind Maximus, visible through the wooden bars of a large cage holding the gladiators as they wait for battle. The sounds of a crowd, children and low-pitched chords are heard behind the sound of Maximus sharpening his blade as he sits. The scene cuts to a low angle, frontal, medium-long-shot of Maximus rising and walking between two rows of seated gladiators. As he passes between them looking straight ahead, the other fighters greet him respectfully with the title “Spaniard. ” Lisa Gerrard’s voice recurs on the soundtrack here, associated as always with home and here reminding us why Maximus fights. The scene’s framing echoes the pre-battle scene from the Germania sequence and creates a parallel between the two moments. Maximus has lost his status but retained his dignity, and his fighting skills have earned him the respect of the other gladiators. Unlike the pre-battle scene, however, we see no close-ups of the other men as they greet him and Maximus does not interact with any of the other gladiators, as he did with his soldiers. This difference in visual composition between the two moments emphasizes his feelings of “difference” from the other gladiators vs. his solidarity with the troops.

When Maximus enters the arena, the framing shifts to a heroic low angle. Maximus pauses for a moment just inside the arena gate. A reverse shot reveals the multiple opponents he will face all alone. The scene cuts back to him, and the low-angle framing is more acute, as the camera has been moved to a position much closer to his body. The light falls from the upper-left, creating a halo on his bare sword arm, guiding the eye to, and emphasizing his biceps. The acute low angle picks out the abdominal muscles sculpted on his torso armor. The crowd showers him with rose petals as he stands there facing his opponents. Maximus becomes an powerful, iconic heroic figure through this type of framing and lighting. This simple, heroic image is a variation on the film’s poster image of Maximus and signals the film’s high concept origin. Additionally, this shot focuses on the body of the gladiator whereas General Maximus’ body was never so fetishized. This visual strategy emphasizes the difference between national function as a general and his entertainment function as a gladiator. Interestinglly, the film “crowns” Maximus as a hero through these visual strategies only after he becomes a gladiator. His status as general was not depicted in such heroic images, nor was his status as a warrior visually so dependent upon his body. This visual difference in fact reflects on both slavery’s control over the human body and the use of violence in entertainment.

In press notes accompanying Gladiator, Ridley Scott says,

Entertainment has frequently been used by leaders as a means to distract an abused citizenry…The gladiatorial games were such a distraction. Our story suggests that, should a hero arise out of the carnage of the arena, his popularity would give him tremendous power and were he to be a genuine champion of the people, he might threaten even the most absolute tyrant. (Fordham 1)

The director’s comments suggest that the film contains a social critique of spectacular violence. The film, however, folds itself into that use of violence as distraction, of using spectacle to distract the audience from the apolitical, unreflective nature of the hero, and from the film’s failure to reflect on its own contemporary use of violence. In short, the violence aids the simplified melodramatic structure and helps ensure that “moral conditions are expressed as the actions of melodramatic types.” (Gledhill 210) In this case, the physical actions of Maximus, a one-dimensional hero, expresses the film’s basic narrative discourse of “goodness. ”

If it were to function as a mass-culture critique of the media spectacle of violence, Gladiator would have to produce an awareness of that critique within the audience, a critique that then would apply to this film as well. However, the film uses the violence for dual purposes. The ennobled violence of Maximus the general contrasts with the debased gladiatorial combat, and this contrast narratively functions to cement our understanding of Maximus’ nobility. Violence also propels the narrative toward its conclusion. With the weakness of script that often characterizes the action film genre, the film’s second act substitutes a series of escalating gladiatorial spectacles for dramatic conflict.

In fact, the film promotes a belief in the value of military violence as a way of securing values. To Emperor Marcus Aurelius, General Maximus says he must believe that his soldiers died for a cause, and that cause is Rome, “the light.” Later, Maximus reveals his understanding of gladiatorial combat when he asks the audience, “Are you not entertained?” These lines and further scenes between Proximo (Oliver Reed) and Maximus reiterate the differences between the noble soldier and the crowd-pleasing gladiator. They also emphasize Maximus’ nobility, presenting him not as an entertainer, but a serious man of purpose.

