Ridley Scott revisited: Gladiator | An epic examination of Pax Americana

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One of the defining films of the 2000s, Gladiator might also be the first epic piece of blockbuster American cinema released in the 21st century.

It had been decades since Hollywood had produced a film like Ridley Scott’s Gladiator in 2001. The sword-and-sandal epic went out with the birth of the New Hollywood movement in the late 1960s, which swapped the pomp and exuberance of languid historical epics such as The Fall Of The Roman EmpireCleopatra, even Stanley Kubrick’s superior Spartacus, for a leaner, grittier and more contemporary cinematic aesthetic. By the time cinema once again dipped its toe in grand storytelling, the blockbuster gave birth to fantasy, science fiction and adventure which, again, put paid to audiences wanting to see large scale historical recreations of the ancient world. A decade earlier, Gladiator would have struggled to even be made.

Stepping into the new millennium, Scott nevertheless saw an opportunity, as DreamWorks pictures believed there was the space to develop a reimagining of classical Hollywood storytelling for a new age. Two years earlier, Saving Private Ryan introduced a revolutionarily visceral depiction of World War Two, which arguably inspired how Scott and DreamWorks envisaged bringing the harsh world of the ancient Roman Empire to life: a world filled with war, bloodshed and a lack of regard for human life in the face of a bloodthirsty populace.

The space was created for the Spartacus-influenced tale of Maximus Decimus Meridius (Russell Crowe), the beloved Roman General who sees his family murdered by envious new Emperor Commodus, before slaying his executioners and fighting his way up through the gladiatorial pits of Rome to challenge the very notion of Empire itself.

Credit: DreamWorks/Universal.

What’s striking, looking back with over two decades’ distance, is not just how impressive Gladiator remains in vision and scope, even if at times it falls into melodrama, but how it speaks even more potently now than then about what the film was really about: America at the end of the 20th century. When America was founded after in the late 19th century after gaining independence from the British Empire, the Founding Fathers of the United States were heavily influenced in the establishment of their republic by Roman ideals, in everything from architecture of their government buildings to their tripartite system of rule, with Senators and a Congress at the heart of power.

“What we do in life echoes in eternity,” Maximus tells his troops as they move to fight the Germanic ‘barbarians’ in an early scene. He could easily have been talking about Roman culture across the last 2000 years of human history. Many empires have risen and fallen since the Roman edifice collapsed, but the influence and pull of their civilisation holds sway today on western society. Much of our language, many of our customs and even ancient Roman architecture forms parts of towns and settlements across Europe. The Romans never really went away, which is perhaps why we find their culture so fascinating. It may be separated from us by millennia, but we may, ironically, have more in common with them than our nearer Medieval or Dark Age ancestors. This isn’t to say America is a new Rome – in many ways, it isn’t – but Rome is a foundational stone on what America represents.

Gladiator arrives at a point when America is questioning its own identity and place in the world, in the same way dying Emperor Marcus Aurelius (played with calm grace by Richard Harris, in his last major cinematic role, his brief turn as Professor Dumbledore aside) discusses the meaning of Rome in the wake of decades of global conquest. It’s easy to forget just how political Gladiator is, beyond the iconic sight of Crowe bellowing “Are you not entertained?”  while fighting off lions and slaying hulking man-beasts. David Franzoni and John Logan’s script courses with political commentary about the meaning of Rome itself and how Marcus represents a period of stability via conquest which is now drawing to an end. Aurelius, in a sense, could represent America of the 20th century.

Credit: DreamWorks/Universal.

“How will the world speak my name in years to come? Will I be known as the philosopher, the warrior, the tyrant? Or will I be remembered as the Emperor who gave Rome back her true self? There was once a dream that was Rome, you could only whisper it. Anything more than a whisper and it would vanish. It was so fragile and I fear that it will not survive the winter”.

