With Covid-19 lingering much longer than any of us can bear thus inadvertently testing the edges of our increasingly frazzled life-force resolve; I thought writing about a movie that epitomizes a supreme sovereign warrior spirit would be refreshingly welcomed. What better pick than the epic yet macabre battle-to-the-death blockbuster Gladiator! Also, since its creators are now taking a second stab at box office gold with plans to release a sequel sometime next year, denoting the poignant life lessons behind this conquering titan of a film seemed like a noble quest. Originally released May 5th 2000 Gladiator marched away with 11 Oscar nominations, 5 wins including Best Picture and Best Male Actor Award for chiseled strongman Russell Crowe who fabulously played ironclad sword wielding Maximus Decimus Meridius a Roman General – turned slave – turned heroic gladiator – turned rescuer of Rome. The upcoming sequel simply entitled Gladiator 2, plans to pick up the plot 20+ years on focusing primarily on then would-be child Roman Emperor Lucius (played by Spencer Treat Clark) now all grown up. It will be interesting to see who they cast and if this follow-up film will be able to mêlée its way to similar victory. A likely prospect given that so many legendary storylines have been somewhat successfully revisited in recent years (e.g. Alien, Bladerunner…). Who knows, perhaps Russell Crowe might even turn up in a momentous cameo role. We’ll know in time – ‘but not yet, not yet’. Returning to the initial installment let’s summarize the plot before evaluating the invaluable take-away message this timeless modern classic imparts on viewers.
To recap, the story opens with Russell Crowe’s righteous character loyal general Maximus bravely battling against the barbarians in Germania shoulder-to-shoulder alongside his men in service to Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (played by the late Richard Harris). Once victory is achieved patriot Maximus, who has been at war for several years, requests in gratitude for his service to return home to his beautiful loving wife, adoring son, and wispy shimmering wheat fields. However, ailing Emperor Aurelius has alternative plans for Maximus believing only he can end Rome’s corruption and successfully lead the Senate towards democracy therefore wishing to designate Maximus as the new head of state. However, doing so means outranking and overstepping his own cowardly incestuous depraved biological son Commodus (brilliantly played by Joaquin Phoenix), who undeservingly craves the throne, constantly drooling at the mere thought of the unfettered power it bestows. When Commodus gets wind of the plan he acts swiftly and unremorsefully snuffs out his own father. Then immediately condemns Maximus to death also ordering his family murdered. Maximus escapes his demise due to his commanding military skills but upon returning home his spirit is shattered at the sight of his slain family. In a state of exhaustion and despair he collapses yet wakes to find he has been picked up by slave-owners in Zucchabar (a Roman city that now is in Algeria). Once nursed back to health by follow slave Juba (terrifically played by Djimon Gaston Hounsou), Maximus’ long journey from commanding general, to slave, to gladiator takes shape. The excitement starts to build as a tormented Maximus beings to climb the gladiator ranks in foreign lands becoming a sensational marvel in no time with every defeat of his opponents; all done in an effort to win his freedom. Meanwhile miles away Commodus the new Roman Emperor continues to engineer the demise of the Senate in Rome while lusting after his sister Lucilla (played by Connie Nielse) a former lover of Maximus. The climax of the film comes when Commodus commissions gladiator contests in Rome to distract the masses from his exploitations; and as luck would have it Maximus’ endless wins have landed him in Rome’s famed Colosseum where he knows he must ‘win the crowd’ to be freed. As a mysterious masked good guy Maximus’ popularity continually raises amongst the Roman commoners with each victorious brawl. This in turn enrages the villainous Emperor Commodus who grows increasingly distraught that the crowd is starting to love a lowbrow gladiator more than the superior leader of Rome, including his young seven-year-old nephew Lucius. The story continues to unfold, which ultimately ends with an epic battle for the ages with the Roman Emperor Commodus pitted against an unknown, yet very admired gladiator simply referred to as Spaniard. What a spectacle indeed it turns out to be, which begs the question ‘Are you not entertained?’ For those who haven’t seen the movie yet, I will leave it there and instead now chat about the important life lessons embedded in this film.
