GLADIATOR: 4K Blu-ray (Dreamworks, 2000) Paramount Home Video
I have always held a double-edged sword to Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000), that CGI-laden spectacle of infamy and elephantiasis to put all Roman epics gone before it to shame…possibly. On the one hand, its screenplay, cobbled together by a triumvirate of writers, David Franzoni, John Logan and William Nicholson, makes no reference to the fact it is, nearly verbatim, a thematic retread of Anthony Mann’s colossus, The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) with shades of Spartacus (1960) factored in for good measure (although Scott would later, and rather sheepishly go on record to state as much). On the flipside, director, Scott is aiming for the sort of emotional outlay and authenticity best depicted in William Wyler’s Ben-Hur (1959, and, in my not so humble opinion, still the greatest Bible-fiction movie ever made). Scott and his star, Aussie heartthrob, Russell Crowe (who actually proves to be a superb actor besides) get varying mileage from this blood-bathed barbarity. He really is magnificent. Yet, the desaturated palette of colors expressed via John Mathieson’s cinematography just seems an odd disconnect when wed to the matted in pageantry meant to resurrect that dynastic grandeur of ancient Rome.
As with most any movie relying so heavily on computer-generated mattes to achieve its verisimilitude, the results herein are more polished than appropriately placed within the context of antiquity – or, at least, Hollywood’s version of it. The Colosseum, as example, is as manicured as the grounds at Disneyland, adding yet another layer of unintentional artifice to the exercise; the resplendent palaces and fountain courtyards shimmer with a glossy faux beauty in stark relief to the bone-crushing, gritty and mud-soaked battlefields where Maximus fights against the Germanic tribes near Vindobona on the Limes Germanicus: a truly gruesome gore-fest. Gladiator is undeniably well-intentioned and well-made, with a killer cast to include Joaquin Phoenix as the vial and borderline incestuous heir apparent, Commodus; Connie Nielson, his scheming sister, Lucilla; Richard Harris, as doomed/slain father-figure, Marcus Aurelius; Derek Jacobi (a sly but sober Gracchus) and, in the role of a life-time, Oliver Reed as liberated slave cum gladiator merchant, Antonius Proximo.
Reed, whose career derailed in the early 1980’s, thanks in part to his binge alcoholism (it made him a mean-spirited drunkard and nightmare to work with) would die midway through this comeback, forcing Ridley Scott to briefly consider recasting his role with another actor, as several crucial sequences had yet to be photographed. Instead, an ingenious manipulation of CGI technological wizardry, previously invented to copy human emotions onto animals, was tweaked to graft Reed’s face from outtakes onto another actor’s body, using a voice double for the dialogue, seamlessly patching together his performance. Long before his resurfacing in Gladiator, Reed’s stardom had teetered on the verge of extinction, particularly after he engaged in a bar room brawl in 1963, earning him sixty-three stitches to coarsen his looks. Personally, I have always found something rather terrifying about Oliver Reed; a self-destructive underlay, just shy of some willful demonic possession. Something about his eyes, hypnotic and soulless. Even when he smiles or appears to be at ease, he still exudes a tortured cruelty.
Reed’s persona, such as it is, is perfectly on point for Proximo, the steely-eyed purveyor of ‘entertainments’ for the Roman aristocracy. When he threatens his gladiators, including Maximus, newly acquired from the slave markets, promising to make his muscle-bound acolytes rue the day and ‘that bitch of a mother than bore you’ we can believe he would not waste a moment’s pity to destroy them for the right price. That Proximo comes to admire Maximus and directly aims to restore him to his rightful place amongst Rome’s citizenry via a duel to the death with the wicked and enterprising Commodus is a turn of events unanticipated at the outset, and a real tribute to Reed’s chops as an actor, capable – if rarely illustrating – empathy as part of his repertoire of more guarded human emotions. Knowing Reed died in harness on the set of this movie (in Malta, to be exact) only ripens our awe for the thespian who was, for a brief wrinkle in time, considered leading man material on two continents, only to watch this home court advantage slip away.
Initially, David Franzoni was given a three-picture deal with DreamWorks, finding his inspiration for Gladiator in Daniel P. Mannix's 1958 novel, Those About to Die, and, the Augustan History. But it was Jean-Léon Gérôme’s famous 19th century canvas, ‘Thumbs Down’ shown to Ridley Scott by producers, Walter F. Parkes and Douglas Wick that gained the director’s interests to partake of the exercise. Almost immediately, Scott elected to hire his own writer, John Logan to do a complete rewrite of Franzoni’s dialogue as he felt it lacked subtlety. Among Logan’s contributions was the decision to kill off Maximus’ wife and son, thus kick-starting the picture’s Greco-Roman revenge tragedy. But even as Russell Crowe blindly signed on the dotted line to make the film he began to question the screenplay’s integrity, demanding rewrites and walking off the set periodically when his suggestions on how to improve it were not immediately entertained. Hence, William Nicholson was brought in to make Maximus a more sensitive character. Nicholson also reworked Maximus' friendship with Nubian tribesman, Juba (Djimon Hounsou) and gradually evolved the ‘afterlife’ narrative thread that would become essential to achieving the picture’s groundswell of heart-rending human emotion.
