“Oh you should see the Colosseum, Spaniard. 50,000 Romans watching every movement of your sword, willing you to make that killer blow. The silence before you strike, and the noise afterwards, it rises, rises like…like a storm, as if you were the Thunder God himself.” – Proximo
Spontaneity can be the greatest inspiration. For Ridley Scott, the painting of a victorious gladiator looking up and staring into the crowd, Pollice Verso, spoke to him about the “Roman Empire in all its glory and wickedness”. It inspired Scott to create and direct his brilliant, Academy Award winning film Gladiator (2000). The movie is more historical fiction than based on real events. Scott originally hired historians to keep it historically accurate. However, he deviated so much from real life to craft an amazing story that the historians preferred not to be credited for the film. Of course, the final product justifies his decision. Regardless of historical accuracy, Gladiator reinvigorated interest in the Roman and other classical cultures. Accordingly, it led to some copycatting in Hollywood with the release of films such as Troy (2004), Alexander (2004), Scott’s own Kingdom of Heaven (2005), 300 (2006), etc. It is often referred to as the “Gladiator effect”. Nevertheless, none of those films match the magnificence of Gladiator. Scott ventured into the same genre again with Kingdom of Heaven but did not come close to duplicating the success of Gladiator. For this reason, Gladiator is an anomaly. In addition, Russell Crowe recently admitted that “We had 21 pages when we started shooting … Your average script is about 110.” He noted that “it’s also the dumbest possible way to make a film. The dumbest possible way.” With this knowledge, it is shocking that the movie is not terrible. It is a miracle that it won Best Picture in 2000. Overall, it was nominated for 12 Academy Awards and won 5. The wins included Best Actor (Russell Crowe), Best Visual Effects, and Best Sound Mixing. The Awards are reflective of everything that makes this film great. It has great cast that features a flawless hero that everyone loves contrasted by a vile villain that everyone loves to hate. The dialogue is phenomenal and includes many memorable lines that have transcended time and continue to be quoted. The visual effects that include epic battles and depicting the zenith of Rome in all its decadence are spectacular. In addition, the music is incredible. It captures and complements the emotions of all the key scenes. Hans Zimmer is one of the best composers in his time and the Gladiator soundtrack is one of his best works. Gladiator delivers amazingly in all these elements and is one badass movie.
The film starts with a subtle, yet brilliant opening shot of a hand running through the grass. Next, the camera gets close up to the face behind the hand and we see the hero of the story, Maximus. He collects his thoughts and gets a final moment of peace as the calm before the coming storm. As he watches a bird fly away, he soaks in the beauty of something so simple yet soothing and gives only a hint of a smile. Afterwards, he prepares for battle. Rome is at the end of a 12 year war against Germania. They are at the brink of total victory against Germania’s final resistance. Maximus is the general of Rome’s army in the campaign. He is portrayed as the perfect hero. First, he is an inspirational leader. As he walks through the lines of his troops, they immediately acknowledge and show respect to him. They are in awe of his presence and completely devoted to him as he is to them. Shortly into the scene, Maximus meets with his second in command, Quintus (Tomas Arana). They await the return of the messenger they sent to offer terms to the enemy forces. However, the Germanic tribes kill him and send his headless body back on his horse to try to intimidate the Romans. In response, Quintus notes “People should know when they are conquered.” A more empathetic Maximus asks “Would you, Quintus? Would I?” In the same situation as the Germanic tribes, he would probably react in a similar manner, not give up, and fight to the bitter end. It is a foreshadowing for Maximus’s own fate. Before he moves to lead the cavalry in the battle, he reminds Quintus “Strength and honor”. It is a phrase that is quickly repeated throughout the ranks. It is an example of his great leadership as his troops have totally bought into to his highest level of ethics and conduct.
