Gladiator is a flawed film.
It's also a film that I like a great deal, and one that I like more
after having seen it several times. What's interesting about
Gladiator is that it's almost exactly right. It
stumbles, but only after reaching ambitiously high and succeeding at
just about everything it tries.
Scott's Gladiator is really three films wrapped up in
one, each with a distinct flavor. The first, made up of about the
first half of the running time, is absolutely brilliant, telling the
tale of Maximus' glory, fall, and subsequent rise as a gladiator. The
film opens with a real punch, giving us an exciting battle of the
Romans against the Germanic tribesmen while at the same time
introducing us to Maximus, the general who is Emperor Marcus
Aurelius' dependable right hand. The pacing is handled beautifully,
so that stroke by stroke the big picture is revealed: the dying
Caesar, his ambitious son Commodus, the uneasy relationship between
the royal family and the Senators, some of whom wish to restore the
Republic. The tension surrounding Maximus and his loyalty to the
throne is underscored in several scenes, and is solidly based in the
historical realities of the time: the men who commanded Rome's
legions could, and often did, lead those legions in attempts to take
the throne. This is a dark and complex world that we're thrown into,
and we immediately begin to admire Maximus, who does his duty to the
best of his ability while genuinely lacking any ambitions except for
Maximus' rebirth as a gladiator is
the highlight of the story; to start with, Russell Crowe gives us an
excellent performance as a man who's broken down and then rebuilt in
a different mold. But everything about this part of the film is
beautifully done, from the gritty realism of the gladiatorial school,
to the touch of bitter irony in the gladiators catering to the
crowd's thirst for blood, to the build-up as the story takes us all
the way to Rome and the Colosseum.
It's about this time, halfway
through the film, that Gladiator shifts into its second style,
which will take almost all the rest of the film except for the last
twenty minutes or so. From a story of one man's struggle, the story
shifts to a larger canvas of deceit, corruption, and madness in Rome.
It's a distinct change of pace after the first section of the film,
which is, I think, why I didn't like it as much the first time I saw
it, but in fact this part of the story is well done and quite
compelling. It doesn't have the power of the opening section, but
then, middles are always difficult to handle: the story of a hero's
origin is almost always more compelling than the rest of the story.
(One clever bit of casting that shows up here is Derek Jacobi as
Senator Gracchus; Jacobi is an excellent actor above all, but it also
provides an allusion to the classic I, Claudius in which
Jacobi played Emperor Claudius – underscored by the fact that
Commodus tells young Lucius a story about Claudius in one scene in
One of the things that I like about
this second half of the film is its historical accuracy. Not in
everything, mind you; the filmmakers have chosen (unfortunately, I
think) to go for a slightly modern touch in some aspects of the film,
such as Lucilla's costumes. But overall, the degree of accuracy is
impressive. We see it first in the look and feel of Rome, especially
the Colosseum, which represents the latest archaeological
understanding of how it really looked and operated. The story itself
is also true to history, with some acceptable liberties taken for the
film: Commodus really was a dangerous madman, and he really was in
the habit of fighting in the gladiatorial arena.
In the center of the story, we also
get some of the most impressive action set-pieces of the film, such
as the re-enactment in the Colosseum of the battle of Carthage. It's
an example of a battle sequence done right: the lengthy scene is very
exciting in its own right, but at the same time, it also serves to
develop the story on several different fronts, giving it a real
reason to be in the film.
Then we get to the third part, which
fills the last twenty minutes or so of the film. Here Gladiator
takes an abrupt turn: from its course as a gritty, sometimes bleak
epic punctuated by moments of glory, it suddenly turns into a
Hollywood cliche-fest. A touch of romance is shoehorned in and feels
out of place, and the ending is pure eye-rolling cheesiness. Not the
climactic battle, mind you, but the somewhat overdone lead-in to it,
and above all, the dramatic speech-making at the end, complete with
an assembled audience of characters who really have no particular
reason to be in the scene. It's here that Gladiator's
seriousness tips over into absurdity, and it's this ending that holds
the film back from being a truly spectacular piece.