Arguably, there is a very good reason why Hollywood had not made another Roman epic since the mid-sixties; the sheer size of such an undertaking leading Ridley Scott on an arduous odyssey for several months, consulted on storyboards, costuming and the like. Virtually all of the props for Gladiator had to be manufactured, including 100 suits of steel armor and 550 from polyurethane. In the final tally, some 27,500 component pieces were created. Gladiator also took full advantage of the natural splendors of England and Morocco; the former, to depict the Germanic countryside, the later, as substitute for ancient Rome’s gladiatorial school, with Malta serving for exteriors of Rome proper. Here, a replica of Rome’s infamous Colosseum was rebuilt; its 52 ft. of plaster and plywood extended into near infinity through the magic of digitally created mattes. Once Scott had finished principle photography, this raw footage was handed over to Brit-born ‘The Mill’ for post-production and SFX photography, including the amplification of 2,000 live actors into a virtual army of 35,000. The Mill was also responsible for completing Oliver Reed’s performance at a staggering cost of $3.2 million for barely two minutes of additional footage.
As there are those among us who go to movies set in some far-off antiquity, expressly to critique and criticize their accuracy – or lack thereof - as exercised by film makers, Ridley Scott employed several historians to serve as advisors on Gladiator. Nevertheless, artistic license repeatedly trumped truth. Why not. To paraphrase Hitchcock… “It’s only a movie.” For accuracy then, Marcus Aurelius was not murdered by his son, but died from Antonine Plague in Vienna in 180 AD. There is also no truth to the altruism expressed by Aurelius, to reinstate a Republican form of government. Marcus’ defeat of the barbarians in the Marcomannic Wars runs contradictory to the war, still on-going when Aurelius died, leaving Commodus to secure the peace by treaty. Although the character of Maximus is fictional, he bears a passing resemblance to Narcissus, the wrestler who actually strangled Commodus to death in his bath. Equally, the screenwriters borrowed more character traits for Maximus from Spartacus and Cincinnatus, a farmer cum dictator who saved Rome from invasion, as well as Marcus Nonius Macrinus, a trusted general and devoted counsel to the Emperor. Finally, Lucilla who plotted her brother’s assassination, along with her second husband, Pompeianus, was eventually executed on Commodus’ orders for treason. In reality, Maximus’ revenge, the death of Commodus, did not bring about a golden reign of peace. Rather, it marked the beginning of a particularly bloody and chaotic power struggle. So much for ‘truth’ in cinema!
At its crux, Gladiator is a bro-mantic romance of celluloid, with alliances in this volatile company of men repeatedly shifting to favor the revenge/tragedy at the heart of our hero’s journey from the other side to certain death. We begin in AD180 with Hispano-Roman General Maximus Decimus Meridius (Russell Crowe) fully intending to return home after a victorious campaign against the Germanic tribes near Vindobona. Maximus has the ear of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who confides in him that his own son, Commodus, is unfit to rule. Aurelius has made an executive decision; one to set the entire plot into motion. Upon his death, Maximus will succeed him as regent, hopefully to spare Rome her complete descend into amoral corruption. Learning of his father’s intentions, Commodus feigns loyalty to the Emperor, gaining his empathy. In this moment of misdirection, he willfully murders his father before anyone else knows of his plans. Now, Commodus proclaims himself Emperor and asks Maximus for his pledge of loyalty. To his everlasting regret, the general refuses. Fearing to be found out for his treason against the state, Commodus frames Maximus for Aurelius’ murder, condemning him and his family be put to death. Narrowly escaping this fate, Maximus rides home to his villa in Trujillo where he finds the bodies of his wife (Giannina Facio) and young son (Giorgio Cantarini) ruthlessly butchered. Captured by slavers, in his grief, Maximus is taken to Zucchabar and sold to Proximo as a gladiator-in-training.
Although resistant at first, Maximus gains the respect of the audience and Proximo by fighting in the local tournaments, befriending the Nubian, Juba and Hagen (Ralph Moeller), a German in the process. His military skills distinguish him from the others and Proximo, who confides he too was once a gladiator, now encourages Maximus to ‘win the crowd’ and thus, ‘win his freedom’. Determined to put on a spectacle in Rome, Proximo takes his muscle men to the Colosseum where Commodus has decreed 150 days of games. Wearing a masked helmet, Maximus’ debut as a Carthaginian in a re-enactment of the Battle of Zama startles the crowd. They love him. Unaware of his true identity, Commodus enters the arena to offer his congratulations at which point Maximus reveals himself and declares vengeance. Compelled by the crowd to let the gladiators live, Commodus orders his Praetorian Guard held back. But Commodus’ tenuous hold on reality, always in question, is now shaken to its very core. Frequently, he is haunted by the thought Lucilla may discover his wickedness, unaware she has already figured out things for herself and is merely going through the motions as a ‘good sister’ – fearing for her life and that of her own son if Commodus spirals further into insanity.