During the scene, Maximus also demonstrates his brilliant skills in commanding and motivating his soldiers. Before he leaves to lead the cavalry, he declares “At my signal, unleash hell”. His orders are decisive and definitive. He gives them with full conviction and his soldiers follow them in the same manner. He also delivers an awesome speech to inspire the cavalry “Three weeks from now, I will be harvesting my crops. Imagine where you will be, and it will be so. Hold the line! Stay with me! If you find yourself alone, riding in the green fields with the sun on your face, do not be troubled. For you are in Elysium, and you’re already dead!” He also adds a rousing line at the end by declaring ““Brothers, what we do in life echoes in eternity.” His speech is brilliant in that it utilizes humor to lessen the tension in his troops as they surely are full of fear before battle and also inspires them with the great purpose of their campaign. The ensuing battle is epic and spectacular. Catapults and arrows light up the forest with fire. It is quickly clear that the Germanic tribe is completely outclassed on the battlefield. The Roman infantry advances and uses the phalanx formation to completely block arrows that are shot at them. At the same time, Maximus leads the cavalry to break the enemy line. Eventually, he gets knocked off his horse but recovers to fight. The end of the scene is in slow motion and seen from the perspective of Maximus as he watches some of his men die but most of the enemy being slayed as his army is victorious. Some of the best parts of the battle are flashy and great to watch but historically inaccurate. For example, artillery would not set a forest on fire. In addition, the Roman infantry break the Phalanx formation to fight the Germans one on one. In reality, they would never break formation and they would have been slaughtered by the Germans if they fought in such manner since that form of combat would have favored their opponent. After the battle, Emperor Marcus Auerelius (Richard Harris) rides onto the field to join the celebration. Maximus humbly states that the army is honoring the Emperor. However, the Emperor is wise and correctly points out that the troops are actually honoring Maximus. In every way, Maximus is portrayed as the flawless leader and hero in the opening scene of the movie.
On the other hand, Maximus’s only flaw is that he is too honorable and too pure. Outside of combat situations, he is naïve and uncomfortable which is in sharp contrast to his wisdom and decisiveness as a general. When the Emperor asks what he can do for Rome’s greatest general, Maximus simply asks to go home so he can farm. He is a man of honor who performed his duty to Rome. Now that his duty is complete, he wants to live a simple life. However, he does not understand that his extraordinary talents and impeccable character make him crucial to shaping the future of Rome. For example, Maximus walks through a victory celebration and has a short conversation with a couple of Senators who ask him whether the power of a government should lie with an emperor or the Senate. Maximus’s answer is a funny and clever one: “A soldier has the benefit of looking his enemy in his eye”. Predictably, he does not want anything to do with politics. It is a dirty game and he is a clean cut man of principle. However, one of the Senators realistically points out that Maximus can be very political with an army behind him. Naturally, Maximus is unaware of the power and importance that his status has in determining the fate of Rome. Politicians yearn to have his sword on their side. As much as he wants to run far away from politics and the power struggle within the empire, he cannot help himself from being drawn into it. For this reason, the Emperor invites Maximus to his private chambers to discuss his vision for the future of Rome. Marcus Auerelius is dying. Accordingly, he is worried about and contemplates his legacy: “When a man sees his end… he wants to know there was some purpose to his life. 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 the emperor who gave Rome back her true self?” For this purpose, he plans to transfer and empower Maximus with his powers to “to give power back to the people of Rome [turn it back into a Republic] and end the corruption that has crippled it.” Maximus’s naivety surfaces again in the conversation. He has fought and bled for the ideal of Rome. As a soldier, he needs to have conviction in his actions on the battlefield. Doubting the greatness of Rome is completely out of the question. Accordingly, he is in total denial when he tries to refute the Emperor’s points. He cannot believe or accept that his men have been wounded and died for nothing. In Maximus’s words, he states “I’ve seen much of the rest of the world. It is brutal and cruel and dark, Rome is the light.” However, Marcus Auerelius astutely points out that Maximus has never even been to Rome. On the other hand, Maximus’s purity and commitment to duty is the ultimate reason the Emperor has picked him. When he asks him “Do you accept this great honor that I have offered you?”, Maximus immediately answers “With all my heart, no.” It confirms the wisdom in the Emperor’s choice. Maximus has no desire for power. Unlike most individuals, he will relinquish it as soon as the Emperor’s wishes are fulfilled. Just as important, he has the support of the military.
