Upon the murder of Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris), his trusted and successful general Maximus Meridas (Russell Crowe) becomes unlawfully imprisoned and condemned to the gladiator games by Marcus’ twisted son, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix). However, Maximus gains fame as a gladiator and uses his power to cause further damage to Commodus’ tenuous hold on the susceptible Roman people, hoping to inspire them to rediscover their lost values and overcome the corruption that is Rome. These actions prompt Commodus to challenge Maximus in the Coliseum with the fate of Rome at stake. The characters of Marcus Aurelius and Commodus appeared in Anthony Mann’s epic “Fall of the Roman Empire,” played by Alec Guinness and Christopher Plummer, respectively.
This sword-and-sandal epic is gruesome, graphic and gory. Elements of “El Cid,” “Ben Hur,” “Spartacus” and “Braveheart” can easily be identified in “Gladiator,” along with the dramatic treachery and tragedy found in most of Shakespeare’s works. What the picture lacks is a well-defined evolution of the main character. Throughout, his only motivation is that of a man bent of seeking revenge for the murder of his wife, son and beloved emperor Marcus Aurelius (whom we watch being smothered by his son). While the dream of a government by and for the people was the dying wish of Aurelius, the film focuses more on the action and brutality of coliseum life. Epic-sized, with a seasoned cast (including a last performance by Oliver Reed), but I am unable to recommend it for family viewing due to the grisly violence. This was a tough call for me as the film displays men of courage fighting for freedom and justice. I would go so far as to call it a good vs. evil parable. But the more accepting we become of viewing blood-splattered beheadings and sword-piercing deaths, the more readily we will accept additional repulsive sights. As it is, there is becoming little difference between Roman gatherings at the coliseum and today’s Saturday matinees at the local bijou.