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Savant Movie Preview Review and Essay:

So, Timmy, Do You Like Movies with Gladiators?

No Spoilers.
(I think)


REVISED with READER RESPONSES 5/13/00 - Good ones! See Bottom of page!

Gladiator, the hotly anticipated new Ridley Scott movie, is not bad at all, but is neither the dream-of-dreams Roman Epic Savant was hoping for, nor, really, a movie with much to say.

Like any Ridley Scott film, it looks beautiful and has a superb production design. To folk unfamiliar with gladiator pix of olde, it will be a fresh breeze of hip carnage and action. Unfortunately, it's the downside of Gladiator that gnaws on the Savant memory, after seeing it in preview under optimal conditions.

Have you seen Anthony Mann's 1964 The Fall of the Roman Empire? Then you've seen Gladiator. It's the exact same story, minus huge crowds (of real people), minus huge sets, and minus intelligent ideas about history. It's also lacking in star-power. The Fall of the Roman Empire had Sophia Loren, she of the looks to die for. Connie Nielsen, her counterpart here is adequate, but nothing to send one's soul a-yearning for hot times in Pompeii. Anthony Mann's frail Emperor was a stirring Alec Guiness, here impersonated by Richard Harris, who is no slouch, but never shows a personality that could haved ruled half the ancient world. Christopher Plummer was a terrific creep usurper as Commodus, a complicated madman convinced he's a God, even though he's just a bastard son. The new Commodus, Joaquin Phoenix, looks like a genuinely treacherous politician, but doesn't do much with a yawning stock part. The new Gladiator's saving grace is powerhouse actor Russell Crowe, a real star in the old mode who carries this awkward show on his back almost single-handed. The old Fall of the Roman Empire was no classic, and Stephen Boyd really let it down in the Crowe role. But its final good guy / bad guy confrontation at the end really works, instead of being the silly clash here in Gladiator.

Now before I spew out eleven paragraphs of Savant logic why the movie didn't do the deed for Glenn, let me tell you I bet you will LOVE Gladiator. The audience I saw it with was a bunch of jaded industry lizards who might give something like American Beauty polite applause, if they had a good power day. They loved Gladiator. It turned the cool crowd into the kind of audience I remember going nuts over Steve Reeves ("I've been tricked by the Gods!") as Hercules in 1961. What I am going to say that detracts from it is background thinking, the kind that keeps me from loving lots of popular films but I think helps to understand what's really going down. Gladiator will have no trouble at all overcoming the camp stigma of jokes from the movie Airplane!, which, being from 1980, might be itself be ancient history to a lot of Savant readers. But its age is also why the perspective of an old crank like Savant has value. (Let me also say right now that Gladiator begins with a battle scene that is simply marvelous ... exciting, visually killer-diller ... just a GREAT scene.)

Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus, from 1960, used the gladiator theme to put across a 50s liberal message about human dignity, civil rights and anti-blacklist fervor, and did it magnificently. It was of its time and it's no crime that Gladiator isn't a social document sprung from the minds of men who want to change society. Older gladiator romps, from the Cecil B. DeMille school of Christian sex, violence and decadence include Sign of the Cross, The Last Days of Pompeii, The Robe, Demetrius and the Gladiators, and 200 exploitative Italian pix. They also can be moving, if you buy the Big DeMille Lie that all the sex & sadism is somehow uplifted by the cheap Sunday school God-talk. (see the 1932 Sign of the Cross sometime - its pre- Hays code nudity and twisted sex tortures are still pretty hot).

The first movie to really get into what being a Gladiator might have been like, that pays off with the kind of thrills you are going to love in Gladiator is the '54 CinemaScope romp Demetrius and the Gladiators. In it Victor Mature renounces his faith long enough to get nasty in the arena, where there are some truly ahead-of-their-time action scenes, predating the martial-arts genre. Vic baby goes one-on-one with a number of combatants, including some tigers. Then he takes on a phalanx of helmeted, greased sword n' sandal killers all in one go, and kills them all. The lasting impression of Demetrius is how cool the morally dislocated slaughter is; the religous content of the movie is a joke.