At the end of their conversation, Marcus Aurelius adds that Maximus is the “son that I should have had”. As for his biological son, he knows that “Commodus is not a moral man. You have known that since you were young. Commodus cannot rule. He must not rule.” The character is a real creep. He displays some of the most deplorable traits possible for a human being. First, he has incestuous lust for his sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen). Naturally, it makes any reasonable person’s stomach turn. Moreover, he is a coward. He shows up at the battlefield only after the battle and war has already been one. He tries to embrace his father in front of the celebrating army, who is celebrating Maximus, to get some credit for the victory. However, the Emperor is wise and stiffs his own son because he does not want the military to respect or recognize Commodus’s authority. After his discussion with Maximus on the plans for succession, he summons Commodus to his chambers to do the same. He knows his son will be devastated by the decision. Upon hearing the news, Commodus unsurprisingly breaks down in tears and tells his father “You wrote to me once, listing the four chief virtues: Wisdom, justice, fortitude and temperance. As I read the list, I knew I had none of them. But I have other virtues, father. Ambition. That can be a virtue when it drives us to excel. Resourcefulness, courage, perhaps not on the battlefield, but…there are many forms of courage. Devotion, to my family, to you. But none of my virtues were on your list.” Commodus is a brilliantly conceived and developed character and villain for the film. From his actions, it is easy to see that he is definitely insane and deplorable. However, he clearly explains his motives and actions. In my opinion, you almost understand his perspective if it were not so self-centered and flawed. In the end, even a person as depraved as Commodus needs to believe he is moral. The film does an amazing job developing him as a villain. Joaquin Phoenix does a masterful job portraying the craziness and charisma of Commodus. I adore the performance and loath the character.
Although he is psychotic, he is devious. He smothers and murders his father with a pillow before power can be transitioned to Maximus. Accordingly, the rules of succession automatically transfers the throne to Commodus. He cunningly summons Maximus immediately and commands him to embrace him as emperor and give him his loyalty. He is aware that Maximus is a man of honor and uses it against him. If Maximus accepts the offer, Commodus knows that he is bound by his word. If Maximus was more politically savvy, he would have lied to his face and go to his army to take the power from Commodus by force. Naturally, Maximus is too honorable for his own good. For this reason, he cannot pretend to bow to Commodus and leaves to lead the opposition. Of course, Commodus outmaneuvers Maximus. He orders Maximus’s second in command, Quintus, and the Praetorian Guard [the Emperor’s elite fighting force that is used as his personal body guards] to arrest and execute Maximus. Before Maximus is taken away, he pleads with Quintus to take care of his family. Unfortunately, Quintus responds that his family “will meet you in the afterlife”. It is tragic that Quintus turns his back on his friend and general. However, he is just a soldier following orders. Since the troops would absolutely revolt if the Praetorian Guard attempts to execute Maximus at camp, they are instructed to ride far away to a forest. Obviously, the story does not end here. Before a Guard moves to kill him, Maximus asks for a clean warrior’s death so that the Guard positions himself in a way that he can jump to grab the sword to kill his would be executioner. The second guard’s sword is frozen and Maximus slices him in half. He throws a sword to kill the third Guard, who is sitting on a horse, before killing the last Guard who rides at him on horseback. Nevertheless, the last Guard is able to land a serious blow to Maximus before dying. The scene is another example of Maximus’s great fighting prowess. Even when he seems helpless, he is able to defeat four elite combatants. Despite his wound, he has no time to heal and rides frantically back home to save his family. Sadly, he is too late and arrives home only to see that his family has been crucified and burned alive. It is a gut wrenching moment in the film. Moreover, it cements your hate for Commodus. For the rest of the movie, you yearn for the moments that Maximus defies and hopefully gets his revenge on the Emperor. The fate of his family also demonstrates the tragic irony of his perfect, honorable character. Since he is incorruptible, he is the obvious choice for Marcus Aurelius as his successor. On the other hand, the inability to have any deception costs him dearly. In the real world, it is impossible to be honest all the time. There are extraordinary moments when one needs to get his hands dirty for the greater good. It is a delicate and difficult balance. Since Maximus is incapable of ever breaking his personal code of ethics, his flawlessness is actually his flaw. From an idealistic perspective, he is the hero Rome needs but does not deserve. For Game of Thrones fans, he is a similar character to Eddard Stark. Both men are unable to do anything that taints their honor. It serves them well for most of their lives but the trait becomes their undoing when they encounter the wrong snake of a politician.
