Gladiator Tries to Resuscitate the Sword-and-Sandals Picture

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:54

    Made at the crest of Hollywood's infatuation with togas and tridents, the 1960 Spartacus almost didn't get off the ground because of competition from a planned picture titled The Gladiators, which was to be directed by Martin Ritt and star Yul Brynner. Spartacus producer-star Kirk Douglas, though, rushed his movie into production with Anthony Mann, the studio's choice for director, at the helm. After a dissatisfied Douglas fired Mann and brought in Kubrick, his own choice, three weeks into shooting, Mann went on to direct 1964's The Fall of the Roman Empire, which has quite a lot in common with Scott's Gladiator.

    The new movie's presskit makes no mention of Fall of the Roman Empire, and when I called my local video store to see if it was in stock, I was told that it had been removed from circulation and was currently not available for sale or rental. This is what studios do when they don't want competition or comparison with previous versions of a new film, but Gladiator is nowhere described as a remake of Fall. I assume that Scott and his producers would simply prefer that you not know there's an earlier movie that also opens in 180 AD as the philosophic emperor Marcus Aurelius, who's soon to be replaced by his evil and nutty son Commodus, is in the dank woods of Germany battling hordes of ferocious savages.

    In Mann's film, Marcus is played by Alec Guinness. In Scott's, he's played by Richard Harris, whose beard and hooded costume give him an uncanny resemblance to Guinness as Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars. I assume that this little joke is intentional, and indicates that Scott or others connected with Gladiator are well aware of Fall, even if they're perhaps keen that audiences not be.

    In any case, Scott's movie centers on a figure who appears neither in history nor Anthony Mann's version of it. He is Maximus (Crowe), the valorous and hardy general who leads Marcus' army in the pitched flaming-arrows-amid-the-forests battle that gives the film its rousing opening reel. That Maximus is also the son Marcus wishes he'd had is doubly unfortunate since the son he did have, Commodus (Joachim Phoenix), proved to be, as at least one historian has noted, a prime argument against emperors being succeeded by their progeny.

    Amusingly, in his book The Ancient World in the Cinema, Jon Solomon faults Fall for portraying Commodus (there played by Christopher Plummer) "too temperately. History tells us that while participating in gladiatorial battles he wore a lionskin over his head and carried a club in imitation of Hercules. These eccentricities are mild in comparison to the information that he slept with his sister and then had her put to death; she had tried to assassinate him because he was not showing her enough affection!"

    Scott's Commodus, rather than being so colorfully lunatic and depraved, is more programatically villainous. He kills his aged father, then decrees the death of his sturdy rival Maximus, who intends to follow through on Marcus' plan to return Rome to republican rule. Though Maximus escapes his execution, his wife and son back at the villa are slaughtered by imperial goons. The scene then shifts to north Africa, where Maximus, now a slave, becomes a gladiator in the troupe of a feisty impresario named Proximo (Oliver Reed, in a scene-stealing final performance). This is only 30 or so minutes into the two and a half hour movie, but you can easily see the rest of the plot looming up: like a provincial showgirl hoofing toward the Great White Way, Maximus will climb the gladiatorial ladder until, after many strained muscles and bested opponents, he faces Emperor Commodus in Rome's Colosseum.

    It's a safe bet, I think, that audiences will go for Gladiator in numbers sufficient to gladden DreamWorks/Universal. Besides packing regular doses of action into a story that's well-paced and reassuringly predictable, the film has the advantage of being the first big summer movie out of the gate, and the novelty of reviving a genre that's been out of circulation for decades. Indeed, apart from the musical's collapse at around the same time, few popular genres have ever disappeared so suddenly, a rupture that means that Gladiator will exercise different appeals for two different audiences: those over 40 who recall the sword-and-sandal movies of the 1950s and 60s, and younger viewers to whom it's largely new.

    It might seem surprising that any genre so thoroughly dead and buried could spring back to life, except that movies at the turn of the millennium seem to be in the midst of a wholesale resuscitation of genres. Some of that arrives under the aegis of Steven Spielberg, whose name doesn't appear in the credits of Gladiator but whose influence is everywhere felt. The movie's big opening battle, for example, honors the precedent set by Saving Private Ryan, which is also quoted in the moment when novice gladiators await their first battle with trembling and trepidation. But perhaps most Spielbergian of all is the film's mix of confidence and caution, risky boldness and bet-hedging conventionality.