Despite such comparisons, the film relies on the spectacle of violence to resolve its personal conflict, encouraging the audience to accept Maximus’ violence as the necessary actions of a noble man reacting against the murder of his family. By encouraging us to identify with Maximus’ vengeance quest, by showing his nobility, and by demonstrating the necessity of violence to the accomplishment of his mission, the film sacrifices any gesture of self-awareness of or distance from “entertainment” violence that would let it serve as an autocritique of its own appeal through violence.

Family, melodrama and politics

In contrast to its many moments of violence, the opening scene of the film establishes the significance of “home” as a privileged space in Maximus’ desires. The film opens with a closeup of a hand caressing a field of golden, waving wheat, whose color is enhanced by warm lighting. The sound of children laughing is heard and a Lisa Gerrard song called “The Wheat” plays on the soundtrack. The laughter fades, but the melancholy, evocative song provides a sound bridge to a medium closeup of Maximus standing on the battlefield. The lighting then shifts to the cold blue light characterizing the Germania sections, and the song segues to the film’s martial-sounding main theme.

Before this battle, and before every conflict he enters, Maximus bends to the ground, and rubs some earth on his hands. This motif signifies several things, notably his preferred self-definition as a farmer. He later tells his comrade Quintus, who cannot imagine him as a farmer, that “dirt washes off easier than blood.” The gesture with his hands echoes his invocation of home as a reason for fighting. Later, as a gladiator, he uses the same gesture, and it recalls his home again and his family’s death which provides the motivation to fight. The earth on his hands is a talisman of home, farming, wife, son, and peace.

Although Maximus’ wife and son personify all that is important to him, they remain idealized abstractions of home and family. We never even learn their names. The oddness of this omission is emphasized by the fact that the film finds time for Maximus to tell us the names of his two stolen horses. The film represents his family in an dreamy, idealized manner. His wife and young son play in the sunny wheat fields near their pink stone house. His wife is coded as a beautiful “natural” woman with long, flowing black hair and no apparent makeup. She wears a simple beige gown, with only one piece of jewelry, a silver bracelet. She is the exact opposite of the gorgeously dressed, heavily bejeweled Lucilla, Commodus’ sister, whom Maximus describes as a creature of evasion, deceit, and intrigue. This visual opposition signifies the wife’s authenticity, her status as a real woman without the artifice that Maximus despises in Lucilla. The wife and son, consistently framed in the glowing wheat fields of Maximus’ memory, become visual symbols of fecundity, continuity and authenticity. In the film’s terms, however, their authentic life must exist outside the realm of politics and eventually only in Elysium.

Maximus’ wife and child suffer the fate of crucifixion and burning. The melodramatic excess of their deaths is important, because by giving the hero such a vicious crime to avenge, it intensifies the economy of sympathy the audience enters into with him. This horrific family murder manipulates the audience into accepting large doses of violence because our outrage has been activated by the images of their torture and murder. Throughout, cinematic violence occurs in the service of the ideal of the family, making it acceptable, even justifiable.

The family’s deaths and Maximus’ subsequent enslavement in fact parallels his own actions as a Roman general, in which he himself was responsible for destroying many “barbarian” families and homestead through acts of war. However, in melodrama excess is linked to the production of character’s identities (Gledhill 212). The excessive nature of Maximus’ family’s death helps define Maximus as a melodramatic type; he functions as an exemplar of revenge for his family.

Instead of being portrayed with complex human behavior or the inner conflict of the dramatic hero, Maximus is depicted as a simple character, a good soldier who does not think much for himself. He is simply good. He is given no contradictions, no internal conflict, no tragic flaws. Maximus reveals no self-awareness about the similarity between his fate and that of the men and women he defeated for the Empire. The film does not endow Maximus with self-reflectance; he remains an iconic melodramatic figure.