Spartacus we pretty much covered before. What Gladiator has that Fall of the Roman Empire does not, is gladiators ... a small detail I neglected to mention. The film that most resembles the gladiator aspect of Gladiator is Richard Fleischer's Barabbas, one of the best of the early 60s religo-spectacle hybrids, and one of the least successful, financially. This was probably because its hefty religous content actually had a basis beyond justifying the arena slaughter. In Barabbas, the Coliseum scenes are a magnificent recreation of the full-sized three-ring circus at its height, with animals, trap doors, scenery, elaborate stageplays with real victims, even boat battles on artificial oceans. There's even Jack Palance as a celebrated gladiator SuperStar who slaughters dozens in Saturday matinee performances, with the combat rigged in his favor. The true, awful, but fascinating spectacle that was the gladiator circus is best seen, Savant thinks, in Barabbas. Natch, it ain't on DVD, but shows in a great letterbox copy on TCM from time to time; it's a must-see.

How does all this inform Gladiator, and what's Gladiator missing? Well, first of all, the new film is basically a Jean-Claude Van Damme / Chuck Norris movie, at least in form. Russell Crowe's General Maximus character is given a dirty deal by the corrupt baddies, loses all (They killed his wife! They raped his children! They fricaseed his puppy!) and vows vengeance. He gets it. You know that Russell Crowe is a star because he carries this paper-thin cliche and makes it work terrifically, at least on the intimate character level. Crowe's thug cop from L.A. Confidential is great acting, and Crowe makes sweaty thuggery look good here too. In that sense he's got some of the charisma we associate with legends like Sean Connery.

Gladiator really has no epic dimension if you take away the computer effects ( I know, this is a tiresome Savant hobby horse issue). The staggering thing about movies like Fall of the Roman Empire, Zulu Dawn, The Alamo, is the scale of the production, and frankly, computers have ruined all that for Savant, who refuses to get excited about animated cartoon visuals that can all look perfectly exposed and have 50,000 extras moving perfectly while the camera does impossible moves through clouds and across endless Roman terraces full of pixel-people. I openly admit I believed hokey matte shots long ago. I don't believe anything I see anymore unless the story is so compelling that I forget I'm watching a movie. In Gladiator I felt like I was supposed to admire the computer art. It looked like a moving Dinotopia watercolor painting, with perfect clouds of fake birds, and unnaturally waving flags atop the Coliseum. The tigers in the arena are very obviously inserted frame-by-frame, the result being that you never get the feeling that Russell Crowe or even his stuntman was ever really near a tiger, or even in a real arena with a real crowd watching. Savant's seen the electric atmosphere on a film set, with a thousand extras reacting to the lead performance - there's an actual excitement that translates to the screen that you don't get with digital compositing tricks.

The best visual is the North African tank-town arena, built next to the same (forced-perspective) hillside adobe 'city' seen in Sodom and Gomorrah and The Man Who Would be King, among others. It is at least partially real. It looks like something. You're all quite right, is IS time to get off this hobby horse.

All the Roman intrigue is thin window-dressing, fifth-rate Spartacus senate vs. despot stuff that even the actors don't seem to believe. We really see very few speaking roles around the Emperor, and even though the CG vastness of the crowd scenes is BIG looking, the scale of the drama stays pretty small. Only Episode 1: The Phantom Menace looks less substantial (Gladiator is much better in all categories).

There's only the pretense of a script. The howler dialog, with the Emperor whining "This vexes me. I'm very vexed!" is pretty lame, and well-acted characters, like a wonderfully vibrant Oliver Reed (often a lummox) still pay off in cliches.

When I said that Russell Crowe is doing a Jean-Claude Van Damme part, I meant it. Not only is Gladiator missing even the cheesy-churchy pretexts of its genre predecessors, it doesn't have zilch to say about being a Gladiator, not really. I suppose it is liberated from the curse of having to have a Christian apology ready for every exploitative thrill, but it doesn't replace it with anything except personal vengeance. Gladiator is truly an exploition sword 'n sandal flick uplifted by Ridley Scott, just as he lifted It! The Terror from Beyond Space to the heights of legitimacy in Alien, twenty years ago.