It's interesting to note, though,
that the weak ending of Gladiator doesn't hamper the film
nearly as much as I'd expect it to. Some movies are completely
spoiled by a bad ending; Gladiator manages to stand squarely
on its genuine merits despite the blow at the end. I think that's one
of the things that makes it rewatchable; you can appreciate the
majority of the film, and just roll your eyes at the Hollywood
Repeat viewing also brings out
unexpected depths in the film. One of the things that struck me on
this viewing of Gladiator, in 2005, is just how well it works
as a political commentary... entirely, I suspect, without intending
to be anything of the sort. Gladiator depicts the Roman Empire
at the height of its strength; it was the superpower of its day,
either directly controlling or politically influencing a vast part of
the known world. The Romans were the high technologists of their day,
and the Roman army was considered invincible, again by virtue of its
grasp of high-tech warfare: their regimented troops with the latest
in war machines were considered to be far superior to the
disorganized, low-tech "barbarians" whose lands the Romans
conquered. And so they were... for a while.
So even in the historical setting,
there are plenty of parallels to draw between the Roman Empire and
the current-day United States; the particular events of Gladiator
make the connection even more interesting. The Roman Emperor, Marcus
Aurelius, feels compelled to wage war to conquer the Germanic
tribes... why? For the glory of Rome, of course. And what is the
glory of Rome? An idea, nothing more; Marcus Aurelius hints to
Maximus that this idea of Rome may be nothing but a dangerous
illusion, but Maximus rejects the thought, since he can't bear to
consider that the deaths of his men in the Germanic wars were for
nothing. (See any connection?) This ambivalence about the glorious
(?) identity of Rome lies quiet through much of the film after this
point, until it starts to rise again with Commodus' handling of the
Roman people. Rome, we learn, is the mob; and the mob is happy if it
has its bread and circuses, even if those circuses are bought at the
price of future security (something that's made clearer in the
extended cut of the film). Commodus can take away their freedom bit
by bit, and brutally squash any dissidents, but as long as the mob is
in love with him as a charismatic leader, his reign of terror can
grow more and more complete without complaint.
I don't think that Ridley Scott
meant his film to be socially critical, but I think that Gladiator
does have an interesting, if perhaps unintended, critical layer
beneath the epic. One of the reasons that the Roman Empire is so
fascinating is that in many ways it's so similar to our own society,
in both cultural and psychological terms; knowing that soon after the
time of Marcus Aurelius all the glory of Rome and its civilization
would collapse and usher in a long era of cultural darkness, it's
hard to avoid considering the possible parallels to our own
The Extended Edition
What does the Extended Edition have
to offer over the theatrical version? First of all, I think it's
interesting to note that in his introduction to the Extended Edition,
director Ridley Scott explicitly tells the viewer that this is not
the "director's cut": that in fact the theatrical version
is the director's cut. The Extended Edition, then, doesn't
represent his ideal film; it's simply an edition that includes a
number of previously deleted scenes.
In terms of added running time, the
added material is not particularly extensive, running a total of
about 17 minutes. It's split up into a number of different scenes,
most of them fairly short; some of these scenes are extensions of
existing ones, while others are completely new. For instance, we get
a scene with Maximus touring the camp hospital after the first
battle; a meeting with Lucilla and Gracchus discussing Commodus'
madness; Commodus presiding over an execution; and others. A list of
the additional scenes can be accessed through the Supplements menu on
the Theatrical Edition: a "deleted scene index" provides
a capsule description of each scene, and selecting it will
play the new scene. About two-thirds of the new scenes were presented
in the deleted scenes section of the earlier edition of this film:
"Battle Aftermath," "Looking for Strength," "Dye
Market," "Meeting at Gracchus' House," "Father
and Son," "The Execution," "Spies Close In,"
"Another Enemy," and "Fighting with Fire."
Four completely new scenes are also
included in the Extended Edition: "The Scribe," in which a
hapless new gladiator recruit gets some advice; "Stage
Directions," in which Maximus is advised to entertain the crowd;
"Grain Reserves," providing a new insight into Commodus'
madness; and "Quintus Obeys," adding a bit more substance
to a scene near the end of the film. In addition, there's at least
one very short unmentioned additional shot worked into the Extended
Edition; I noticed a brief glimpse of Proximo's giraffes.