Maximus suffers the same fate, slavery, as that of many of the “barbarians” he conquered on behalf of Rome. He has spent his career burning homesteads, creating widows and orphans. Historically, Rome’s defeated opponents were taken as slaves, so the “barbarians” Maximus defeated for the “light of Rome” suffered the fate that is ultimately his too. The film broaches this question of their similar fates only briefly without exploring it, and it is particularly important to the plot that Maximus’ fate appear cruel and harsh, undeserved by such a good man.

The script’s lack of self-awareness becomes even more evident when Hagen, a German gladiator, asks Maximus if he had victories in Germania. Maximus sidesteps this question as the film sidesteps the whole issue of its hero’s actions. This lack of recognition allows us to root whole-heartedly for Maximus to “win.” After all, his German opponents were not presented as sympathetic people; they were represented in a familiar way as the “barbaric hordes.” In the opening battle scenes, they remain a faceless group of fighters wearing animal skins and shouting gibberish at the well-disciplined Romans standing proud in their shiny armor. We must choose between the Romans, representing order, civilization, and some unspecified noble “idea,” and the barbarians who decapitate a Roman emissary and wave his head at their opponents. Similarly, Maximus’ gladiatorial opponents, with the exception of Tigris of Gaul, remain faceless fodder for the contests he wins as he journeys toward his ultimate confrontation with his noble villain.

In true melodramatic fashion, Maximus’ opponent Commodus is also a character type: almost undiluted evil. Commodus kills his father and lusts after his sister Lucilla. He orders Maximus’ wife and son to be burned and crucified. He only occasionally displays affection for one person, a nephew, and this affection quickly yields to cold manipulation. This reduction of character complexity to such single notes ensures that the audience will see the film as a programmatic melodrama of simple personal vengeance,bereft of political dimensions.

Retreat from politics

The film constantly reaffirms Maximus’ apolitical nature. Gladiator attempts to build in some vague senatorial opposition to Commodus’ tyranny, but this social plotline is not developed. Rather it represents a simple opposition to the dictator himself, not to the system. The previous Emperor Marcus Aurelius apparently faced no strong opposition and he is a benevolent Emperor in retrospect. Maximus’ loyalty is always personal. He will not accept Commodus because he suspects that he murdered Marcus Aurelius and because Maximus himself had an intense father-son bond with the late emperor. The nature of the hero’s dedication is personal, not political.

In this way, Maximus is depicted as a man of action who is loyal to people, not ideas. His dying words in the Colosseum affirm his loyalty to a man when he says that republicanism “was the last wish of a dying man,” the late Marcus Aurelius. The charge Marcus Aurelius laid upon Maximus was sealed with kinship: “You are the son I should have had.” Maximus, the unthinking but loyal soldier, is the true heir to the Empire. He strives to kill Commodus only to avenge the deaths of Marcus Aurelius and his own family, not to remove a tyrant from Rome or to restore the republic. He apparently has no political ideals of his own except those bound up in a vague dream of a secure home for his own family.

The film attempts but fails to represent Rome itself as an idealized democracy. Lucilla refers to Rome as an “idea” but the film never specifies this in practice, thus assuring that any political discourse in the film remains as dreamy a vision as Maximus’ homestead. When Maximus tells Marcus Aurelius that Rome is the “light,” his comment follows the viciously depicted defeat of the Germans in battle, which gives his comment a strong layer of unexplored irony. All that the film shows of Rome is conquest, spectacle, and tyrannous intrigue, thus negating any vision of Rome as a superior system of governance.

Maximus only wants to go home. He doesn't want to be engaged in any political efforts. He wants his family and his dreamy Iberian farm, scented with jasmine and ringed with poplars. His is a beautiful dream of retreat from political engagement, away from any problems besetting society.