After Maximus buries his family, he collapses under the burden of his grief and from his wound. Although he has lost the will to live, fate and the film is not done with him yet. Eventually, slavers pick him up and transport him to Zucchabar in North Africa, where he is sold into slavery. During this time, Maximus becomes friend with another slave, Juba (Djimon Hounsou). He is a Numidian hunter who was taken from his home and enslaved. During the journey to Zucchabar, Juba tends to Maximus’s wounds. Like Maximus, he is a family man hoping to get back to his wife and son even though he knows it is unlikely now. In addition, he is a great fighter. They are natural friends because of these similarities. Moreover, Juba reassures Maximus that he will see his family again [in the afterlife] but “not yet”. Those two words reminds Maximus that fate is not done with him yet and he still has a great purpose to serve before he is allowed to die. They are very important because they provide him a reason to live. As a result, they are repeated by Juba to him throughout the film. At Zucchabar, both men are sold to gladiator trainer Proximo (Oliver Reed). Naturally, Maximus is disinterested in fighting for sport. When they are being evaluated, Proximo’s strongest gladiator, Hagen (Ralf Möller), beats Maximus when he throws away his sword and refuses to fight back. Before the first real gladiator battle, Hagen mocks Maximus because he believes he will be scared and killed quickly. As we know, Maximus was only holding back beforehand. When he is forced into an actual fight, he displays his deadly skills. Eventually, Hagen and Maximus also become friends. As a powerful fighter who acknowledges strength, Hagen respects and is in awe of Maximus’s combat prowess and inspired by his leadership on the battlefield. Of course, Maximus becomes a star in the arena. As a man of honor, he is obviously disgusted by the spectacle of killing for sport. During one fight, he easily slices through multiple warriors by himself then throws a sword into a group of V.I.P. spectators and shouts “Are you not entertained?” His statement is often quoted in popular culture.
The outburst gets the attention of Proximo. The character is portrayed by the late, great Oliver Reed who died during the filming of Gladiator. Proximo is a great character. He is a legendary gladiator who was granted his freedom by Marcus Aurelius because of his accomplishments in the Colosseum. He is like a former, great athlete who still loves his sport. When he talks about gladiator battle, he does so with reverence. Oliver Reed delivers the lines brilliantly. One of my favorite moments in the movie are when he reminisces about his memories to Maximus: “Oh you should see the Colosseum, Spaniard. 50,000 Romans watching every movement of your sword, willing you to make that killer blow. The silence before you strike, and the noise afterwards, it rises, rises like…like a storm, as if you were the Thunder God himself.” Proximo says the lines with the perfect balance of contrasts: calm and excitement. At the same time, the song “Strength and Honor” plays in the background to set the atmosphere of something epic and nostalgic. In various moments throughout the film, Proximo truly pumps the movie audience up with his stories of the glory of being a gladiator. Similarly, he calls in Maximus for a private conversation to motivate him “You are good, Spaniard, but you’re not that good. You could be magnificent.” He wants Maximus to be an entertainer instead of just a fighter. Of course, the idea repulses Maximus. Nevertheless, Proximo finally gets his ear when he reveals that the games will be returning to the Colosseum in Rome. Maximus realizes that a return to Rome will allow him a chance at revenge. When he notes that he wants to stand in front of the young Emperor Commodus, Proximo advises “Then listen to me. Learn from me. I wasn’t the best because I killed quickly. I was the best because the crowd loved me. Win the crowd and you’ll win your freedom.” Again, fans see it is as entertainment. In order to amuse them, it is not good enough to just kill efficiently and prevail. A great entertainer also ensures that the battle is exciting and interesting to watch. This point is seen in the four major sports in the United States when rule changes are made for the purposes of making the sport more entertaining to watch (/2016/05/29/the-book-of-basketball-the-nba-according-to-the-sports-guy-review/). As we will clearly learn later, winning the crowd also provides priceless, political power. Finally fully motivated, Maximus promises Proximo that “I will win the crowd. I will give them something they have never seen before.”
