Gladiator is an historical action film, following a Roman general who falls out of favor with the new leader and must fight for his freedom as a gladiator. The movie takes a graphic look at the harsh realities of the violence that passed, in Roman times, for entertainment.
The other nominees for Best Picture that year were Chocolat; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Erin Brockovich and Traffic. In addition to Best Picture, Gladiator also won Best Actor in a Leading Role (Crowe); Best Costume Design; Best Effects, Visual Effects; and Best Sound.
For the first Best Picture winner of the new millennium, Oscar voters seemed nostalgic for the past, selecting a film that was, in many ways, a classic historical piece over the innovative multilayered tale about drug trafficking, Traffic. Interestingly, though, Steven Soderbergh would win best director over Scott. Perhaps this was an acknowledgment of the fact that Soderbergh had also directed another Best Picture nominee that year, Erin Brockovich.
Scott's film, by contrast, tells a simple story: following the journey of Maximus (Crowe) as he goes from army general to lowly gladiator, forced to fight his way out of slavery. While such a tale, if told in the 1960s and starring, say, Charlton Heston, would have glorified his time in the ring, Gladiator instead takes an unblinking, gory look at the brutal "sport" where those who lose the match also lose their lives.
While the film could easily be dismissed as a "sword and sandals" flick, Scott strives to do more with the film, giving it a framework reminiscent to a Shakespearean tragedy. In addition to focusing on the struggles of Maximus, the film shows the corruption of the Roman government and elevates the struggle of Maximus to a struggle for ideals and for hope.
The film production had its troubles, such as the death of Oliver Reed, who played Proximo, the freed slave who now marshals the gladiators. After he died of a heart attack, some of his scenes had to be re-edited using a double, photographed in the shadows and using a 3D CGI mask of Reed's face.
While shooting the opening battle scene, Crowe suffered real injuries to his face, and the stitches are visible in some later scenes. During later battle scenes, Crowe broke bones in his foot and his hip, and injured both bicep tendons.
The script was rewritten several times, including during the filming. Crowe improvised some of his lines, and he often expressed displeasure with the lines he was given.
Phoenix, as Commodus, the selfish, egotistical young Roman leader, is a bit of a scenery chewer. It's as if he's trying to out-Caligula Caligula. The subplot involving his sister, Lucilla, is squirm-inducing but ultimately unbelievable.
Crowe's turn as Maximus, though, is one of the film's saving graces. He plays the former general not as a crusading hero but as a man, beset by troubles, who nevertheless perseveres. Some would argue that's what true heroism is all about.
Rating: *** 1/2 (3 1/2 out of 5 stars)
Sword and sandals movies are harsher in the new millennium.