At this point, noting how the movie has collapsed into itself, cinephiles under the influence of too much caffeine might hallucinate a political vision. Doesn't Gladiator lay bare the purpose of today's media wars?
Well, no. In the first place, the movie is far too concerned with turning Maximus into a man on a white horse--again, I merely report surface details--who will restore Rome to democracy by becoming a dictator. (Of course, the minute he's seized power, he will abdicate in favor of the Senate and retire to his country home--good little Cincinnatus, covered with blood and scars.) In the second place, the film's satirical impulse twitches fitfully at best. Gladiator is no Wag the Dog. In lighter moments, it's more like Sternberg's 1928 The Last Command, in which an exiled Russian general winds up playing himself on a Hollywood lot.
I wish that Russell Crowe, as the Roman general remade into a showbiz soldier, had been granted the opportunities for sentiment and irony that Sternberg once offered his star, Emil Jannings. Most people assume that films of the silent era were crude and naïve compared with today's movies; and yet for all the money and technology that were dumped into Gladiator, and for all the logistical skill of its director, Ridley Scott, this picture is a kazoo compared with the symphony orchestra that Sternberg conducted. Crowe is a wonderful actor, as you can see from The Insider, or even L.A. Confidential. Yet no one in charge of this film thought to allow him an emotion, other than a single-minded desire for revenge and an equally dull rectitude. Crowe gamely wears whatever costume he is given; he tromps around with his arms held out from his sides, like a tough soldier whose muscles ache. And that's about all he can do under the circumstances, other than work his basso into ever more alarming registers. Some might say it's a voice produced midway between diaphragm and testicles; others, that it sounds like a cement mixer that's just stripped its gears. But neither organic nor mechanical similes will do. I must turn to geology: In Gladiator, having no other use for his energies, Crowe has made his voice sound like the grinding of tectonic plates.
Or maybe it's just the grinding of teeth. What else could Crowe do, when asked to stand by impassively during "love scenes" with the film's lone female figure, Connie Nielsen? It is the filmmakers' conceit that Nielsen, as the emperor's sister Lucilla, had a premarital fling with old Maximus. Now she is once more tantalizingly close to him and yet out of reach, in a ponderous subplot that turns her into a surrogate for the general's dead wife, with her son completing the imaginary family. It's a role that's as thankless as it is forgettable; and Nielsen fades with it so thoroughly that you'd think she'd been born in a vat, from whatever stem cells they use to grow starlets.
Of course, if you go by Gibbon, members of the imperial household did not let such a small thing as marriage impede their sex lives. Lucilla's mother had inspected most of Rome's manhood for hernias; and who knows what Lucilla herself might have done, in a less duty-bound movie? But just as Gladiator denies you the bloodlust it advertises--scenes of carnage, in both field and amphitheater, are programmatically chopped into blurry fragments--so too does it withhold the elements of hotcha that were always a chief pleasure of the sword-and-sandal picture. Like its hero, the film is solemnly pious; and though Christianity this time is noticeably missing from Hollywood's Rome, the sense of morality oppresses as never before.
It needn't have been this way. Even within Gladiator, lurid entertainments are present, though concealed. I have it on good authority that the late Oliver Reed bore on the head of his penis a tattoo in the form of a dragon's claw. I mention this adornment only to point out that the tide of life, though doubtless lower now than in the days of Commodus, has not ebbed entirely. Why couldn't Reed have given more of himself to this movie? (He died during the making of Gladiator, perhaps from the strain of being changed into a virtuous character.) Why couldn't Russell Crowe have been freed to act? And when will a producer haul a bag of money to Winnipeg, so that Guy Maddin can have his shot at reviving the sword-and-sandal epic? So far as I know, Maddin hasn't brought out a picture since Twilight of the Ice Nymphs, whose title alone should tell you how well he could adapt Gibbon.
Let's decline and fall again real soon.