Now, to the action. About it, Savant's gripes are of an entirely different nature. Gladiator is a savvy commercial item (what exploitation film isn't?) There is more slaughter in this thing than in any film of the 90s. Savant believes that the digital / editorial manipulation (a la Saving Private Ryan) of many of the key action scenes, while fooling the audience into thinking they're seeing style, is really a commercial dodge to get an MPAA "R" rating. As many heads and arms roll here as in the slice-'n-dice Sword of Vengeance-Baby Cart samurai films from Japan - you know, the kind of movies that can't even get a US release anymore. (The MPAA has effectively killed off the horror film too, folks).

The action scenes are splintered into stop-frame, flash-frame, split-frame, pixilated, animated fragments that suggest gore where there is none. There are about 20 severed heads and bloody wounds in fairly plain sight, but the other 200 eviserations in Gladiator are all either in shadow, or take place a few inches offscreen. All are largely devoid of blood - all sanitized for the MPAA. In a big studio movie, heads popping off is perfectly kopsetic to our cultural watchdogs (anybody say censors?) -that is, when the head is a helmeted pig-sculpture, or bloodless, to wit Sleepy Hollow ... get the idea?

Worse, the most exciting action scene, the reenactment of the Carthage campaign, is simply indecipherable. The setup is terrific, but then the action dissolves into incoherent tight shots of unclear movement and mayhem, without blood, without a feeling you're even seeing an organized sequence of shots. Chariots circle defenders, but there's no sense of spatial relationships. The arena isn't very big, really, but most of what you see are fleeting glimpses of details - charioteers, a single gladiator throwing a spear. The chariots crash into masonry or overturn in horrendous pileups, with horses and men smashe into mincemeat. The gladiators overcome them, without our understanding the connection between any two shots in a row. (okay, that's a little exaggerated) How are the defenders doing this? At the end of this key sequence, I thought I had just seen the trailer for the greatest action scene ever filmed. It was like the ABC network version of The Wild Bunch, or the TV cut of Taxi Driver, both of which turned bloody finales into dreamlike processions of disconnected shots about nothing at all. On the other hand, think of a striptease act where nothing comes off but you thought something did. Does this indicate a talented stripper, or, in the case of Gladiator, is it just Violentus Interruptus?

Finally, Russell Crowe's character (not Crowe or his performance) is the same old bogus macho vengeance hero with a thin veneer of 'justification.' In this case it's 'The World Robbed Me, So I'd Just As Soon Chop Up Hundreds Than Spit.' Crowe's Ace gladiator is a killing machine whose lethal skill is an admirable end unto itself - and the only 'real' value in the movie. The moral sphere of Gladiator functions at about two notches above Road Rage. A cockroach would understand it. It's a dishonest formula, no better than the old DeMille fraud. All the 'sensitive scenes' don't disguise the fact that Crowe's character gets off on killing, and we in the audience do too. We as an audience don't care about values or philosophies of living any more. Just deliver the thrills, dude. All ya gotta do is set it up so I (the audience) am not implicated. I'm a voyeur, and demand the insulation of denial. No, I Am Not What I Want To Look At.

Nobody seems to have gotten the ending of Robert Redford's Quiz Show, where the 1959 gameshow audience laughs directly at the modern movie audience, for not even caring that they are being made the patsies of a corrupt entertainment machine. Nowadays, a rigged quiz show wouldn't outrage anyone. Savant can't help feeling a tug of the same feeling here. There's an entirely undeveloped parallel in Gladiator, to modern entertainment being the tool by which modern tyrants keep the mob docile by amusing them. News about movie stars and boxoffice receipts and sports legends and sports scandals are much more important to civilization, than issues crucial to survival or central to our spiritual lives. News about the real world has to be turned into Entertainment before anyone will pay attention - vide little Elian in Miami, at the present moment. Savant 'got off' on the cheap thrills of Gladiator just as much as the next guy.

So there's the anal, stodgy, killjoy, finger-wagging lecture from Savant. Ya know what? While I was thinking all this rot, I was saying to myself, 'People are going to Love this movie.' So go have a great time. Compared to Titanic, Gladiator IS a classic!

