This is sort of an interesting place to jump in–almost awkward.
I count myself a Ridley Scott fan, indeed I look eagerly toward his new films as they’re announced (though it should be pointed out I do not always see them, such as A Good Year)–but for all this I’ve been known to vehemently disparage two films in his oeuvre, one for sheer stupidity (Hannibal, which I loathed) and one for its idea theft (an issue I take very seriously). That second film is, in fact, this one. I was suckered in by a fantastic deal on the 3 disc extended DVD, and decided–as, honestly, I’d already been planning–to give the film another go. The first time I saw it was in theatres, where about forty five minutes in, I turned to my father (with a degree–which I shamefully still can’t keep straight in terms of educational level in this instance–in Classical Studies) and whispered, “Is any of this historical?” when he replied, “No,” I spent the rest of the film in a fog, incensed that it was stealing so blatantly from two films I had recently seen in school–The Fall of the Roman Empire and Spartacus. I enjoyed the film somewhat in spite of this, but the experience was soured instantly by my perception and the confirmation that remark gave me.
I’m known for the zeal with which I pursue arguments against the quality of films which I find in some way insulting to my ethical stance on adaptations, and this film was no exception. For months I angrily ranted about how this film had stolen a major portion of its plot from the Sir Alec Guiness film The Fall of the Roman Empire, and how it was then smashed into Spartacus, and no one seemed aware of this, or, if they did, they only knew the latter. I’m greatly offended when a film chooses to lift ideas and pretends not to have done so, and it’s extremely difficult for me to enjoy it–the same holds true if they claim an influence and then fly in the face of it, as applies to other films. Over the years though, while my zeal has not lessened, the degree to which it will affect my experience in and of itself has lessened somewhat, if I feel there is strength behind it. In this case, as with even Hannibal, I was always quick to note the quality of craft within the films, even without a bias towards Ridley, who I could not have named to save my life in those days. Thus, my decision to try again here. I’m debating the same with Hannibal, but that one didn’t have much floating under it and I felt was actually awful in and of itself. But, I–as usual–digress.
Still, what we have here is the return of the epic sword-and-sandal film, which was not quite so triumphant as to encourage legions of films to follow, but we have seen more than a handful, and certainly more than might otherwise be expected. In it we see Russell Crowe as Maximus, general of the Roman legions, here disgraced and set into exile through the machinations of Caesar Marcus Aurelius’ (Richard Harris, in a nicely paternal and wise role) son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix–I should mention this series of events bears no resemblance to history, but a strong resemblance to those in Fall, despite the writers’ rather unbelievable claim that they’d never seen it) so that he, himself, can become the new Caesar. The lost Maximus is enslaved and becomes a gladiator; here we see the strains of Spartacus, as he first befriends the Numidian Juba (Djimon Honsou), which is rather similar to Spartacus’ early association with Woody Strode as Draba, also under a former gladiator who was freed and began training gladiators. This is also the first appearance of the fictitious Senator Gracchus, apparently. Still, as I said, that’s not the point this time–I just feel it’s worth noting that these were very strong impressions and not feeble strains of similarity, but pretty strong ones.
Anyway, the most direct descendant of this film was certainly Ridley’s own Kingdom of Heaven, which bears a strong visual similarity to this film, though here we are clearly speaking of how one man can affect a world and change it purely by his own hand, where in Kingdom of Heaven it is at least somewhat more unified, though still centered on a single character. I think this is where Ridley has his strongest talents–he shows his background in graphic design and his education in it. He has style. Not overly slick and plastic like Michael Bay, nor as out of control and obsessive as Terry Gilliam, but controlled artistry. Colour filters–in truth, nearly every time I refer to this subject, I am thinking of this film and Kingdom of Heaven, which is odd, considering I am quite big on the style of both, I just feel that the style has been unsuccessfully mimicked by others–are put to use, especially in the hauntingly beautiful images of Maximus’ home, and especially what I can only assume are the Elysian fields, set to music that apparently I’m not alone in feeling sounds like Enya, but I did know that it wasn’t (apparently the name attached is one Lisa Gerard). Ridley also knows to use slow motion for underlining and emphasis (not to appear “awesome” or to overuse until neverending sluggish boredom like Zack Snyder) and strange motions like Maximus’ floating a few times throughout the film. We see his affection for particulate matter as it snows in the opening battle scene and the final confrontation involves falling flower petals.
This as well as the overblown version of Rome that appears, brought to my mind images of Julie Taymor’s Titus, but, as with his art in general, Ridley has a more subdued form of this stylization and only achieves near-anachronism. Everything feels exactly appropriate to the period, and yet somehow seems outside of it; this, too, is something I’m known to complain about–it seems the workshops have carefully sculpted every helmet and piece of armor down to picking and choosing where to place dents, dings and scratches for the ultimate “real” effect, somehow leaving the clear impression that they are not real, without ever giving it away at the same time. This sort of surreal feeling is engaging and pleasant, despite what it may sound like, and adds to the feeling that Ridley is a master painter, and that his medium is film. He perfectly crafts things–I’ve heard stories of his work on his own cinematography, down to carefully positioning every single light himself–and sets them in motion and the end result is a clear work of art, without the pretension of something like a Julie Taymor or David Lynch, and allows it to remain a thoroughly entertaining cinematic work at the same time.
Working within this, as mentioned, are primarily Joaquin Phoenix and Russell Crowe as opposing forces in the battle for the control and future of Rome. We hear lines like “At my signal, unleash hell,” and “I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next.” Russell and Ridley are both to be given credit for making lines like this completely plausible and acceptable in the universe these characters inhabit; they could easily be completely laughable and ridiculous, unacceptably over-the-top–but they work. Joaquin I recalled being incredibly irritating in his weepy way of constant whinging, and this viewing did nothing to change that perception, though I suddenly found myself understanding his view a little more clearly, and the fact that he simply didn’t know another way, and desperately desired to be loved, and without it it drove him to great lengths to acquire it.
In retrospect, I was certainly overly hard on the film–but I do recall enjoying it in spite of myself even the first time. I enjoyed it more this time, and am certainly more comfortable with recommending it now.