February 20th, 2002


Perusing a law journal I recently came across the story of a client involved in a potential court case who was about to take legal advice and settle the matter for a reasonable sum. However at the last minute he informed his lawyer that he wished to take the case to court after all – because, he’d decided, that’s what Russell Crowe’s Maximus in Gladiator would have done. He wouldn’t have backed down. He would have fought. And won. So he didn’t back down. He went to court. He fought. And he lost. What a fuckwit.

A sad but true story, much as it’s sad but true that Gladiator was voted one of the top five best films ever made. Gladiator is not among the five million best films ever made. It is ludicrus, preposterus et turgidus ad nauseam. The words “Biggus” and “Dickus” reverberate silently throughout the movie, and, like the hapless Centurions in The Life Of Brian when faced with Michael Palin’s Caesar, one finds it hard not to burst out laughing.

The story. After Maximus has proven himself a decent General in one of the nicest proto-Fascist colonialist armies you could hope to encounter (unless you’re one of the Barbarians incinerated by them) he finds himself sold into slavery and his family slain as Commodus (Joaquim Phoenix), son of kindly philosopher Emperor Marcus Aurelius, murders his Father and takes over Rome. Meanwhile, Maximus becomes a gladiator in Proximo (Oliver Reed)’s stable. However, he has sworn revenge . . . Gladiator fails to convince on every level. The much-vaunted computer-generated replication of The Coliseum might as well have been knocked from old Fairy liquid bottles and a tin of battleship grey paint. Director Ridley Scott’s attitude towards the fight scenes is similar to that of the US Army in Afghanistan – fond of remote, state-of-the-art gadgetry but squeamish when it comes to hand-to-hand combat. Such sequences are obfuscated by the sort of excessive fast-cut editing and grainy slo-mo the producers of The Premiership like to use to ruin the ‘Goals Round Up’ section.

None of which can save the scene in which Crowe beats off a tiger chewing his neck from being the funniest since Adam West fended off the rubber shark in the Batman movie. The tone set by the principal adversaries is inadvertently, perhaps unavoidably camp, like the straight guys in Up Pompeii. Those names, for a start. “Commodus” would surely have had Frankie Howerd swivelling his eyes to camera, especially when the Senate harangue him about the lack of basic sanitation in the Greek Quarter. Ooer! As for “Maximus”, well you’re not complaining are you, Missus? Crowe’s gruff vocal intonation makes him come on like a Gladiator-o-gram at a hen party do, deep and hoarse as if from having overdubbed for one European film too many. Phoenix is a mincing mass of speech impediments, a sure sign of his weaseliness, especially when complaining of “Thqwabbling Thenators Who Cwy ‘Wepublic!'” And doubtless ‘Welease Wodewick!’.


Of course, Gladiator is not intended for laughs. With its leaden ambience, unremitting moroseness and incessant, wordless New Age screeching courtesy of antipodean GothLisa Gerrard we are supposed to feel properly immersed in gravitas profundis (et Oscari nominatus). Yet the film’s central message is deeply confused. It seems to want to have its Bread and eat it. Maximus lectures against the bloodthirstiness of the mob yet panders to them with bouts of violence far bloodier and violent than the actual citizens of the Roman Empire ever witnessed (deaths in gladiator bouts were actually infrequent). Perhaps the film’s real message is one of seething masculine frustration. It’s effeminate, silver-tongued connivers like Phoenix, Derek Jacobi and the chap in the ridiculous ginger wig who prevail while strong, musclebound, silent types like Crowe and his compadres, forever breathing hard through their nostrils, are enslaved (though all it takes to keep them captive, curiously, are a couple of geezers who look like stand-ins for the late Roy Kinnear in the old Go To Peterborough adverts).


Gladiator’s most contemptible gaffe occurs when the mob give the thumbs up sign indicating they want Maximus to live, whereas, as any retired Latin schoolmaster would wearily tell you, the thumbs up sign would have meant the opposite. You suspect the filmmakers knew this but left in the mistake knowing they would otherwise confuse their target audience – i.e. legions of folk as calamitously misguided as our courtroom friend, forced to pay out costs on a case he could easily have settled just because he was dumb enough to watch and admire Gladiator.

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