The effect of the additional
material on the film is subtle but positive. I felt that the
characters gained in depth from the new material, with both Maximus
and Commodus becoming slightly more well-rounded as characters in
this cut of the film. I also found the situation in Rome to be more
clearly explained, so it makes more sense why the senators would be
conspiring to depose Commodus. It may not be the "director's
cut," but all in all I'd say that the extended version is
slightly better than the theatrical cut.
The Extended Edition is a three-disc
set, packaged in an attractive cardboard gatefold case, inside a
glossy paperboard slipcase. Both the Theatrical Edition and the
Extended Edition are included on the first disc; the second disc
contains the documentary, and the third disc contains the rest of the
supplemental material. A small photo booklet is also included inside
The menus are nicely designed –
taken right from the earlier Signature Series menu design, in fact.
They're elegant and easy to use. All the animated introductions,
credits, and warnings are skippable, which is always a nice touch.
The question on everyone's lips –
or at least on mine, when I got the Extended Edition to review –
is this: how is the transfer different from the earlier Signature
Selection release? (Note: when I refer to the Extended transfer, I'm
referring to both the theatrical and extended versions on the new
set. Both have been given the same new transfer.) As with the earlier
edition, both films are presented in anamorphic widescreen at the
original aspect ratio of 2.35:1.
To start with, it's a completely
different transfer. The image quality is different, and I noticed in
a few shots that the framing is very slightly different. But what's
interesting, though, is that the comparison to the earlier transfer
is by no means as clear-cut as one would expect; note that I said the
image quality is "different," not "better."
Both transfers show some very slight
edge enhancement; both handle colors extremely well, so there's no
difference in how the color palette is presented in the two versions.
To a very small degree, there's more contrast in the Signature
transfer than in the Extended transfer, but
it's only apparent with a lot of scrutiny. Both are clean prints.
The bit rates are almost the same,
with the Extended having a slightly higher rate, at 8.7 Mbps versus the Signature transfer's 8.2 Mbps. In any case, both are in the "excellent"
Where the difference shows up is in
the sharpness of the image: the Signature edition looks sharper than the Extended edition.
The result is that the Signature edition consistently offers more,
and crisper, detail than the Extended transfer. In a frame-to-frame
comparison, the result is striking: the earlier Signature transfer
offers a richer, more visually interesting image than the new
Extended transfer. The Extended transfer is softer, looking almost a
little blurred in comparison to the Signature transfer.
That's not to say that the Extended
transfer looks bad – not at all. In fact, it's a visually very
appealing transfer, and it's certainly on the high end of DVD
transfers. But it's certainly not the improvement on the earlier
transfer that I'd have expected, and when it comes to the fine
details of the transfer, it falls short. After comparing a number of
different shots from different scenes (two of which I've included
here), I came to the conclusion that the Signature transfer wins out.
It's almost impossible to see any detail in these tiny screenshots, but here's one comparison between the two transfers. Here we see a frame from the earlier transfer:
And the same frame from the new Extended transfer. Note the difference in level of detail in Crowe's face and armor.
The difference is extremely noticeable in a larger image, although it's barely evident in this tiny shot.
The big news on this front is a
disappointment: there's no DTS track for the films on the Extended
Edition DVD. That's right: the awesome DTS 6.1 track from the
Signature Series release has been dropped, leaving the Dolby 5.1 as
the only English soundtrack. (The Dolby 2.0 has also been dropped.)
Inexplicably, a French Dolby 5.1 has been added.
The Dolby 5.1 soundtrack offers a
solid overall listening experience, though it's not up to par with
the DTS from the earlier edition. The surround is handled extremely
well, with extensive use of the side and rear channels to create a
dramatic sense of being in the middle of the action. With Gladiator's
spectacular battle set-pieces, the surround sound certainly adds to
the thrills. The music is also handled well, with a nice immersive
feel to it. However, the dialogue is not handled nearly as well; it
usually feels slightly muffled, and doesn't stand out as well as it
should against the background sound. In a comparison of the same
scene with the Dolby 5.1 and the DTS from the earlier edition, the
DTS definitely offers a crisper, cleaner presentation of the
dialogue, as well as providing extra depth and richness to the track
as a whole.