While Maximus is fighting and becoming a legend in the gladiator arenas in the outskirts of the Roman Empire, Commodus returns to Rome as its new Emperor. Although he has lusted for power his entire life, he lacks the ability or experience to govern effectively. In addition, he displays traits of a mad emperor. Naturally, there are political opponents to his rule who are led by Senators Gracchus (Derek Jacobi) and Gaius (John Shrapnel). Gracchus makes an astute and scathing comment to Gaius as Commodus returns to a victor’s welcome and fanfare: “He enters Rome like a conquering hero. What has he conquered?” Gracchus is the most vocal opponent and openly criticizes and mocks Commodus in public. The best example of their contentious relationship occurs during Commodus’s initial session with the Senate. The scenes showcases how he is inept, disinterested, and flat out crazy when presented with the real problems of his empire. First, he tries to divert from the actual issues by stating his father wasted his time studying and reading scrolls while forgetting the people. In response, Gracchus points out that the Senate is the people since it was elected by the people. Commodus actually counters with a decent point when accusing the Senators of living lavish and gluttonous lifestyles that their constituents could never enjoy. Obviously, he has no credibility in making that point because he has lived a privileged life of indulgence and royalty. For this reason, Gracchus sarcastically responds “Then perhaps Caesar would be so good as to teach us, out of his own extensive experience.” During the exchange, Commodus demonstrates that he is out of touch with reality and his people when he provides his answer for all of Rome’s problems, “I call it love. I am their father, the people are my children and I shall hold them to my bosom and embrace them tightly”. Naturally, the rantings of a lunatic are unbearable to any intelligent and rational person. Consequently, Gracchus interrupts and rhetorically asks the young emperor “Have you ever embraced someone dying of plague, Sire?” The scene is clear in setting up Gracchus as the main political opponent for Commodus. It also makes it transparent that Commodus is a psychotic ruler. On the other hand, he has an ally in Senator Falco (David Schofield). Falco is an opportunist and scheming snake who helps Commodus consolidate his power so he can share in it.
A critical part of the plot is explaining how and why Maximus and Commodus cross paths again. Maximus’s journey to slavery and the gladiator arena is feasible. His return to Rome requires more justification. After his poor performance with the Senate, Commodus realizes that governing and ruling is not as easy as he has assumed. In private, he vents his frustration to his sister Lucilla. She fruitlessly attempts to educate him on how to inspire Rome. She speaks about the importance of victories and the Emperor providing an uplifting vision of Rome. The people need to believe in the greatness of Rome. Victories and a clear vision for the future reinforces the idea even if it is an illusion. Of course, Commodus is crazy and perverts Lucilla’s advice. He wants to bring back the gladiator games to Rome to commemorate the memory of his father. Ironically, it was his father that banned the games in the first place. He understands that violence and killing will entertain the people. If he can provide a distraction from the real problems in the empire, he can deceive the people with an illusion and control them. When news breaks of the return of the games, Gracchus and Gaius immediately discuss it. Gracchus admits that Commodus is more clever than he thought: “He will bring them death and they will love him for it”. Again, Commodus is mad but he is cunning and difficult to outmaneuver.
