According to Gibbon, the emperor Commodus spent the early years of his reign “in a seraglio of three hundred beautiful women and as many boys, of every rank and of every province.” Later, adding bloodshed to his round of pleasures, he launched a career in murder, beginning with the dispatch of the usual senators, ministers and family members and continuing with the slaughter of beasts. Styling himself the Roman Hercules, he went as a performer into the amphitheater, where he cut down before the public a number of ostriches, a panther, a hundred lions, an elephant, a rhinoceros and a giraffe. He then entered the lists as a gladiator. Commodus fought 735 times and paid himself such a high fee for each appearance that a new tax had to be levied. No harm came to him in the arena, if only because he furnished his opponents with weapons of lead; so it was left to Marcia, his favorite concubine, to rid Rome of Commodus. One night, aided by a chamberlain and the Praetorian prefect, she admitted a professional wrestler to his bedchamber to strangle him as he lay in a drunken stupor.
I say there’s a movie here. Unfortunately, DreamWorks and Universal disagree with me, and so the public is stuck with Gladiator, one of those productions that betray their disarray by crediting three screenwriters, none of whom is Gibbon. Gladiator is the tale not of Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) but of a disagreeably virtuous general, Maximus (Russell Crowe), who from the height of military honor is sold into slavery, made a gladiator and then elevated to the status of demagogue, all without relaxing his expression from a glower.
For its first half-hour, Gladiator consists of gloomy, sidelit close-ups of Crowe and a handful of other players, who by means of a relentless shot-countershot scheme are prevented from acting with one another. Worse still: While sitting for their portraits, they are made to worry at length about the future of Rome. Will it become a republic again? Will Commodus succeed white-maned Marcus Aurelius to the throne? And who the hell lugged all those statues into “Germania,” just to decorate Marcus’s field tent? The Germanians, if that’s what they’re called, interrupt the heavy sighs of Roman conversation by dying in battle. Orange flames from the imperial lines fly across the gloomy, blue-gray twilight into Germanian territory, giving the signal for slo-mo, strobe-mo and jitter-mo to ensue, until such time as expository dialogue may resume:
“In this hand, Caesar, I hold a shiny new quarter.”
“Strength and honor! Will you exchange it for a nickel and two dimes?”
“Where, in all the province of Zucchabar, does a parking meter accept–dimes?”
You heard me right: Zucchabar. After valiant, glowering Maximus has been stripped of his command, informed of the sure demise of his family and left for dead, he awakens into the Hollywood version of the Middle East: a place of mud-brick architecture and ululation, where stoop-shouldered, burnoose-clad merchants pass the days in sibilant larceny. Here, as it happens, Gladiator temporarily springs to life.
Having severed its few feeble ties to reality, the movie is free to become a backstage comedy. What is a gladiatorial contest, if not showbiz? What is the amphitheater in dusty Zucchabar, if not a stop on the bus-and-truck circuit? And who is Maximus’s new owner, Proximo (stately, plump Oliver Reed, done up in a turban and several tins’ worth of bronzing makeup), if not a two-bit producer trying to claw his way back to the big time? I do not interpret; I report the surface features of the movie, which include an instructive speech by Proximo about getting the audience onto your side.
Meanwhile, back in Rome, Commodus toys with a model of the Colosseum. Why should an emperor suffer the risks of real warfare, he asks, when he can mount a play war instead? The image shifts from Commodus’s toy to a different kind of model: a computer-generated picture of the Colosseum, into which we descend to view the first of the emperor’s games. It will be the re-enactment of a battle from the Second Punic War–in other words, a show about history, which stands in relation to the characters in Gladiator as Gladiator stands to us.