Interestingly the film’s pastoral idealization of family life may have led to its presumed popularity with women. Women viewers were said to respond to the hero’s sweet devotion to his dead wife and child. In terms of such devotion, the characterization of Maximus appears to follow a shift in male action heroes that began in the early nineties. For example, in discussing The Terminator and Kindergarten Cop, Susan Jeffords notes the change in the Schwarzenegger characters that places their violence in the service of ideals of fatherhood and family (Jeffords, 140-178). The hero’s violence in the service of the family seems to be part of a growing mainstream trend. In another film, The Patriot, (Roland Emmerich, 2000) Mel Gibson plays a patriarch who only becomes engaged in the Revolutionary War after a British officer shoots one of his young sons and takes another to be executed. Unlike Maximus, this man becomes actively engaged in the political struggle of the American Revolution after the death of his son reveals the falsity of a neutral political position.

Conservative “family-values” discourse disguises an ethos of fragmenting society into tribal units under a rhetoric of male and female responsibility to offspring and extended familiy. Taken further, this logic promotes a society linked by blood ties rather than a civic nation. It is a retrograde appeal that installs the family as the ultimate social bond, surpassing civic forms of community.

Also in a conservative vein, Gladiator uses implicit but inaccurate audiovisual comparisons between the Roman Empire and the Nazi Reich. One shot in particular stands out. It starts in a widescreen close-up of the Roman Imperial Eagle (later co-opted into Nazi iconography); the camera tracks beneath the eagle and the scene cuts to an extreme long shot of the streets of Rome. A musical citation of Wagner’s Siegfried’s Funeral March plays over this sequence in which the images bear a striking resemblance to those in the Third Reich films of Leni Riefenstahl. In an interview with American Cinematographer, the filmmakers stated that they had viewed her films and also Albert Speer’s architectural designs to create the look of some Roman sequences (Bankston, 46-53). Thus the filmmakers appropriated sounds and images with politically and socially charged meaning, in this instance folding back the Roman imperial eagle, appropriated by the Nazis, into the Roman Empire, conflating two entirely different historical eras. This material possess historically specific meanings prominently inscribed in 20th century political culture. Their use here creates parallels between the Roman Empire and Nazi Reich and exploits symbols of genocide to create a doom-laden mood. Since the film resolutely marginalizes politicization in its narrative, the connotations are unsupported, without context.

The film’s aestheticizing of political symbols without offering a counterbalancing political discourse, of emotionalizing violence without criticizing it, are part of the same process of fascist aesthetics identified by Susan Sontag years ago. The film diverts the audience from its lack of substance with violent spectacle yet asks them to “trust Maximus” as a noble man to reinstate vanished ideals and restore Rome’s “honor.” This call to trust a particular man and not a rule of law reveals the nature of the film’s political discourse.

Gladiator is a program piece whose plot could be imported into any number of film genres: cop story, a western, or a science fiction film. The film lacks particularity in terms of Roman political culture which reduces its “Roman-ness” to background exotica for a male melodrama. The simple nature of its melodramatic characters meshes smoothly with the notion of the contemporary high-concept film that mainly provides spectacle for its audiences. The film then uses spectacle as a physical demonstration of moral qualities, thus providing a simplistic, melodramatic version of politics. Gladiator thus provides a concrete example of the power of visual spectacle to encourage viewers to find meaning and substance in a one-dimensional concept, to confuse melodrama’s positioning of cultural dilemmas as personal emotional ones, and to find satisfaction of its social problems within the inner, personal life of its hero.

Works cited

Douglas, Bankston. “Veni, Vidi, Vici.” American Cinematographer. Vol. 81 no.5 (May 2000) 46-53.

Fordham, Joe. “Gladiator.” American Cinematographer Online http://www.cinematographer.com/article/mainv/U,7220,114461,00.htm (June 2, 2000)

Gledhill, Christine. “Signs of Melodrama.” Stardom: Industry of Desire. Ed. Christine Gledhill. London: Routledge, 1991.

Jeffords, Susan. Hard Bodies: Hollywood Masculinity in the Reagan Era. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1993.

_____”Box Office”, Variety, May 7, 2001.

I want to thank the following people for their illuminating discussions about this film: Marion Carpenter, Matt Irvine, Kate Kane, Chuck Kleinhans, Julia Lesage, Kim Stevenson, and Jim Tudor.