Aurelius’ dream of Rome is the so-called American Dream which never entirely extended beyond the national myth of the United States. By 2000, it was the dominant superpower looking back on a bloody first, almost 250 year history at what Francis Fukuyama described as the “end of history” in 1989 as the Berlin Wall came down. America was supposed to be the epitome of our struggle across the 20th century. Yet there is a deep, troubling anxiety that darkness and change is to come, and sinister forces ripple beneath the surface.

Isn’t this the tragic story of Gladiator itself? If Marcus represents America of the 20th century, successful and triumphant but weary, restless, uncertain and concerned about its legacy, then his son Commodus (played with sallow faced, smug pettiness by Joaquin Phoenix, in his breakout role) surely represents the facile vicissitudes of the 21st. He’s vain, driven entirely by his own self-interest, jealous of Maximus’ quiet nobility and the relationship he had with a father he felt scorned by, spiteful, and very much wants to bump uglies with his sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen). He is, in short, everything you don’t want a leader to be, and he presides over turning Rome into an autocracy under his iron control, built on appeasing the people with the entertainment blood-sports of the Colosseum. If, by the way, you’re not drawing connections to a certain recent US President, well… I’ll be surprised.

Credit: DreamWorks/Universal.

Ultimately, Commodus represents a regressive anxiety that civilisation can never maintain a level of normalcy in dominance. Gladiator takes place in 180AD, not long before the steadily decline of the Roman Empire as it is subsumed steadily by Germanic tribes and the Byzantine Empire, not to mention the rise of Christianity, which forms the end of the so-called ‘Pax Romana’ – a two century era of Roman prosperity which dies with Marcus Aurelius, essentially. Scholars have likened the 20th century post-1945 as a ‘Pax Americana’, with American political and cultural dominance allowing for a post-WWII level of peace and security in the west never before known after centuries, millennia even, of nation-based and internecine warfare.

Commodus is, therefore, the fear such a ‘pax’ cannot survive another century. Marcus dreams of turning Rome’s imperial might into that of an American-style republic, returning power to the Senate and by degree the people, but Commodus is the reaction to that. He is the assertion of not just national but personal dominance. He is an Emperor and dictator.

Gladiator, then, is about what Maximus represents as opposed to who he is as a character. With Marcus Aurelius gone, and the centrist voice that is Lucilla trapped by the murderous whim of her brother, Maximus represents order thrown aside by Commodus’ chaos. His may be the apparently simple story of a hero (a stoic one, at that) on a quest to avenge the needless slaughter of his family, but Maximus also represents the ‘dream’ that Marcus believed in. The dream of building a house with a loving family and living a simple, free life, gained by hard work. What is this if not the American Dream?

The tragedy of the story is that Maximus loses such a life, but his role of a hero is cemented in how he fights – both politically and more so literally in the arena of the Colosseum – to ensure others can achieve such a dream. “I will always serve Rome,” Maximus promises, and he does so even when he is driven by revenge, as typified in the classic moment where he faces Commodus in the arena for the first time. “My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius. Commander of the armies of the North, general of the Felix Legions, loyal servant to the true emperor Marcus Aurelius. Father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife, and I will have my vengeance in this life or the next.”

Credit: DreamWorks/Universal.

Scott’s film is filled with these kind of rousing moments and they often serve to remind you that, for all the political narratives flying around (and they’re not subtext, they’re very in your face), Gladiator represents a kind of entertainment cinema simply hadn’t delivered for a long time. Maximus is a different kind of hero from those who’d dominated during the colourful 80s and 90s, filled with wise-cracking man-mountains such as Schwarzenegger or Stallone.

Maximus feels like the beginning of a new trend in the stoic hero, who would come to pervade cinema of the 2000s, especially after the shock and trauma of 9/11 soon to come: Jason Bourne, Daniel Craig’s James Bond, Christian Bale’s Batman, even eventually Henry Cavill’s Superman – all of them are quieter, more introspective, brooding leading men marked by elements of tragedy, often reluctantly emerging from the shadows to defeat opportunists, conspirators or revolutionaries, before slinking back into the darkness once again.

