“Gladiator” is set when the Roman empire is at its zenith, around 180 A.D. Maximus, a general in the Roman army played by Russell Crowe, wins the war against Germania, expanding the Empire yet again and becoming a favorite of the emperor. The emperor’s son, Commodus, played by Joaquin Phoenix, kills his father in a fit of rage and declares himself supreme ruler. Knowing of Commodus’s corruption, Maximus refuses to give him an oath of loyalty, and as a consequence, his wife and child are slaughtered, while Maximus himself barely escapes execution.
Severely injured, he is sold into slavery to a gladiator school. Here, Maximus learns how to adapt his military skills into arena fighting. Because of his aptitude for combat, Maximus rises quickly through the ranks. Gladiatorial fighting is re-instated by the decree of Commodus, who learns of Maximus. He cannot be executed outright because of his popularity. Instead, Commodus pits him against the harshest fighters in an attempt to see him killed. However, Maximus is victorious again and again.
When Commodus learns of Maximus’s plans of an uprising, he storms the gladiator barracks and imprisons him. He is then challenged to a duel by Commodus.
Other elements of Roman life are presented as well. Maximus is offered the rule of Rome by Commodus’s father, Maximus turns him down, wanting only to return to his family after many years spent apart due to the war. However, Commodus’s corruption calls to a deeper sense within Maximus: his personal honor. Maximus would rather be tortured or executed before he sees his country and his fellow citizens suffer because no one is willing to stand up for integrity’s sake. Devotion to virtue was common in Roman society, as well as in many other societies in western civilization.
“Gladiator” emphasizes the brutality of the time period that the Roman Empire spanned. Rome, for all its advances in technology, warfare, and cultural customs, was still a society steeped in violence. The activity of going to the Coliseum to watch humans grapple with either each other or with vicious animals was seen as a societal norm. The depravity of the blood-soaked nature of these events was not considered twice by the average Roman citizen. However, Maximus is no average citizen, and is instead revolted by the gleeful violence. In the gladiator camp, the trainer tells Maximus that half of fighting is entertainment, and that he should attempt to give his style of slaughtering a bit more flair. In response to this, the next time Maximus is in the ring, he devastates half a dozen antagonists in rapid succession. Then, throwing his sword down in disgust, he raises open arms to the crowds and roars a question that echoes off the silenced rows of the Coliseum: “Are you not entertained?”
The film excels at presenting visual elements of the time period. The clothing in the film ranges from coarse garments constructed of animal skins worn by the gladiators to lavish swathing of silk and other fine materials worn by members of the emperor’s court. The gladiator camp itself is portrayed as a nomadic cluster of tents and roped arenas, planted in the dusty fringes of Roman civilization. This stands in stark contrast to the opulence of the palace’s fine stone walls, padded furniture, and draperies. The Coliseum is shown as imposing and gargantuan, almost as though the building itself is yet another adversary for the gladiator that fights within it. All of these depictions add layers of realism to the story, submerging the viewer in representations of authentic Roman lifestyles.
The overall tone of the film is one of a quasi-myth. The story ends on a positive note, with Rome on the brink of a miraculous government reformation. However, historical record proves that this change to the political climate did not occur, and in fact, the Empire continued to sink into disrepair, despotism, and, eventually, permanent collapse. “Gladiator” is an idealistic look at what might have happened to change Rome’s course in history had even just one man stood up against the corruption of the government.
At a very basic level, “Gladiator” offers hope. Maximus’s sacrifices demonstrate that no matter how tainted governments become or how much personal hardship one endures, in the end, if the path of nobility is taken, things turn out for the better.