READER RESPONSES 5/13/00: Savant worried about this article, you know, saying negative things about a movie that is obviously going to be so popular. I was spared the fury of peplum fans by my open declaration that Gladiator is basically a good movie ... yes, with 1,000 minor reservations. Most of the mail, in fact, were amplifications of Savant's 'hobby horse' issue - the conversion of movies into showcases for computer animation. The level of writing in these responses is also of a really high caliber, I think you will agree. While there were no vehement condemnations, I can't chalk that up to anything more than politeness ... Savant is grateful he's not inundated with acid mail. Next time maybe I'll tell you what I really think! .... one more thing: how come nobody caught the infantile joke in my URL for this page?

5/4/00 Please, please, please stay on that hobby horse! I agree with you 100%. I think this issue goes beyond the surreal or just plain unreal look of some of these digitally composed scenes. It's simply impossible to generate any real emotion when you watch a massive battle scene with the realization that there isn't one living, breathing human being in the bunch (The Phantom Menace, for example). The spectacle becomes more like a video game than a movie -- and not a very satisfying video game at that since you have no control over the outcome.

I think the acting also suffers in the digital realm. Certainly actors are required to perform under all sorts of odd conditions (it can't be easy acting a scene to a camera rather than the character you're supposed to be talking to). However, the best performances tend to come when there's a real emotion involved -- there's a distinct difference between an actress crying in her scene and that actress acting like she's crying. The same can be said for these massive digital compositions. Is it really possible to create the electricity of a performer (or gladiator in this case) reacting to thousands of screaming spectators when in reality there are only a handful (or possibly none at all)?

This is why I can admire a movie like Braveheart. If absolutely nothing else, you have to appreciate the timing and choreography it took to get hundreds of extras to engage in a battle and make it look like arms and legs are being hacked off -- without actually hacking them off. Despite the choreography, there's the human element that will always add variation. This is impossible in the digital realm, where everything is as dictated as the repetitive actions of a motion control model shot. You can see genuine fear in the warriors in Braveheart. They know it's all planned out, but they don't know if their opponent is going to slip on the grass and accidentally skewer them. It creates a visceral experience that makes it seem more real even if we know it isn't. It's dirty, it's chaotic and you get the feeling that when the scenes were over, someone had to yell "cut" quite a lot to get everyone to stop. Perhaps battles really didn't look like that, but we can believe they might have. The same can't be said for the sterilized fluff that takes place in a movie like The Phantom Menace.

I haven't seen Gladiator yet, but based on your preview, I'd bet it falls into a category I like to call Chinese Food Cinema. Just as when you eat Chinese food you're hungry again in two hours, when you sit down for a movie in this category, you're hungry for a "real" movie in about two hours. In other words, it's nice to look at (perhaps even worthy of technical appreciation), but no real substance.

It's worth pointing out that I love special effects -- I'm a junkie for the stuff. Having said that, I still prefer a good story over good eye candy. Right now digital effects are (relatively) cheap and they are hot and we all know what sort of reaction that will get with movie producers.

Anyway, I just thought I'd drop you a line with my two cents. - Robert Wurth

Thank you for your superb review of Gladiator. Rarely, in the mass media, is one treated to film criticism exhibiting the intelligence and depth shown in your articles. (huh?) Although depressing, I find it hard to disagree with your conclusions about the vacuous, sorry state of today's major film spectacles. Focusing on your apathy for digital effects, as you know, as recent as ten years ago, a big movie required big stunts, big sets and, usually, dozens of extras (remember the truly mindblowing in-camera stunts performed before the digital age -- I'm thinking of the car jump with the 360 twist in The Man With the Golden Gun, during which there was actually a subtitle confirming that the stunt was real). Today, with movie budgets spent on digital recreations, movies are actually getting smaller, fewer actors, smaller and fewer sets and no more "gee whiz, how'd they do that?" magic. One can only hope that the cycle will reverse itself and that audiences will demand a return to the in-camera magic of the past. And, based on the films of one director, there may be more than hope. James Cameron, one of the driving forces behind the new technology, unlike many of his colleagues, realizes the limitations of digital trickery --- (a) on the Abyss, he created the massive underwater sets and equipment necessary to turn a somewhat silly story into the preeminent underwater epic; (b) in Terminator 2, although initialy wowed by the CGI Terminator effects, what lasts is the terific stunt and in-camera effects work; and (c) in both True Lies and Titanic, Cameron was careful to use CGI only as absolutely necessary, hence the oustanding Florida Keys, car/Harrier stunt work, all of which was real-for-real, and, of course the nearly full scale Titanic set with hundreds of extras. Say what you will about the King of the World, he knows how to make a truly big movie. George Lucas take note.