“We mortals are but shadows and dust – shadows and dust, Maximus,” says Proximo (played exuberantly by Oliver Reed, who sadly died during filming), the former gladiator turned showman, who understands how the role of the fighter in the arena is one divested of identity. Maximus at first lets go of his titles and stature and takes on a mantle akin to the superheroes who would dominate fiction in years to come, being known as ‘The Spaniard’. The moment he reveals his true identity to Commodus is almost akin to Robert Downey Jr’s “I am Iron Man” some years later, exposing his true identity as part of emerging from the shell of the stoic, brooding, secret hero.

Credit: DreamWorks/Universal.

Does that make Gladiator a superhero movie? Not really, as Maximus is very much a mortal and eventually dies at the end of his heroes’ journey, but his power as a hero symbolising more than just the actor playing him perhaps opened the gate wider for the kind of superhero dominance we began to see take hold in the 2000s.

Gladiator appeals because we wish a hero like Maximus existed: someone pure of heart and soul who would defend our lives and ideals, and who does it without wanting to gain from the success. All Maximus wants is to return to his family in the afterlife, and Logan’s script provides a consistent, etherial nature to the storytelling that Scott runs with in how he presents the film. The opening shot of the hand running through an idyllic wheat field (a shot Scott later claimed came about by chance) becomes a recurring motif as Maximus’ quest becomes more about passing on than becoming a leader or a ‘great man’. He is diametrically opposite to Commodus in that he doesn’t want power and he already has love. Maximus simply wants to return to his ‘nuclear family’ on the homestead, except the homestead just happens to now be waiting beyond death.

In that sense, Gladiator works as a fairytale version of a hero who saves civilisation. He slays the monster corrupting it. He helps transform a dictatorship into a republic for the people. And eventually, he is rewarded in eternity. The ending might be bittersweet but it is entirely fitting. Maximus’ death is not to be mourned, but honoured, and what he leaves behind is a better world. Scott’s film, therefore, wants to believe America can be saved as Rome was here, that western civilisation can overcome the unknown anxieties of a long century ahead and retain order, retain democracy, and retain hope. It echoes from a century filled with as much darkness and tainted legacy, especially for America, as there was prosperity and triumph, but believes in our future. It frames the Roman Empire as a lens through which we can see ourselves, and what we want the future to be.

Credit: DreamWorks/Universal.

Is Gladiator a truly great film? On that, I have my doubts. It’s frequently quite earnest. It doesn’t often allow for nuance. The dialogue can be ripe, as can the performances. It has, oddly, aged in places, such as the battle scenes, in ways you may not have expected twenty years ago. It is also, by all accounts, wildly historically inaccurate. Yet at the same time, Ridley Scott immerses you in Ancient Rome in a way never seen before, and rarely since, inspiring HBO’s Rome and Game Of Thrones, as just a pair of examples, in tapping ancient or fantasy worlds for drama and entertainment. The scope is epic and Scott’s canvas broad, and the film sweeps you up into the majesty of it, even when the script and story – however frequently compelling they are – hit a snag. 

The film was also arguably a critical and commercial return for Scott himself, having made few films across the 90s that made any kind of impact, and his previous – Demi Moore starring misfire G. I. Jane – being critically mauled. As we’ve seen, Scott hadn’t approached anything close to a hit since 1991s Thelma & Louise, so Gladiator marked a change in fortune for him. Scott’s film here certainly has the power to entrance, as it did on release in 2000. Only Cast Away came close to matching its near $500 million global box office. Only Mission: Impossible II exceeded it across the entire year. And two decades on, as of writing, Scott is returning to this world for a long-gestated sequel, perhaps aware of just how much Gladiator has shaped the second half of his career. It’s arguably his most important film since Blade Runner.

Gladiator may not be the greatest film of the 2000s but it is, without a doubt, one of the most iconic in terms of cinema, and perhaps one of the most important in what it suggested about western civilisation at the turn of the third millennium. Its anxiety turned out not, as it happens, to have been all that ill-founded.

You can find A J. on social media, including links to his Patreon and books, via Linktr.ee here.

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