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Why Ridley Scott's Gladiator Was a Success at the Box OfficeEssay

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¶ … Components of Ridley Scott's Gladiator

Gladiator (2000) is a film directed by Ridley Scott, set in the 2nd century AD. While its genre is that of the grand historical epic drama, it is essentially driven by a revenge plot that pits the fallen-out-of-favor General Maximus against the patricidal/regicidal Emperor Commodus. The film is largely a work of fiction, though some characters and sequences are based, of course, on historical fact. The main parts of the film depict gladiatorial combat in the Roman Coliseum -- and though these combats did take place as sportive amusement for the Romans, their chaotic nature is exaggerated for dramatic effect in the film. Likewise, the real Emperor Commodus did not die at the hands of Maximus in the arena, as the film depicts -- and, in fact, there never was any General Maximus (played by Russell Crowe). Notwithstanding, the film was heralded for its sweeping battles and attention to detail (such as the recreation of the Coliseum and its crowds using CGI). The film won Best Picture at the 73rd Academy Awards for that year and Russell Crowe won Best Actor. Thus, it was a much celebrated work of cinematic achievement with substantial box office success. This paper will discuss Gladiator in terms of its industrial, historical, and stylistic aspects and show how the three worked together to create a vivid experience for moviegoers.

Industrial Achievements

Gladiator was written by David Franzoni, John Logan and William Nicholson. Franzoni had previously worked on Steven Spielberg's Amistad, another epic period piece, and Nicholson had been employed on the King Arthur film First Knight. Directed by Ridley Scott, it was the filmmaker's follow-up to 1997's G.I. Jane. Produced by Douglas Wick, David Franzoni and Branko Lustig under Scott's own production company, Scott Free Productions, the film was distributed by DreamWorks.

One of the unique circumstances during the production of the film that stood out to the public was the problem of recreating a lifelike Roman Coliseum, filled to capacity and full of danger in the arena. Not only did Scott have to populate the stands with people, he had to produce a realistic sequence in which his hero, Crowe's Maximus, duels a tiger. Scott essentially used the same trick to solve both problems: he filmed a real tiger on bluescreen and edited it into the fighting sequence with Crowe; for the people in the stands, he filmed roughly 2000 real actors and then cut and paste them again and again into the stands so that the Coliseum (which sat 35,000) appeared full of real, live human beings. This feat was sensational enough to be featured on Entertainment Tonight prior to the film's theatrical release, and later these cinematic techniques were described in various "making of" features and books (Landau, Parkes, Logan, Scott 89).

The film starred Russell Crowe as Maximus and Joaquin Phoenix as Commodus, the treacherous son of Marcus Aurelius and villain to Crowe's hero. Also starring in the film was Connie Nielson as Commodus's sister Lucilla, who plays the role of sympathetic intriguer with Crowe. Djimon Hounsou, who rose to fame in Spielberg's Amistad, plays a gladiator friend to Maximus, once the latter is taken into captivity. Crowe had already risen to fame thanks to 1997's Best Picture contender L.A. Confidential and 1999's The Insider. Crowe had won rave reviews for his performance in each of those films, but the success of Gladiator did not depend on the reputation of Crowe. On the contrary, the film was a Ridley Scott spectacle, best known till now for his sci-fi epics Blade Runner and Alien and the female dramedy Thelma and Louise. The film was marketed as an epic action-adventure, full of new sights that no audience had seen before. With the promise of blood-letting, thrilling gladiatorial combat, revenge, and love, Gladiator's target audience was able to be both male and female in the prime target age (18-35): women were attracted to Crowe whose hulking physique was on prominent display throughout; men were attracted to the spectacle.