As for the majority of so called Hollywood "spectaculars," that damn pseudopod in The Abyss is to blame! Regards - Chris Dewees

5/6 Glenn: Holy Christmas! Did you take you curmudgeon pill today, or what? Still, an entertaining review. I wasn't even planning on seeing this one 'til I read it. - Dan Sheehan

5/9 Normally I avoid reading reviews of movies I know I want to see, but I couldn't resist sampling your "preview" essay on Gladiator.

I saw Fall of the Roman Empire about four times when it came out (and most recently on laserdisc), and I have a few problems with that movie, mostly having to do with ludicrous historical inaccuracy. I have a degree in history, so you can imagine some of the things I look at in a sword-and-sandal epic. (Believe it or not, The 300 Spartans is pretty accurate.) (But just try and watch it sometime - yikes. GE)

It's interesting that both Fall and Gladiator apparently feel it necessary to overlook the fact that Marcus Aurelius groomed his son for the throne, ignoring all the evidence of Commodus's weak, dissolute character. I suppose it makes a better story to have Marcus assassinated by his son. But there's no reason to believe that. Marcus was the tail end of the golden period of the Empire, and by breaking with the tradition that had been established, of appointing an adoptive heir rather than keeping the principate in the family, he opened the door to chaos.

I should spare you the history lesson anyway, as there's a good possibility you know the basic events of Roman politics already. (only when I ask my history-expert sons for the facts - GE)

I did see Gladiator this weekend. Based on your essay, I had fairly low expectations; however, I was still disappointed. Bottom line: the film was kind of boring. Maybe I was just tired; I had a late night and actually dozed for a few minutes. The first half hour was the best and most involving; after that it was a little too predictable to be compelling.

I did yearn for Christopher Plummer's interpretation of Commodus, which not only was much slimier, but also gave you some idea of why the populace might be willing to dump this guy. In Gladiator, all we see is that Commodus spends a lot of money on games and they're running out of gladiators. Otherwise, he whines a lot about how his father didn't love him - this father/son trauma is a staple of American fiction that is really overdone, and it isn't particularly effective here. It's also annoying to those of us familiar with the real story, that Marcus loved his son so much that he ignored his "rude and brutish mind" and appointed him to share the throne, even though this was against the procedure that had been established a hundred years earlier.

It's also a stretch when Commodus refuses to kill Maximus outright, saying "I won't make a martyr of him." The real Commodus wouldn't have thought twice about that. Push him off a cliff, and who's the wiser? It reminds me somewhat of the infinite opportunities villains have had to simply shoot James Bond in the head; but no, they have to concoct some wildly elaborate scheme and then leave so Bond can extricate himself.

Yes, Gladiator was a great-looking movie. I've been in the Colosseum and it does seem smaller than that, but it's hard to tell because it's in ruins. The crowd looked a little too well-dressed, though.

And what is it with Hollywood wanting to revive the Gracchi brothers? They died before the time of Julius Caesar, and yet we have a Gracchus (Charles Laughton) in Spartacus, and a Gracchus (Derek Jacobi) in Gladiator. At least these were both superb performances.

The idea of restoring the republic is a little ridiculous at this point in time. The Republic fell because it didn't work, and people were fed up after more than 100 years of virtually continous civil war. And I said I was going to spare you the history lecture... Regards - Marc

5/13/00 Hi there! I had the chance to go see Gladiator tonight and there were several things that struck me about the film. First of all, I thought the directing and editing of the battles and fight scenes were a mess. The constant switching of normal and high speed film, combined with quick camera jerks and fast cuts made what could have been an interesting battle unwatchable. I can understand wanting to make things look chaotic, but again I'm reminded of Braveheart -- a film where even larger battles take place and everything is just as confusing, but it's WATCHABLE. The fight scenes in Gladiator were kind of like a home movie, where all the interesting action is happening three inches out of frame, but the person operating the camera isn't quite skilled enough to capture it.

