Thursday, October 27, 2016

Movie Review: Gladiator

A deeper analysis, with reflections on Christian reviews of the film

By Kyle Garza

[Editor’s Note: The author reviewed Gladiator on August 10. Today’s extended review goes into greater depth and critiques some other sorts of reviews of the film.]

Long before Braveheart (1995) and Gladiator (2000) and Troy (2004) had kicked off a new cycle of epic films that mixed history, legend, and cinematic entertainment, the Iliad, the Odyssey, and Beowulf stood as cornerstones of epic poetry, defining for millennia the standards of what it is to be an excellent man. Despite thousands of years between them, the modern cinematic epics still retain much of the same poetic elements that their written predecessors had, and the definition of masculinity which they offer has not varied far.
    Our modern epic heroes on the big screen retain much of the same qualities as those from millennia ago: a confident boast of one’s physical prowess, brilliant battle tactics, some degree of vengeance to be exacted upon the wicked. Within this genre, Ridley Scott’s Gladiator offers its audience a case study of Maximus, a Roman general turned gladiator after he is betrayed by a crazed, corrupt Caesar who leaves Maximus’s wife and son burnt and hung amidst his desolate fields in the Italian countryside. All too easily, Christians have been discouraged from seeing this film due to gratuitous violence and for pouring “fuel on that fire… that wants to see our enemies suffer,” but Gladiator offers too many valuable lessons in heroism and masculinity through Maximus to forego. If we are comfortable with reading the books of Joshua and Judges in church and buying the Iliad and Odyssey for our children (seeing as they are commonly found on book lists for classical Christian schools), then we ought not hold Gladiator at arm’s distance as if it were tainted with too many secular ideals to contain anything redemptive.
    But before we begin exploring the redemptive qualities in Gladiator, we must address the elephant in the room—those inclined to evaluate a film purely by auteur criticism, which “begins with the talent or person behind the work of film and seeks to understand the movie in that light,” will quickly associate the name of Ridley Scott with violent war films—Kingdom of Heaven (2005), Black Hawk Down (2001), Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014)
— and with the film world’s most iconic science fiction — Alien (1979), Blade Runner (1982), The Martian (2015).
The danger of shunning Gladiator because of Ridley Scott’s other work is losing “the uniqueness of an individual movie by submerging it in the whole corpus of a director’s work.” Gladiator stands unique in the scope of Scott’s more violent works because it actually presents three primary lenses through which to interpret the violence of the film: the protagonist-hero Maximus, the incestuous-madman Commodus, and the nihilist-gladiator-owner Proximo.