The opening bout in the games is a reenactment of the Battle of Zama when the Roman armies won a decisive victory over Carthage and its brilliant commander Hannibal. It is meant to be a slaughter of the gladiators, playing the part of Carthage, by their Roman counterparts. For this purpose, Proximo has been strong armed to sacrifice his best gladiators which include Maximus, Juba, and Hagen. The ensuing scene is probably the most memorable moment from the film. It is paced perfectly. It starts with an elegant and calm visual spectacle of a decorated and filled Colosseum that builds into a crescendo of swords, shields, and armor clashing on the battlefield. The action sequences are exhilarating. During the battle, Maximus demonstrates why he is Rome’s greatest general. He takes charge of the gladiators and commands them flawlessly. Despite facing overwhelming odds against superiorly armed attackers with chariots and bows and arrows, Maximus leads the ragtag group to victory. His men utilizes their shields and spears to break a chariot. Once Maximus gets his hands on a horse in the midst of the fight, he is unstoppable. At the same time, Commodus leisurely sits in his box. He enjoys the violence like a sadistic child. For example, he sticks out his tongue as he enjoys the most violent moments. As you watch the valor of Maximus in the arena, you simultaneously witness the outward lunacy of Commodus. I really like how this scene subtly but clearly contrasts the obvious differences between the two characters. During the entire battle, Maximus wears a helmet so he is not recognized. As a result, Commodus is impressed by the mysterious gladiator and goes down to the battlefield to meet him. When Commodus asks for his name, Maximus intentionally disrespects by answering “My Name is Gladiator” and turns his back on the Emperor. Like a spoiled brat, Commodus is incensed and demands that the Gladiator remove his helmet and say his name. In the most badass, fist pump moment in the film and one of the most epic moments in any film; Maximus turns and declares “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.” Of course, Commodus is completely stunned then motions his Praetorian Guard to attack but the crowd chants “Live”. Succumbing to the pressure of the mob, Commodus reluctantly agrees to spare Maximus as he gives a thumbs up [In actuality, thumbs up was the kill signal and thumbs down was live. However, it would have been confusing for the modern audience]. As the movie blasts triumphant music in the background, the victorious Maximus gives the strength and honor gesture to his old friend Quintus, who is standing at the Emperor’s side as the commander of the Guard, and then returns to his cell with swagger as the crowd and fellow gladiators applaud him and chant his name. In a remarkable moment, a gladiator upstaged and overruled the Emperor of Rome.
Throughout the film, Lucilla is a steady, strong supporting character. Her father, Marcus Auerlius, makes the perfect statement to describe her in a conversation with her at the beginning of the movie: “If only you had been born a man, what a Caesar you would have made.” She is a powerful, modern woman stuck in the unevolved social dynamics and views towards women in ancient times. Her father also knows that Commodus loves her. For this reason, he asked her to accompany Commodus to Germania to comfort him because he will be disappointed and crushed by being bypassed as Emperor. Of course, Commodus weasels his way into power anyway. Lucilla is a calming influence for Commodus. When Gracchus challenges and embarrasses Commodus in front of the entire Senate, she steps in and reins in her brother before he lashes out and purges Gracchus. In response, Gracchus acknowledges her grace and leadership by noting “As always, your lightest touch commands obedience”. Naturally, she opposes her brother’s rule. Unlike Maximus, she is wise and politically savvy in her opposition. She acts as a double agent. In front of her brother, she appears to be a supportive and loyal sister and confidant. She knows that she and her son, Lucius, will face a similar fate as Maximus and his family if she outwardly challenges her brother. She is strategic in limiting her brother’s lunacy by subtly trying to guide him into more morale, less insane decisions. In the shadows, she plots with Senators and looks for the first opportunity to remove him from power. She is a hero who is able to balance morality with practicality for each situation.
When Maximus reveals himself to Commodus in the arena, the sight of him fills her with hope. As a side story, she and Maximus were former lovers earlier in their lives. By the way she looks at him, it is obvious that she still loves him and holds him in the highest regard. After Maximus reappears, she predictably goes to talk to him in his cell. She wants to recruit and persuade Maximus to lead a coup de’tat against her brother. She knows that Maximus still commands the loyalty of the army and can lead it into Rome to remove Commodus from power. However, Maximus is incensed when he sees her. From his perspective, she is as guilty as Commodus for the persecution and murder of his family because she did not do anything to stop him. In his anger, he blindly accuses her of being a cold hearted, calculating individual who only wants to use him to gain power for herself. Of course, it is far from the case and she attempts to explain that “I have been living in a prison of fear since that day. To be unable to mourn your father for fear of your brother. To live in terror every moment of every day, because your son is heir to the throne. Oh, I have wept.” When her words fall to his deaf ears, she tries to appeal to his character by assuring him that he is “A noble man. A man of principle, who loved my father and my father loved him. This man served Rome well.” Nevertheless, he feels powerless and he thinks he is only a slave with the power to amuse the mob. Again, Maximus is naïve and also a novice in the political arena. He is completely unaware of his significance. Of course, she understands that Rome is the mob and the political power he yields because he has won its affection. She notes that “Today I saw a slave become more powerful than the Emperor of Rome.” It is a very powerful statement that sums the situation perfectly. Although he is hard headed and declines her offer initially, he eventually comes to his senses and realizes that she is his best chance to defeat and topple Commodus. Accordingly, she facilitates a meeting with Senator Gracchus. The plan is for Maximus to reunite with his army and lead it into Rome for a military coup. Naturally, Gracchus has major reservations about such drastic actions as he protests “This is madness. No Roman army has entered the capital in a 100 years. I will not trade one dictatorship for another.” As we have seen throughout history, power corrupts absolutely. As a result, he is skeptical that “And after your glorious coup, what then? You’ll take your 5,000 warriors and leave?” Nevertheless, Maximus is genuine and pure. He quickly mitigates the Senator’s concerns. He answers that he will assume power but give it back to the people in the form of a republic because it is a wish of a dying man [Marcus Aurelius]. He promises that he will kill Commodus and leave the fate of Rome to Gracchus. The scene is another moment when Maximus’s inspirational leadership abilities and believabiity are showcased. In response, Gracchus answers that “Marcus Aurelius trusted you. His daughter trusts you. I will trust you.”
