Roman General Maximus Decimus Meridius.
Emperor Marcus Aurelius
General Maximus and his men.
Battle with the Germans, who are taken into slavery after the defeat.
Battlefield camp in Germany.
Scorched earth aftermath of battle with Germans.
Gladiator as a high concept film.
Gladiatorial combat combines the spectacle of violence with the pathos of slavery.
All Maximus’ violence is narratively justified, and the slavery is conveniently past and far away.
Maximus’ personal courage is never in doubt.
The other slaves simply provide a colorful background to Maximus’ tale, where his slavery seems somehow “worse.”
Maximus is framed at an heroic low angle as the crowd showers him with rose petals.
Gladiator tells the story of Roman General Maximus Decimus Meridius, loyal to Caesar Marcus Aurelius. Maximus 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 his son 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.
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.
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,
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.