The Dolby 5.1 surround track gets
four stars on the strength of the surround experience, despite the
less than optimal handling of the dialogue. In a comparison with the
DTS on the Signature transfer, though, it loses out in a major way:
the Signature edition's DTS is hands-down superior to the 5.1 that's
sadly the only option here.
For the Extended Edition, we get a
whole slate of new special features, starting with a new commentary
track on Disc 1. Here we get Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe
discussing the film. The two reminisce about their experiences making
the film, and we get some interesting tidbits of information. There's
no discussion of the added scenes. Overall, it's not very
information-dense, and I think that only real commentary enthusiasts
will listen to the whole thing. The commentary track is only
available for the Extended version of the film.
There's also a "historical and
production trivia track" that plays in the form of subtitles.
This can be played at the same time as the audio commentary, making a
nice combination. The bits of information are, as you might expect,
trivia, but moderately interesting just the same. This track is
available for both the Extended and Theatrical versions.
Ridley Scott also provides a brief
video introduction to the Extended Edition, which plays automatically
when you select that version.
The documentary, which clocks in at
a substantial three hours and 15 minutes, fills up all of Disc 2.
This is an entirely new documentary, titled "Strength and Honor:
Creating the World of Gladiator." Seven different
sections are included, covering all aspects of the production;
viewers can choose a "play all" option, or select the
sections individually. The material covered includes story
development, weapons, costume design, production journals, the
character of Proximo, visual effects, and release and impact. The
documentary is very nicely done, drawing in many different people who
were involved in the making of the film; it's very much a real
documentary rather than a promotional piece.
The balance of
the special features are included on the third disc. There's some
material of interest here, though nothing to compare to the
In the "Image
and Design" section, there are several short featurettes.
"Production Design Primer: Arthur Max" runs nine minutes,
and gives an overview of the production design process; there's also
a gallery of production design sketches. Several storyboard features
are included as well. Storyboard artist Sylvain Despretz gives a
14-minute storyboarding demo; three scenes are also presented with
multi-angle comparisons and optional commentaries from Despretz. Ten
storyboarded scenes are also included in the storyboard archive.
Lastly in this
section, there's a set of six costume design galleries, and three
sets of photo galleries from the three main locations of the film.
"Supplemental Archive" collects the rest of the special
features. Four scenes are included in the "Abandoned sequences
and deleted scenes" section. These are very incomplete,
naturally enough (all the polished deleted scenes made it back into
the film, after all). It opens with a seven-minute featurette on an
alternate title sequence that was designed for the film, followed by
the alternate title sequence itself. The "Blood Vision"
scene is a mix of storyboards and outtakes, and has an optional
commentary from Ridley Scott. "Rhino Fight" is a sequence
that was planned but never filmed; we see storyboards and a CGI rhino
test. It has an optional commentary with Sylvain Despretz (which is
recommended; all these scenes are much more interesting with the
commentary on). Lastly, one short deleted filmed scene, "Choose
Your Weapon," is also included.
featurette, called "VFX Explorations: Germania and Rome,"
runs 23 minutes, is included here, along with a set of trailers and
TV spots for the film.
It's a tough call to give a
recommendation for this DVD. As far as the film itself goes, I liked
the extended cut slightly more than the theatrical cut, as the
additional footage works well and gives a bit more depth and context
to the story. But I have to consider the whole package here, and the
truth is that the Extended Edition falls short of the earlier
Signature Series edition for both video and sound quality. The
difference in the video quality is very subtle, but it's still
disappointing that the new transfer isn't quite as good as the one on
its predecessor. The lack of the DTS track is the real deal-killer in
my book. For a film with such a great soundtrack and such epic battle
scenes, the DTS really makes a big difference in the overall
experience. The Extended Edition's 5.1 track is very good, but it's
hard to accept a step down in audio quality for a new edition.
Gladiator is a great film to
own, and as the star ratings show, this is a solid presentation...
but the earlier Signature Series edition offers a better
presentation (and has plenty of special features, too). The Extended
Edition is worth watching once, to see how the film plays with the
additional footage, and it also has the excellent documentary on Disc
II, which is certainly worth seeing. Get the Signature Series edition
for your collection, and rent this one to check out the new material.