It is most important to note that Maximus has the most ideal outlook on violence in the whole film. He is not like Staff Sergeant William James from The Hurt Locker (2008) who continues to re-enlist in the armed forces because he cannot integrate back into civilian society and feels his “place in life” is on the front lines working EOD (explosive ordinance disposal). On the contrary, when Maximus is asked by the reigning emperor Marcus Aurelius how he can reward Rome’s greatest general, Maximus’s request is simple—even humble: “Let me go home.” Indeed, modern film critics like Jeffrey Overstreet can find in Maximus a kindred spirit, for though Maximus does not share our weariness “of constantly taking in information from the news, e-mail, web pages, television, movies, the telephone and radio,” we find that Maximus, just as much as we do, is simply “longing for a vacation.”
    Even after losing all that is good in his life when Commodus orders Maximus’s son and wife murdered, he does not become a jaded gladiator who relishes the violence of the arena, using bloodlust as a salve for his aching soul. He explains, “I am required to kill, so I kill. That is enough.” While this is probably not the pacifistic, anti-violence policy that many Christian audiences would like to hear (and would probably call the most “redemptive” transformation in Maximus if it were in the film), such a change would abandon the film’s sense of realism.
    Beyond his resistance to violence, accepting it as a necessary evil in his life, Maximus demonstrates the virtues of empathy, humility, service, and integrity. He is a man, after all, who sincerely believes that “What we do in life echoes in eternity,” so all of his thoughts and actions are methodically performed as if having real, eternal significance. Our first introduction to Maximus’s empathy occurs on the front lines before the Germanic forces attack the Romans—really the first scene setting the stage for the film. His brother-in-arms, Quintus, mocks the barbarians’ feeble attempts to fight back: “People should know when they are conquered,” he scoffs. “Would you, Quintus? Would I?” rejoins Maximus, displaying not disdain for his foes, but framing Maximus with a warrior’s heart and an understanding man’s soul. Despite his lofty position, Maximus even seems to have that ideal quality of humility that Plato once argued was necessary for proper rulers; hence, when Marcus Aurelius makes his intentions known to Maximus that he desires Maximus to succeed him and convert Rome into a true Republic governed by the people through the Senate, Maximus refuses “With all [his] heart, no.” Thus Marcus Aurelius explains, “Maximus, that is why it must be you.”
    These qualities Maximus possesses cannot be divorced from our opinions of the violence he commits, namely his revenge on Commodus for the murder of his wife and son. It is vital that we understand there are two motivations driving Maximus to exact revenge on Commodus: yes, it is to avenge his murdered wife and son, but even before that plot element arises in the film, Maximus is bound by duty and loyalty (demonstrating his integrity) to serve Rome under Marcus Aurelius’s rule. The Roman Senator Gracchus is puzzled by Maximus’s plot to overthrow Commodus and divest all power into the Senate for the people: “So, after Rome’s all yours, you’ll just give it back to the people. Tell me why.” Maximus’s response explains the reasons why: “Because that was the last wish of a dying man” first and foremost, and then he continues, “I will kill Commodus. The fate of Rome, I leave to you.” Here there is no mention of his wife and son. We must note that, at this point in the film (nearly two hours in), Commodus’s tyrannical, mad rule has become a blockade preventing Marcus Aurelius’s final wishes from becoming fully realized. Yes, Maximus is personally invested in exacting revenge on Commodus, but there is still a high degree of fealty to his former Caesar’s commands that drives him. In this way, we see some portrayal of human transcendence, for “Reality, Life at some more central region, [has] also been discovered.” Just as Jesus went to his death on the cross to defeat sin and death and the power of Satan while simultaneously remaining ever subordinate to God the Father’s will [Luke 22:42b reads, “yet not my will, but yours be done” in reference to God the Son’s submission to God the Father’s will], so does Maximus go to his certain death in the gladiator’s arena, not only to defeat an incestuous, crazed tyrant, but also to fulfill his true Caesar’s last wishes. Maximus does not exalt in his victory over Commodus in his last minutes of life. Rather, he sets captives free (his fellow gladiators). He reinstates a good man (Senator Gracchus) to his calling in life. He concludes, “There was a dream that was Rome. It shall be realized. These are the wishes of Marcus Aurelius.”

Contrast that now with the other two driving forces of violence in the film: Proximo and Commodus. Proximo, a former gladiator granted freedom by the late Marcus Aurelius, now uses people for his own financial gain. The system of violence perpetuates itself, and Maximus finds himself under Proximo’s tutelage in how to survive as a gladiator: winning over the adoration of the crowd. Eventually, Proximo even assists Maximus in what turns out to be a failed military coup. But Proximo’s stance on violence is driven by a deep-seated nihilism reminiscent of Macbeth’s ending soliloquy about the inescapable “sound and fury” of life that “signif[ies] nothing.” Despite Proximo’s belief that “We mortals are but shadows and dust,” and that “Ultimately, we’re all dead men,” he does come across as some brand of idealist, who encourages Maximus by noting that “what we can decide is how we meet that end, in order that we are remembered as men.”
    By the end of the film, Maximus has acquired the titles “the Merciful” for sparing the life of a defeated combatant in the arena and “the Savior of Rome,” voiced by Commodus’s nephew Lucius, suggesting that Maximus’s character and reputation has reached even the strata of the play of children. Despite Proximo’s worldview that should realistically justify bloodsport for pure entertainment purposes, his words inspire Maximus to be a true hero, one who transcends the motive of mere vengeance: he fulfills the dying wish of Marcus Aurelius, he assures Lucilla her son Lucius is now safe (from the constant murderous threats of his uncle Commodus), and Lucilla leaves the audience with one piercing question: “Is Rome worth one good man’s life?”