I was also disturbed by what seemed to be a drastic inconsistency in the art direction. One minute everything in Rome is white, grainy and washed out. The next minute everything has a brown haze. I kept thinking of movies that use stock footage (like of an airplane landing) that doesn't quite match the look of the rest of the film -- some of the scenes just didn't look like they fit with the rest.

Although I really like Ridley Scott, I'm not sure he was the right man for this film. I hate to say it (when there are so many films out there with boring direction), but I think they really needed someone less artistic and more straightforward for this sort of movie -- either that or Scott needed to direct the action with the same skill he gave the dramatic scenes. I think I could have forgiven the sometimes shabby digital effects if only the editing, art direction and directing had been a little more coherent and consistent. The story and idea of the film didn't disappoint me...the look of it did. - Robert

5/11/00 Last night I saw Gladiator; this morning, I read your review. What can I say but you were quite right in your disappointment with the picture.

Gladiator suffers from that age-old Hollywood malady of "Scriptus Indifferus," which firmly ranks the screenplay�s importance far below the attached star names and SFX, and plops it in between "Who's doing craft service?" and "What kinda gaffer's tape are we using?"

Sure it has its moments, albeit briefly, but overall there is little more than 30 minutes of plot; shallow characterization (e.g., Marcus Aurelius is a saint; Maximus is a loyal husband; etc etc.); and there just isn't enough violence! While that last statement may send some histrionic PTA moms across our nation into a veritable tizzy, it doesn't change the fact that this movie is about gladiators fighting to the bloody death. Gladiator's reluctance to firmly embrace its source material, by the insertion of those blurry, confusing battle scenes ripped straight from MTV, only reveals the producers love of money more than film. After all, they dare not "shock" any fragile minds, with pocketfuls of greenbacks, out there. (I also smell the stink of interference here, from that unquestionable higher power: the dreaded MPAA and its NC-17 kiss of death.)

Now I'm not one of those pedantic film scribes who have locked themselves away in some ivory celluloid tower, and believe that any film that isn't black and white, and doesn't originally hail from Sweden, isn't worth a tarnished nickel. I know these guys are in it for the Ben Franklins, but I will never understand their erroneous assumption that they can make a movie to attract every demographic out there. It's a violent movie for the guys, but it isn't too violent for the ladies; he's a rough and tough general more than ready to kill over and over again, but he's also a sweetheart who just wants to return to his family and plant wheat. ??? (reminds me of Chaplin's 'Killer with a Heart' in A King in New York - GE)

Is it some closely guarded secret that it's impossible to please all of the people all of the time? How can you make a chocolate cake that will attract both chocolate lovers, and those who despise chocolate, with an equal amount of allure? Answer: YOU CAN'T! The hamfisted manner in which those Hallmark card inspired shots of Maximus' family happily gazing upon the flowing fields (and apparently doing nothing but this every waking moment) are hardly the epitome of subtlety. They do a disservice to the film by simply trying to include every possible story element�and subsequently attract every possible audience member out there.

If it's a war movie, I want to see war; if it's a horror film, I want horror, gosh darn it! This isn�t storytelling, it's accountants doing bean counting. They should just cut their alleged losses and make genre films that will greatly appeal to their particular fans. A war film for people who hate war films just ain't none too bright.

So in short, kind sir, you were quite correct to assert your disappointment with Gladiator, and I just wanted to let you know that it's okay to say so. You seemed to exhibit some reluctance, musing "well, I didn't think it was all that hot, but you'll love it!" Despite the chilling effect a few wordsmith zealots like to spread, you should never feel afraid to state your opinion on such matters. Like every good critic, you didn't simply state "I thought it rocked/sucked," and leave it at that. You backed up your reasoning with examples from the film. And if some people don't agree, hey that's their opinion, right? Let them do their own column. Just a friendly few words o' advice! Faithful reader, - Eric Massey PS: You're also right about the overuse of CGI in modern movies. What will look great in a next-generation video game, just comes across in film as ... well, a next-generation video game. Still, hope springs eternal for the higher-processor future.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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