First though it’s worth noting that director Ridley Scott does an amazing job bringing Gladiator to life in a very big way with well-scripted dialogue, and stunning cinematography that is visually spectacular. The original fight scenes alone are truly legendary albeit grim, which if nothing else are worth the watch. Although I detest gratuitous violence this film does a fantastic job depicting the bleak viciousness of the times and the unforgiving nature of our distant ancestors. Factually aware that throughout antiquity such unthinkable gore really occurred I appreciate the historic value of the carnage displayed in this film, mostly because the overarching message in the end is one of peace. Though achieving and maintaining peace is not the main life lesson of this movie as lovely as that would be.
Like so many battle-focused movies there are elements of loyalty, friendship, comradery, fairness, betrayal, competitiveness, rivalry… incorporated into the fabric of the narrative and this film is no different. That said, the beauty of Gladiator is that it calls attention to the bleakest undercurrents of the human psyche that if left unchecked loom and fester like rotting carcasses, stiffly leading lost souls to commit the worst of the seven deadly sins. Can you guess which one it is? Hint, hint, it’s not pride, or greed, or wrath, or lust, or gluttony, or slothfulness, although many of these elements prominently present in this movie. It’s worse. Truly the ugliest of all the seven deadly sins that in my opinion, unleashes so many other unthinkable evils is brilliantly displayed in this movie. It’s the crushing weight of ‘envy’ that Commodus feels towards Maximus that engulfs his entire being, eating him alive and propelling him to do the most heinous acts while simultaneously robbing him of any remaining admirable traits he has left. French author François de La Rochefoucauld said it best, ‘The truest mark of being born with great qualities, is being born without envy.’
Jealousy vs. Confidence – a covetousness spirit spews out resentment, suspicion, distrust, possessiveness and so many other sinister emotions leaving its host corrupted and wary. Wanton desire to have what others have is a sickness of the mind born out of insecurities that steals precious time away from building oneself up, as the focus is directed at tearing another down. Such unhealthy behavior is often thought of as an abuse of one’s natural faculties (e.g. envy abuses one’s desire to be one’s best virtuous self). Self-doubt propagates inhumane fixations of the lowest depths. However, the guiding light to keep in mind is that whatever anyone else is or has, truly takes nothing away from you. In our modern world where voyeurism via the internet (falsely exhibiting endless disillusion of countless unflawed jubilant lives) is so prevalent it helps to remember that everything one needs is within the self to become. So if temptation to slip into a state of envy overtakes the practical senses practice self-awareness and recognize that negative feelings do not need to turn into vile actions. Most importantly, commit to memory the seven heavenly virtues (faith, hope, charity, fortitude, justice, temperance, and prudence), which can serve to redirect the mind towards merits of positive redeeming characteristics we are all capable of commandeering and conquering. Amen!
P.S. I feel very lucky to have visited Italy, and specifically Rome a number of times as a tourist, for work, and even on route to MIFF. Each trip would not have been complete without a drop-in to its spectacular Colosseum (aka: Flavian Amphitheatre), Rome’s top tourist attraction! A true jewel of the Roman Empire, the Colosseum is one of the seven wonders of the world and was built in 70-80 AD. It could house 50-80 thousand spectators (averaging 65,000) and was used for gruesome gladiatorial contests, executions, mock battles, persecution of Christians… but its use as an entertainment venue ceased in medieval times. With all the grim exhibitions the Colosseum played host to over its long history, one fact of the Colosseum’s past that I really love is that the marble façade where ancient blood-thirsty spectators sat enjoying endless deadly performances was stripped off and used for the construction of St Peter’s Basilica. Looks like the devout got the last laugh in the end. Travel tip – Una Hotel is reasonable, close to the train station, and within walking distance of all attractions. Simply amazing.