I would like to point out that watching this film for this review, it was revision. No really, watching Gladiator is a good revision aid to a course on Roman Historiography. Or at least good mood-setting relaxation. Or, whatever, it's just a good thing to do. Ok, so it's historically inaccurate, it's got some fairly daft platitudes and cornfields scattered around, but there is something special about Gladiator. It's a lot of fun, it's full of confidence, and it doesn't care if you don't like its history.
Let's begin with a tagline from my mother, who I took to see the film at the cinema (at her request): 'I really liked it, apart from all the blood and guts.' I'm not always sure what it left her with to like - as much of the film is bloody, and all of it is about guts, but she didn't appear to find any of it too out of place, which I suppose in a film about Imperial Rome is about right. Anyway - she liked it, this being my mother who never likes blockbuster films, so it must have had something extra going for it.
So a brief synopsis: We're in the Roman Empire, mid second century AD, the Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) is at the end of his life, campaigning in Germania, and having a bit of a personal crisis. He's decided that Rome is based on philosophical beliefs at heart (it's not - just go and read Livy, they came after the fighting - see I said this was good for my revision!) and he wants to make it a Republic again. To this end he picks Maximus (Russell Crowe), his favourite General, who has just won the war for him to be a regent until the Senate can take charge. However, this means disappointing his slightly loopy son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) - who then kills his dad before word of his intentions can get out. He then takes out Maximus and heads back to Rome with his sister Lucilla. Except, y'know, he doesn't.
Act two Maximus is taken into slavery and trained as a gladiator by Oliver Reed, before being taken to Rome and confronting the new young Emperor who brutally murdered Maximus' wife and son. Issues are complicated by Lucilla being Maximus' ex-love, and by a conspiring senate (Derek Jacobi, unfortunately not getting to show how well he can do Imperial decadence, although he does get a slave with nice eyeliner). Cue a series of battles, as Maximus tries to avenge his family, Lucilla tries to save her son from the perils of being the heir to the throne, Jacobi tries to overthrow Commodus and the Emperor tries to sleep with his sister, twirl his sword and sneer wonderfully.
That it works is down to some quality acting and amazing designs. This is Ancient Rome in all it's glory up on screen - the history may not be quite right in the interests of storytelling and drama, but the look and the feel of the world is perfect. Oh, and on the history side, a brief note - my personal favourite inaccuracy: Lucilla's son is called Lucius Verus, after his father right? Well, Lucius Verus was the Emperor Marcus Aurelius' brother and co-ruler, who died 12 years before Marcus Aurelius (Lucius in the film is 8). You see - it really doesn't matter at all, I just get to show of the ridiculous things I have to learn!
It could be argued that Crowe is not as good in this as he was in his other Oscar nominated roles in The Insider (unfortunately coming up against Kevin Spacey that year) and A Beautiful Mind. He doesn't really have to be; it's not that kind of film. He has to show his muscle, make you believe he's tough enough to take on the ruler of most of the known world and still have a heart of gold at the core. He's also ably supported - the film brought Harris and Reed back to prominence (Reed unfortunately died during the shoot - necessitating computer wizardry and a change in plot), whilst the Imperial family are all strong - Phoenix has a great wounded sneer, and Connie Nielsen as Lucilla makes a great impression.
But really at the bottom, it's not a clever commentary on Are-We-As-Barbarian-As-We-Think-The Romans-Were-Because-We-Like-Watching-Films-Of-Them-Watching-Gladiatorial-Contests kind of film. It's a great entertaining epic, with a sense of humour without too much irony.
If I remember aright (and I may not be) this was one of the first DVD sets that truly showed what the system could do, and it's a system that suits director Ridley Scott down to the ground. Scott is a director who can make a film seem a little better than its script with a few gorgeous visuals, and he can talk technical, and explain it so that it all makes (very interesting) sense to the layman.
This disc is fairly packed: the film has a commentary by the director with a few of his team, while the second disc contains documentaries, deleted scenes, a production journal, storyboards and conceptual art.
First up then: the commentary. This is not a big love-in commentary - in fact it's ridiculously refreshing. Scott appears to assume that you all know everyone working on this film's fantastic, and just gets on with telling you how he made it. So we have stuff on the script of the film, it's changes and the changes to history, brief discussions on the arcs of the characters, and lots on the design and building of the film. They burnt down a forest for the English Forestry Commission in the opening battle, they built a North African provincial town, they built the bottom tiers of the Colosseum, and the line Maximus quotes at Commodus near the end - 'I knew a man who said death smiles at us all...' - is actually a quote from Marcus Aurelius' writings (ok, so one less 'daft' platitude then). Scott and his team are incredibly articulate, and not particularly sentimental about their film - there's no 'this was the best experience ever', but there's no doubt they had a good time.
The documentaries on this DVD are definitely above average. First up is a feature on Blood Sports in Rome. It compares the Gladiatorial contests with modern sports events, and talks about how and when they would be held, and the archaeological evidence for the games (much of it from Pompeii). It then ends up with a section on gladiators relating to the film. There's an hour of it, and it's high quality history TV.
Next comes the HBO 'Making of...' feature - half an hour, and it's better than the normal schlock. This is where you get to see those involved in making it, particularly the actors, and for those wondering how anyone could like Crowe, look no further; he comes across very well here. There is also a 15 minute featurette on the music for the film, composed by Hans Zimmer. The film has spawned two soundtracks - and the score is wonderful. In this you get to hear Zimmer talk about how he went about composing it, and about his collaboration with Lisa Gerrard (who sadly you don't get to hear talking about the score).
There's a good few deleted scenes (not spruced up for the DVD), with optional commentary by Scott, talking about why he opted to leave them out - often for purposes of length and pace. There's one scene in which Lucilla talks to Senators Gaius and Gracchus, telling them Commodus' plans and wishing her brother dead - it's a fascinating scene, but Scott is right to say it gives away too much too early (before Maximus appears in Rome). There's also a fun montage of clips from deleted scenes put together by the editor - including some Roman graffiti, a nice nudge nudge wink wink moment.
Finally, there's a production diary by Spencer Treat Clark (Lucius), about his time spent on the film. He veers between the star-struck and treating it all as the most normal thing on earth - for him it is. Good fun for the anecdotes, rather than the process of filming: being tutored by Russell Crowe to cheer him up after the death of Oliver Reed (apparently you can learn maths by playing blackjack), or watching Crowe set up a cricket match with the local Maltese team (Clark on cricket: 'it's like baseball with one base and a different system of striking out. You could be up at bat seventy times before striking out. And oftentimes the batter is up at bat that long, sometimes even longer,' possibly making it more complicated than ever.)
There are also storyboards for the wannabe directors amongst us, and conceptual art to look at, as well as the usual trailers, TV ads and production notes. Generally a whomping great package that can be gone through a good few times without boredom.