Despite Commodus constantly anteing up the dangers in the arena, Maximus’ string of victories remains unbroken. With each defeat against his latest stellar foe, he gains the admiration of the crowd, drawing closer and closer to his darker purpose. During one of these duels, Commodus orders Maximus to murder his defenseless opponent. Instead, Maximus shows mercy. The crowd feeds off it. But Commodus is tortured by his arch nemesis’ newly acquired fame, smiting back with taunts about the slaughter of Maximus’ family. Resisting the impulse to avenge his wife and son, Maximus simply turns away. Sometime later, Maximus learns from his ex-orderly, Cicero (Tommy Flanagan) that his former legions have remained ever loyal since his demise. Sensing the danger that lies ahead, should Maximus remain a part of the games, Lucilla and Gracchus arrange a clandestine meeting with Maximus, plotting his escape from Rome to rejoin his soldiers and topple Commodus by force. Alas, even the walls have ears. Learning of their scheme against him, Commodus threatens Lucilla and orders the Praetorian Guard to arrest Gracchus. He also invades the gladiator’s barracks. Proximo and his men, including Hagen, sacrifice themselves to enable the original plan to go through. But Maximus is recaptured during his rendezvous with Cicero who is subsequently murdered.
Realizing there is only one way to end their acrimony once and for all, Commodus challenges Maximus to a public duel in the Colosseum. To ensure victory over his far-stronger opponent, Commodus fatally wounds Maximus moments before they are about to enter the arena. Nevertheless, Maximus trudges on. With sheer vengeance dictating his heart, he now proceeds to disarm Commodus. As the Praetorian Guard refuses aid, Commodus produces a hidden knife from under his robe. With a last dispatch, the gravely weakened Maximus manages to drive the blade deep into his adversary’s throat. The crowd is ecstatic. Alas, the hemorrhaging beneath the skin now causes Maximus to succumb to his wounds. On the edge of death, he asks for political reforms; also, for his gladiator allies to be freed, and finally, for Senator Gracchus to be reinstated. Maximus' allies honor him as a true ‘soldier of Rome’ and, at Lucilla's behest, his body is carried out on their shoulders, leaving Commodus’s remains to rot in the stadium. Under the cover of night, Juba returns to the Colosseum, burying the carved figurines of Maximus' wife and son in the spot where he died and vowing to see his old friend once again…“but not yet.”
Gladiator is a largely visceral experience, compounded by Hans Zimmer’s poignant score and, when the spirit moves him, John Mathieson’s stationary cinematography, momentarily to allow for the otherwise dizzying camerawork its respites intermittently scattered throughout a movie that is subsequently always ‘on the go’. I have commented on the zeal of many a contemporary cinematographer to forgo the time-honored tradition of ‘the master shot’ emblematic in a David Lean epic, replaced by frenetically paced/chop-shop editing that Ginsu’s the narrative into an equilibrium-off-putting experience of pure sensory overload. On Mathieson’s command, all hell is unleashed. All of Gladiator’s action sequences suffer this fate, the hand-held camera swirling, bobbing, weaving and otherwise spinning out of control, creating a discombobulation of flailing muscular arms and legs, caught in the heated and sweat-soaked anticipation of battle. Viewing any of these frequent displays of masculinity run amuck is a visually exhaustive experience, the eyes unable to settle on any particular image; the soundtrack, a cacophony of heaving grunts from its gladiatorial participants, the roar of the crowd (and, the occasional tiger), the clash of steel and finally, heart-pounding Zimmer underscore.
Russell Crowe delivers a magnificently sullen performance as the breast-plated beefcake du jour. Every Roman saga needs at least one. But Gladiator stockpiles the muscle men from one end of its expansive Panavision frame to the other. It’s quite a show of flesh as these oiled-up combatants prepare to die, or narrowly survive the onslaught of ‘amusements’ Commodus has conceived, merely to alleviate his own boredom. Crowe, whose rather heart-felt Best Actor Oscar acceptance speech thoroughly belied the dour façade of wounded pride he represents herein, is Gladiator’s salvation, as is the aforementioned Oliver Reed, and, to a lesser extent, Joaquin Phoenix’s thoroughly insidious turn as the envious psychopath of the piece. Alas, Derek Jacobi, a superb Shakespearean force of nature, continues to get short shrift in the movies, I suspect, because Hollywood no longer knows how to write for the middle-aged and senior members of its card-carrying actor’s equity members. Oh, if Jacobi had only been around in the mid-fifties, or a young man with pecs so firm you could bounce a quarter off them, then what a superlative career in Hollywood he might have had today. But I digress.