The movie debuted to relatively decent reviews. Ebert gave it 2 stars out of 4, criticizing the film's murky, "muddy" tones and its depressing characters and visuals as being near joyless, which made the film difficult to enjoy overall. He also derided the film's choppy editing effect used in fight scenes (borrowed from Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan) which spared the filmmakers from having to employ actual fighting technique, real swordplay and nuance (Ebert cites the fight scenes of Rob Roy as being much better choreographed). However, movie-going audiences chose to embrace Gladiator, making it one of the biggest earners at the box office that year. Entertainment Weekly placed it on its "best-of-the-2000s" list, while in England audiences ranked it as the 6th greatest film of all time (Ward 1089). Gladiator had struck a chord with filmgoers even if it did not with the critics.

Historical Aspect

The main influences for Scott were the Hollywood Roman epics, Ben-Hur, Spartacus, and The Fall of the Roman Empire. However, there were also some allusions to the Nazi regime as depicted in Triumph of the Will, which shows a celebrated Hitler being praised by crowds of adoring fans. In Gladiator, this same sequence is repeated, with Commodus being saluted by the Romans. Essentially, Scott wanted to revisit the most powerful force on the planet in all history (the Roman Empire) at the end of the 2nd millennium. There was no other tantamount social or political issue that informed the film, other than the basic tenet that one should do good and not evil.

The good vs. evil theme is played out by Maximus and Commodus. Maximus represents the loyal, dutiful, seasoned General who is betrayed by the new young Emperor. He fights his way to the top of the gladiatorial game with an eye on challenging Commodus to hand combat. Commodus is depicted as an evil Emperor who would rather spend money on gladiatorial games than on cleaning up the city so as to stop the plague. One could make the connection between Commodus and present-day rulers, who seem to ignore a host of economic, social and political problems in favor of issuing sound bite declarations and more "welfare." But doing so puts the audience in an awkward light: are we the same violence-loving people as the fans in the Coliseum, cheering for more blood and spectacle? Or are we viewing Gladiator for its moral lesson and story? Perhaps the answer is that we are a little of both. No doubt, audiences appreciated Crowe's calm turn as a man in total control even when faced with surmounting odds.

The film's legacy (it is now 15 years old) has not been hurt much by time. If anything, Gladiator may be pointed to as having started off a whole new wave of Roman, sword-and-sandal epics on both Hollywood and television: from Troy to Spartacus (the TV show) to 300 to Rome to Clash of the Titans to Game of Thrones -- there has been no lack of this sort of entertainment since Gladiator, and each seems to up the ante in terms of violence and depravity. This wave of violent/sexual spectacle suggests that audiences are more akin to the ancient Romans than they might realize. Perhaps this is what can tell us most about cultural attitudes in the wake of Gladiator: with Game of Thrones being one of the most talked about shows on social media, it looks as though audiences love being shocked and titillated even more than they did 15 years ago. Indeed, Gladiator appears tame in comparison. Nonetheless, the relevance of Gladiator can be upheld if only because it is a blockbuster of the previous decade and for that reason will be remembered by viewers. It has not aged poorly. Scott is still directing blockbusters. Crowe, though older, is still appearing in them (last seen in Noah). Hans Zimmer, the composer of the film's score, is more popular than ever (having scored Nolan's Batman films). So there is plenty in Gladiator to recommend itself to audiences even today.

Stylistic/Aesthetic/Narrative Components

Artistically, what stands out about the film is its tone (which Ebert disliked) and its combat sequences (which Ebert also disliked). Audiences, however, were more interested in seeing a film that was more stylish in a sense than other more conventional films. Scott's filmmaking style can be both dizzying and subtle, as he uses editing to reinforce themes and ideas (such as the use of the shot of the eagle in the opening march sequence to draw a parallel between natural glory and artificial glory). His costume design is authentic enough to move the audience out of its present-day frame and into another time. His use of the camera is skillful and artistic as he gives us shots that are not tired or conventional but rather daring and evoking (the shot of Maximus as he runs his hand through the wheat is compelling and indicative of Maximus's good nature). While the dialogue… [END OF PREVIEW]

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