Lastly, Commodus, quite the memorable villain, captures every perspective about violence that drives Christians away from films like these. Even his father Marcus Aurelius knows that “Commodus is not a moral man.” And yet Ridley Scott would not have us hate the villain of Commodus with a “pure” hatred for his “pure” evil. After all, Marcus Aurelius admits, “Your faults as a son is my failure as a father.” As much as we would like to point fingers at Commodus for being a crazed, sexually lascivious tyrant, we must confront the fact that the lack of a father’s love seems to be the driving impetus for everyone’s misfortune in the film at the hands of Commodus. All the love Commodus did not receive from his father was instead given to Maximus, creating an underlying jealousy inspiring Commodus’s villainy. Perhaps if the great conquering Caesar had allowed love into his home as much as he wanted peace in Rome, Commodus might not be so morally malformed. In one of the more heartbreaking scenes of the film, moments before Commodus smothers his father to death, he confesses, “I would butcher the whole world if you would only love me.” Without any model of love to shape his conception of affection, Commodus must look up to a father who “brought the sword. Nothing more.” Is it any surprise then that Commodus instates 150 days of gladiatorial games to honor his father when Marcus Aurelius was actually the Roman emperor who put an end to the sport? If violence is all he learned from his father, then it is no surprise that he intends to bring the people spectacles of violence in order to win over their love.

And here should properly begin an examination of just how the violence of the film is captured, with specific note of what it communicates about the person of Maximus. Every one of Maximus’s battles develops our understanding of his character as a man, and an excellent man at that. In the opening battle between the Romans and the Germans, we learn that Maximus is empathetic with his enemies, but a seasoned general nonetheless who respects and relies on the arms of his fellow fighting men. In his first gladiatorial combat, we see his camaraderie with Juba form in the heat of battle. In his “solo bout” with several gladiators, it becomes all the more clear that he takes no personal satisfaction in killing, and he even goes so far as to confront the crowd with a convicting, “Are you not entertained? Is this not why you are here?” when they are left silently stunned by his expertise in combat. In his first match in the Roman colosseum, he forges a battle-bond with his fellow gladiators that engenders a friendship of mutual respect throughout the remainder of the film (eventually, they are all even willing to die for him); Commodus, for contrast, exults in the violence of the scene quite overtly, laughing when men are impaled, sticking his tongue out in exulting glee as throats are slashed. In his fight against Tigris, Maximus acquires the title of “Maximus the Merciful” because he will not unnecessarily execute a defeated opponent (granted, there is also some motivation of defiance against Commodus here as well). Even in his final battle against Commodus, Maximus triumphs despite his pre-battle stab wound, using Commodus’s own hidden dagger that he attempts to use against Maximus after the soldiers refuse to lend Commodus a sword when his is parried away. He does not revel in this victory, and much like the earlier “Are you not entertained?” scene, neither does the crowd.
    In short, the violence surrounding Maximus’s story supports the narrative in meaningful ways. Ancient epic poetry is filled with poetic meaning, despite its often violent setting. Gladiator succeeds in accomplishing the same by using violence to communicate the virtue of Maximus and the vice of Commodus. And even in the final scene where Maximus overpowers Commodus with a most satisfying vengeance, making complete eye contact during the full length of Commodus’s dagger plunging into his own throat, driving Commodus down to his knees to look up at his conquering opponent, we receive a subtle but significant parallel. Here is Commodus, the unloved son, on his knees being slain by the beloved Maximus. For a moment, we recall that Marcus Aurelius bent down on his knees shortly before his death and confessed that he failed to love his son as a father properly should. Here now, on bended knee, we find that unloved son meet his end. And the entire colosseum is silent. No one exalts in his death. There is no crowd to join “in cheering Maximus’s revenge.” Perhaps the theater may be filled with people satisfied by that moment of revenge, but to see the scene as nothing more than that is to miss the point of the sobering silence entirely.