Yet, for all its desaturated surface sheen and uber-violent spectacle, its expertly crafted themes reconstituted from a formidable back catalog that draws too heavily on many a toga-clad adventure made memorable during Hollywood’s golden era, Gladiator is only marginally triumphant. Despite its tsunami of Oscar nominations (12, all told) and 5 wins (for Best Sound Mixing, Costume Design, Visual Effects, Actor – Russell Crowe, and the most coveted of all statuettes; Best Picture), Gladiator draws us much too close to the combat with narrowly a coherent moment between these frenetically staged sequences in the open-air amphitheater. What works is the ferocity and envy of the piece; Crowe, daringly/sparingly electing to remain mostly stoic, if not silent, exuding a sort of telescopically-focused, magisterial venom, counterbalanced by a Cole’s Notes’ litany of motivations that virtually anyone in the audience can understand at a glance. The absence of subtext allows us to fill in the details on an otherwise blank slate of rawer human emotions.
“Are you not entertained?” Maximus cries out to the cheering throngs as they witness his first kill in the gladiatorial ring. And indeed, as much as we have been systematically dumbed down by our present age of movie-makers to accept mere content without much character development or subtext for that matter, other than what is transparently on display before our very eyes, we are stimulated by the unmelodiousness of Ridley Scott’s ancient world claptrap. The parallels between its’ lascivious fascination with death games and our current sports-mad obsession is unmistakable. But it’s the roller coaster-ish G-force of vigor that adds pulp to the otherwise fusty traditions and pulverizes its crumbling platitudes into a talc that is as wildly distracting as intermittently anesthetizing to the audience with too much/too quick, moving the narrative along at a breakneck pace so we cannot concentrate on anything except the escalation of violence for violence sake. This ultimately leads us on and to a very predictable end. Gladiator may not represent the very best of these Roman antiquity flicks that once dominated the box office with their more affecting balance of colorful period costumes and investigative narratives dedicated to an underlay of faux religiosity (indeed, religion is never mentioned in Gladiator – just sin) but it moves by appealing almost exclusively to our emotions and the lesser half of our intellect. A good popcorn-muncher to be sure, but still not the movie of choice to be perennially resurrected for any Easter telecast. No, that’s still Ben-Hur (1959).
Paramount’s new 4K Blu-ray presents both versions of Gladiator for our consideration; the Oscar-winning original theatrical cut and its 2005 extended edition, adding approximately 17 minutes of content that actually improves the story. Shot photochemically on 35mm, this new 4K scan is graded in both HDR10 and Dolby Vision. Stunning does not begin to describe the results, with one minor caveat. As Gladiator is heavily laden with digital mattes and other SFX, lacking the resolution one sees today, a handful of these shots are not nearly as impressively rendered in 4K as one might expect. Still, fine detail abounds, as does a slight uptick in indigenous grain. Almost all of the chronic edge-enhancement and DNR that plagued previous home video incarnations has been eradicated herein, again, with just a few slightly fuzzy shots still looking overly digitally-processed. Nothing to be done about this, folks. HDR has heightened the velvety blackness of shadows and brightened the sunbaked exteriors with an expanded palette of richly saturated colors.
It all looks as it should, perfectly complimented by an object-based English DTS:X lossless mix that is every bit as overwhelming as I remember from my theatrical experience. The 4K disc includes only two previously recorded audio commentaries; the first from Ridley Scott, editor Pietro Scalia, and cinematographer John Mathieson (on the theatrical cut), the second, from Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe (on the extended edition). Paramount has also given us the original ‘Sapphire’ release on standard Blu-ray. Here, one can find virtually all the extras replicated as before, including The Scrolls of Knowledge Visions from Elysium: Topic Portal, the 8-part documentary, Strength and Honor: Creating the World of Gladiator, Production Design Primer: Arthur Max, Storyboarding Demonstration, Weapons Primer: Simon Atherton, Abandoned Sequences and Deleted Scenes, The Making of Gladiator, Gladiator Games: The Roman Blood sport, Hans Zimmer: Scoring Gladiator, An Evening with Russell Crowe, Maximus Uncut: Between Takes with Russell Crowe, My Gladiator Journal by Spencer Treat Clark, VFX Explorations: Germania and Rome and finally, 2 theatrical trailers. Bottom line: Gladiator has never looked better on home video. It’s still an imperfect movie with a slightly imperfect look, hampered only by the technologies of their time that have not ripened with age. Otherwise, and particularly for diehard fans of this movie, there quite simply is no better way to experience it in the comfort of your living room. Bottom line: very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)