    To venture $100 million in a long-forsworn genre must be counted daring, surely. But Spielberg has learned not to be too daring. The primary writer of Gladiator, David Franzoni (story and co-screenwriting credits), also authored Spielberg's Amistad. I counted that movie as one of the most intelligent period dramas I'd ever seen for the way it spread the quality of heroism among many characters, but I'd also bet that Spielberg blamed this same nervy gambit for the movie's disappointing commercial returns. Henceforward, as Pvt. Ryan suggests, heroism in Spielberg-sponsored films will be of the old-fashioned, singular variety. Indeed, the slogan emblazoned on Gladiator's posters?"A Hero Will Rise"?is likely to remain the implicit promise of every period action drama to emerge from DreamWorks, no matter the genre.

    Yet consider what thin stuff these neotraditional heroes are made of. In stories and movies of old, heroes fought for a cause, an ideal, a dream?or just because they were heroes. Nowadays, in our culture of personal grievance and dysfunction, there's but one motivation, which seemingly became set in stone with the success of Braveheart: the hero fights because the baddies have raped/killed his wife and otherwise decimated his immediate family. When this oppressively invariable cliche popped up early in Gladiator, I knew that the rest of the ride would consist of little but action interspersed with the most obvious dramatic filler.

    For viewers too young to recall, it's worth noting that the old sword-and-sandal epic, which reigned from the success of De Mille's Samson and Delilah in 1949 to the disaster of Mankiewicz's Cleopatra in 1963, was nothing if not varied. To me it always looked like a three-tiered cosmos. At bottom were the pulpy "muscleman" pictures that starred Steve Reeves and other hulks as heroes like Hercules and Jason; this was kids' stuff, and proud of it. In the capacious middle came Ben-Hur, Alexander the Great, The Robe and other lavish costumers that brought classical spectacle and moral uplift to the general audience. Then there was the form's arty upper tier, which encompassed films from Pasolini's Gospel According to St. Matthew to Fellini Satyricon.

    You certainly don't get anything like those modernist provocations in Gladiator, yet the satisfactions of the other tiers are also in short supply. In contrast to the old muscleman movies' almost comic reliance on beefcake, Scott's film features the most overelaborate and concealing of Roman costumes, for both sexes; skin-wise, it's practically Calvinist. Deeper urges seem even more suspect. We're now at a point, it appears, where religion and any belief more potent than lukewarm republicanism are apparently unwelcome in our visions of history. Thus, not only are Christian martyrs notably absent from Scott's bloody arenas, but no pagan dares mention his gods either. Any previous age surely would find this scrupulously faithless Rome curious indeed, yet such are the imperatives of our commercial secularists, who blandify in the name of inoffensiveness.

    With the hope of any revealing parallels between the second century and our own era likewise blunted, Gladiator ends up with little to engage the viewer beyond spectacle and action, which, respectively, find themselves qualified by two features of cinema's new era: computer generated imagery (CGI) and digital editing.

    When Mankiewicz staged Liz Taylor's grand entrance to Rome in Cleopatra, you knew that all those costly extras and gargantuan sets were real. In Gladiator, where so many of both are conjured by CGI, that subliminal sense of tangible reality evaporates. Somewhere between De Chirico and Disney, the film's Forum and Colosseum are foreshortened, overstuffed, overstylized, sternly insubstantial; it's hard to be impressed with impossible vistas that are so clearly cartoonish. (The concentration of special effects may partly account for the film's unappealingly dark and flat look.)

    Regarding the atomized feel of the movie's action scenes, digital editing certainly isn't the only culprit. Scott?who's made a few good movies, including Alien and Thelma and Louise, and lots of lame ones?has roots in tv and commercials, so he's perhaps predisposed toward an overreliance on close-ups and cutting. But practically none of Gladiator's combat scenes have any sense of spatial integrity or character-to-character physical dynamics. With every flurry of action accomplished via rapid-fire editing, staccato jump cuts, fast motion and sound effects, you often can't quite tell who's doing what to whom. Though the immediate impact may be dazzling, the impression that lingers is hollow and mechanical.

    In summer-movie terms, sure, it's better than Twister. But a more clever film would register at least some recognition that, just as "bread and circuses" once signaled a public overeager for mindless distraction, "event movie" does much the same today. Like Titanic, Gladiator seems willfully unaware that its historic premise has long been taken as a metaphor for a civilization heedlessly approaching disaster. But hey, it's just entertainment.

    Reeled From fake Italy to the real thing. Fans of Italian cinema should take note that MOMA is in the midst of an excellent series of classic (and a few recent) Italian movies, including some of the hard-to-see variety. Running through May 12, "Second Act: Third Season" brings back films that were overlooked back when or, in some cases, never released in this country. Most are screened in new prints. Titles appearing this week in the series include Marco Bellocchio's Fists in the Pocket (1965); two famous featurettes, Fellini's Temptation of Doctor Antonio (1962) and De Sica's Il funeralino (1954); Elio Petri's I giorni contati (1962), and the Roberto Benigni comedy Nothing Left to Do But Cry (1984).