Predominately, the significance of these scenes is not often captured by Christian film critics and reviewers who shepherd laymen away from such films. The actual presence of violence in the film seems to be all that is noteworthy, rather than its meaning or significance. Elesha Coffman from Christianity Today proceeds with a good measure of due caution:
Just as gladiator battles were originally intended to amuse the masses, Gladiator is a blockbuster all the way: sexy stars, great special effects, and tons of bloody combat. And that’s what bothers me. If a million Americans flock to see gladiators on a big screen, are they (perhaps I should say we) any better than the Romans who watched the games the first time?
Coffman’s thinking seems to be that the very act of watching is wrong in itself, as if thoughtful viewing were not possible in a film of so much spectacle. She references Augustine’s Confessions, particularly one event in which Augustine’s friend Alypius visits the gladiator arena to spectate and “rise above” the bloodlust of the crowd—only to “inevitably” succumb to it. There appears to be some degree of shock value in Coffman’s words, though, and she allows Augustine’s re-telling of the story to do the work:
He was stricken with a deeper wound in his soul than the gladiator…At the moment he saw that blood, he drank down savageness and did not turn away from it. He was riveted to it, drinking in frenzy unawares, and was delighted with that wicked fight and intoxicated with the bloody pastime. Nor was he the same man that he was when he had first come; he had become one of the crowd.
Coffman concludes in her own words, “Certainly that type of ‘intoxication’ will help Gladiator make big bucks at the box office, and that’s a fairly sickening commentary on our society.” There is some degree of truth in her warning. The violence in Gladiator can begin to seem like the sort of “mechanical…long exhibitions of violence styled for excitement and other scenes designed to make [us] despise the villain so much that [we] cannot wait to see him suffer,” such as can be found in Mel Gibson’s Braveheart (1995) or The Patriot (2000). But Ridley Scott’s narrative elevates the violence to something much more purposeful than that. It is necessary for us to find, as Christian and film producer Ralph Winter did, that Gladiator is “truly about love,” at least “at some level.” We live in a fallen world of people that willingly rend themselves from the hands of a loving Father, and our lives are thrust into sin and every sort of violent turmoil that can come from separation from the fountainhead of goodness in life. Is it really so debased that Gladiator captures, in stunning imagery, the kind of violence that results from a lack of fatherly love? Don’t people need to truly see the mess our world is in in order to properly yearn for escape from it?