At the same time, Commodus plots to kill Maximus. It is a problem that infuriates and frustrates Commodus since he knows he cannot simply execute Maximus now that his story and accolades have become legend. The situation is best illustrated in a scene when Maximus, Hagen, and Juba are eating in a mess hall. Maximus is hesitant to eat the food that is given to him. Consequently, Hagen tastes test it but pretends to be poisoned and choking. As Maximus fears the death of his friend, Hagen laughs at him for believing the farce. Juba reassures Maximus that “You have a great name. He must kill your name before he kills you.” The scene and the line from Juba is brilliant in explaining why executing Maximus will only embolden and strengthen the opposition to Commodus. It would create a martyr. As a result, Commodus attempts to kill Maximus in the gladiator arena by rigging the fight. He sends in the undefeated gladiator Tigris as well as unleash tigers that are only used to attack Maximus. Despite the stacked odds against him, Maximus wins and stands over a seriously wounded Tigris. When Commodus signals for Maximus to kill Tigris, Maximus shows the Emperor up again by throwing his ax and refusing the order. His actions endear him to the crowd even more as they laugh and chant “Maximus the Merciful”. Of course, Commodus is furious. He goes down to the arena again to confront his nemesis. Similar to their first meeting, Maximus turns his back on the Emperor. However, Commodus gets his attention this time by trying to provoke him by saying “They tell me your son… squealed like a girl when they nailed him to the cross. And your wife, moaned like a whore when they ravaged her again, and again, and again.” The taunt is totally unforgiveable and despicable. It makes the viewer hate Commodus even more and really want to see Maximus get his revenge immediately. Nevertheless, Maximus maintains his composure and promises “The time for honoring yourself will soon be at an end.” It is another triumphant and badass moment for him in the movie. As anyone can see, Maximus is a major threat to the rule of Commodus. Senator Falco sums it up when he advises that “He is defying you. His every victory is an act of defiance. The mob sees this, and so do the Senate. Every day he lives, they grow bolder. Kill him.”
