by Cathleen Myers

Director Ridley Scott’s Gladiator has no pretension to being a historical film and includes a modest disclaimer at the end. This is a genre film - a gladiator film - not a historical epic. All the same, head writer David H. Franzoni’s screenplay is far more historically accurate than the other recent pseudo-historical screenplays with which it has been compared (Rob Roy and Braveheart), at least keeping within the realm of historical plausibility, if not probability. And, to its credit, Gladiator captures the look and feel of ancient Rome as no previous sword-and-sandals epic has ever done. The CGI-generated city of Rome with its awe-inspiring buildings and palatial Coliseum is as breath-taking to its modern audience as it is to the provincial gladiators making their first entrance.

Gladiator begins in 180 A.D., the last year of the reign of philosopher-Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris), who has brought order and organization to an Empire torn by rebellion and is on the verge of restoring the Pax Romana. The action begins in Germania, with Maximus, his brilliant Spanish-born general (Russell Crowe), winning a decisive victory over the "Germanian" army. The dying Emperor appoints Maximus his successor, begging him to restore Rome to a Republic - a decision that does not sit well with Aurelius’ viciously spoiled 20 year old son and heir-apparent, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix). Commodus seizes power, orders the execution of Maximus and his family, and returns to Rome in triumph. Meanwhile Maximus escapes but finds himself enslaved and sold to Proximo (Oliver Reed), manager of a provincial gladiatorial troupe, who eventually takes his touring company to Rome - where the new Emperor, hoping to win over the Roman people with free Bread and Circuses, has ordered 150 days of gladiatorial games, and.....well, fans of the genre can guess what happens next.

While this is very much an action film - the battle scenes are stunningly realistic and the Coliseum scenes are brilliantly choreographed - there are a number of deft historical touches that history buffs will enjoy. We see Marcus Aurelius writing his Meditations in his battle tent; Commodus - an eager amateur gladiator - in a workout; Roman engineering and technology at work - in the astonishing battle engines that decimate the Germanian hordes in minutes. And the Coliseum scenes with its bookies, hawkers, and groupies are spot-on. The costumes and armor look accurate and the actors, "military" and "civilian" alike, wear them as if to the manner born - no easy feat, we can assure you. But the human element is not lost amid the spectacle. Perhaps the reason the gladiatorial scenes work so well is that we have come to care not only about Maximus (thanks to Crowe’s athletic but moving performance) but about his fellow gladiator team-mates, who become his comrades in arms (most notably Djimon Hounsou as the African and Ralf Moeller as the German gladiator).

Yes, the film takes dramatic license with history: Maximus is fictional (though an athlete certainly was involved in the final, successful plot to assassinate the tyrannical Commodus); the lovely patrician heroine Lucilla, is actually based on two women (Aurelius’ daughter and Commodus’ Christian mistress Marcia) who engineered coups against the corrupt emperor; but while the brilliantly engineered finale is much more theatrical than historical, we are left with the sense that if history didn’t happen that way, it could have!

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