“Family” personifies all that is important to Maximus.

Lucilla, Emperor Commodus’ sister, is visually coded as the bad woman. Maximus calls her a creature of evasion, deceit, and intrigue.

The Emperor and his sister at court.

The Emperor has the visual coding of physical weakness, vanity, pride, and ambition.

Gladiator encourages us to participate emotionally in 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 that 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 possesses 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 generate 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.

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