Tom Neven from Focus on the Family’s affirms the positive elements of Gladiator at the head of his review, calling Maximus “a man of honor…incorruptible… turn[ing] down an opportunity for power and riches because it violates the principles for which he stands. And, in a back-door way of affirming what is good, the evil Commodus gets his comeuppance in the end.” But Neven appears more gracious in his critique of the stylized violence, noting, to Ridley Scott’s credit, that the film “does not dwell on gore; once the point is made that a man has been killed, the camera moves elsewhere. Still, the gruesome images burn deep,” though this last note seems more a statement of fact than a deterrent to seeing the film. The one thing that gave Neven feeling “vaguely ill-at-ease” when he left the theater was the likeness of gladiatorial entertainment to modern professional wrestling, which he goes to great lengths to draw parallels between, and concludes, “Gladiator serves as an object lesson as to what can happen to a society that proceeds down such a violent path.” If that is the case, then Neven actually seems to be encouraging the viewing of Gladiator since it serves as a warning for our enjoyment of violence that the WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) and WWF (World Wrestling Federation) will not present. He even goes on to discuss the educational merits of the bonus features on the Gladiator DVD. He cites the work of Professor Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, director of the British School of Rome, who addresses the issue of desensitization by stating, “The Romans, the more they watched, the more they see people being killed, the more used to it they became and the more indifferent to it, morally, they became.” Neven also quotes one Professor David Potter, who teaches Greek and Latin at the University of Michigan, who notes that if “you turn on television nowadays any day of the week…you’ll see wild animal attacks, advertisements for people being washed away in floods and what have you.” But Neven’s summary seems torn between what could be argued about the violence of the film and the educational value of what Gladiator offers:
Indeed, some might not unreasonably argue that Gladiator exploits that very mentality, pandering to the bloodlust of desensitized audiences. It grossed more than $180 million in the U.S. alone and features extreme violence. And while some of that carnage spills over into these DVD extras, DreamWorks has certainly created an engaging, often educational bonus package.
Reaching towards the more conservative end of the spectrum, Emmett W. Elliot from hands Gladiator a “Moral Rating” of “Very Offensive.” He chides Gladiator more briefly than the other two reviewers, claiming that Ridley Scott merely exploits violence “Instead of the usual Hollywood dosage of bare skin on screen.” He calls the film “a gory computer-generated special effects blockbuster.” Reviews like these ought to make us more cautious than others. After all, the computer-generated special effects of the film have virtually nothing to do with the gore of the film: Gladiator offers large panning shots of a re-constructed CGI-Rome, and this is done more to capture “the glory of Rome” in the film, with its decadent society and lavish entertainment mediums; consequently, we the viewers ought to note this accomplishes easy parallels between Roman culture and our own American ideals, so it may be serving the purpose of forewarning about violence as entertainment that Tom Neven noted our society needs.
    Elliot continues by making some parallels between Maximus and William Wallace from Braveheart, even comparing the violence of Gladiator to that found in Saving Private Ryan. But these parallels will not suffice since Tom Neven rightly pointed out that the camera never dwells on the gore of any scene. Whereas Saving Private Ryan forces one to watch a man hold his own entrails in his hands on the beaches of Normandy, Gladiator never dwells on gore. Like Neven, Elliot notes with some praise that the DVD release of the film contains some worthwhile educational material that provides more context for the Roman time period, including “a powerful and prayerful scene where Maximus watches as Christians are fed to the lions.”

    It is at that point that Elliot’s criticism strays from any form of worthwhile commentary and instead drifts into the realm of, “I had rather I directed the film.” He notes that “Maximus hopes to reunite with his family in the afterlife, but what kind of afterlife?” That question is actually explicitly answered in the film as the fields of Elysium, which is alluded to in the first 20 minutes of the film, and which any short degree of reading on Roman culture would yield an understanding. He continues, “In a time when Christianity was sweeping across Rome, I wished that our gladiator had been a converted Christian.” While it might be interesting to think of how the film would differ in the end if Maximus had “found Jesus,” offering that thought as an element of criticism does little to count for thematic criticism. After all, Maximus still can be seen with redemptive Christ-like parallels. To argue that he would have been a better hero if he were a blatant Christian is to bind the scope of what Ridley Scott could accomplish with the narrative. In the end, Elliott concludes that “most moviegoers will select this film for the action sequences and special effects seen briefly in the trailers. The computer-generated graphics enhance the action sequences and recreate a glorious Roman world albeit void of Christianity. Due to this major oversight, Gladiator falls short of classic….” Elliott’s review is thus in most dire need of some element of thematic analysis, some commentary on the “informing vision, the heart of the story, the executive principle, the moral premise, the emotional through line.” By dwelling on what the film does not have (an emphasis of Christianity in Roman culture), we may lose sight of the merits that Ridley Scott does invest in Gladiator.
    Two-and-a-half hours after a viewing of Gladiator, one can look back and see that its violence is not for mere spectacle. It offers a purer depiction of masculinity and heroism that is buttressed by the virtues of empathy, dignity, humility, and faithful servanthood. All too often these traits are blended with (and more often overshadowed by) an American love for anti-heroes, which has yielded the recently massively popular Deadpool (2016) and the upcoming Suicide Squad (2016). But not all Christians should avoid Gladiator just because of its R-rating. Rather, we should find ourselves in the film: people desperately in need of fatherly love, and far too easily bent towards violence and destruction when we don’t get what we want.

Copyright © 2016 by Kyle Garza

1 comment:

  1. Today’s extended review of "Gladiator" by Kyle Garza goes into greater depth than his earlier piece, and it critiques reviews that take exception to the film's violence.