I would have been very satisfied and entertained if Maximus reached his army, marched it on Rome, won an epic battle, and slayed Commodus. I was definitely rooting for this outcome when I first watched the movie. However, the Ridley Scott’s ending definitely provides a much better conclusion to his story. It is an epic and fitting conclusion to all the storylines and stays true to the name of the film, Gladiator. Another battle between two military forces is not a gladiator battle. Of course, it would have also exponentially increased the cost of the film. Accordingly, the military coup needs to fail before it begins. Innocently enough, it falls apart because of Lucilla’s son, Lucius. When he is playing with wooden swords with his uncle Commodus, he unknowingly compromises his mother by declaring he wants to be a gladiator and “Maximus the savior of Rome”. Naturally, he answers honestly that his mother said those words about Maximus. Obviously, Lucius is just a child and cannot be held responsible for blurting out what has been said to him. It is difficult to blame Lucilla too because she is a mother who needs to teach her son about right and wrong and who the good and evil people are in the world. Her actions are understandable and justifiable but the fallout becomes the undoing of the rebellion. Commodus is at his peak creepiness when he informs Lucilla that he knows she is plotting against him. He holds Lucius in his arms as he waits for Lucilla to return. Of course, she is petrified as she suspects her brother has uncovered her plot. When she sits, Commodus calmly tells the story of Emperor Claudius who was betrayed by those closest to him. Near the end, he completely snaps and shouts at Lucilla that she will tell him everything, love him, bear him an heir, and not be noble by taking her own life or he will take Lucius’s life. As a mother who loves her child, Lucilla has no choice but to yield to all the demands of the mad Emperor. Naturally, the thought of her bearing the child of her brother is unnaturally repulsive. Again, anyone can empathize with her impossible situation. Once Commodus has a list of conspirators, he begins his political purge. He orders the assassination of Senator Gaius in his sleep and the arrest of Senator Gracchus. Of course, he also commands his Praetorian Guard to rush to the gladiator barracks and apprehend Maximus before he can escape and reach his army. When the Guard demands that Proximo open the gates, he walks away and goes to release Maximus instead. Their final conversation is one of my favorite moments in the movie. At first, it appears that Proximo will give Maximus up as he says “I know that you are a man of your word, General. I know that you would die for honor. You would die for Rome. You would die for the memory of your ancestors. But I on the other hand, I am an entertainer.” His words emphasize the differences between the two characters. His actions demonstrate how they are similar when Proximo ultimately decides to do the right thing. Fittingly, Maximus notes “Proximo, are you in danger of becoming a good man?” Proximo and some gladiators, who engage the Guard, give their lives in an attempt to buy Maximus enough time to flee. Unfortunately, the Guard are positioned outside of the underground tunnels that Maximus uses to exit the barracks. Moreover, they hang his former squire, Cicero, who was supposed to rendezvous and direct Maximus to his army.
While I would have thoroughly enjoyed Maximus reaching his army and winning one last epic, large scale battle; the actual ending makes for a much better story and conclusion to the movie. When Commodus goes and talks to a chained up Maximus, he says the following words that sum up the end of the movie well: “The general who became a slave. The slave who became a gladiator. The gladiator who defied an emperor. Striking story! But now, the people want to know how the story ends. Only a famous death will do. And what could be more glorious than to challenge the Emperor himself in the great arena?” Again, Commodus needs to kill Maximus’s legend before he can kill the man. Consequently, defeating the General in front of all of Rome would accomplish the task. It is a brilliant answer to the developed storylines. On the other hand, Commodus knows he does not stand a chance in a fair fight against Maximus. For this reason, he stabs and severely wounds Maximus by stabbing him in the abdomen to gain a definitive advantage. For me, everything in the final scene is virtually flawless. The battle starts perfectly with rose petals falling on to the arena floor as the two rivals enter the stage. The visual image of the red petals really set the tone and atmosphere of death and finality. Of course, Maximus eventually defeats and kills Maximus despite the unfair advantage. However, the wound is a mortal one and his strength and health continues to wane as the fight progresses. Near the end of the battle, Quintus finally makes a stand for what is right when he tells his men to sheath their swords when the Emperor attempts to cheat again by having a sword thrown to him after Maximus disarms him. For Quintus, it is a small bit of redemption for turning on his friend and General. Before Quintus dies, he instructs Quintus to free his men, reinstate Gracchus, and make Rome a democracy again. Throughout his final words, he weaves in and out of life and death. As he slips into the afterlife, we see his wife and son in Elysium waiting for his arrival. It is a bittersweet end for Maximus as he dies but we know he is at peace and happy. In addition, Lucilla runs to Maximus as he collapses. She reassures him that Lucius is safe and encourages him to go to his family in Elysium. As a final example of her strength as a leader, she makes a stirring address to the witnesses in the arena “Is Rome worth one good man’s life? We believed it once. Make us believe it again. He was a soldier of Rome. Honor him.” In response, Gracchus leads the group of men who lift and carry Maximus’s body out of the arena. In my opinion, the finale is a perfect and epic conclusion to an amazing story. In one last nice touch, the final sequence in the movie features Juba standing alone in the Colosseum and buries the figurines of Maximus’s wife and son. Afterwards, he notes ““Now we are free. I will see you again. But not yet, not yet…”