ESSAY / 4K FRAME SHOTS
4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, Digital Copy; 2000; R for intense, graphic combat; streaming via Amazon Video, FandangoNow (4K), Google Play, iTunes (4K), Vudu (4K), YouTube
BEFORE Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy or HBO’s “Game of Thrones” from David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, there was Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator.”
Cinema had never seen anything like it: The detailed military and arena battles, with combatants who looked like soldiers and warriors, and postcard perfect vistas of ancient cities and lands. Best of all, it was a story and characters with universal and contemporary appeal, and dialogue that ditched the Shakespearean pomp typical of historical dramas. It’s easy to see how directors afterward ripped pages and pages from Scott’s notebook.
But Scott himself was inspired by an artistic source – “Pollice Verso,” a 19th century painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme now on display at the Phoenix Art Museum in Arizona. You’ve probably seen it, the bloody aftermath of an arena fight in which the gladiator looks to the crowd for a thumbs up (life) or down (death) for his defeated challenger.
“Gladiator” is all about life and death. The whole story is laid out for us in its opening scenes. “What we do in life echoes in eternity,” General Maximus Decimus Meridius (Russell Crowe) tells his men before engaging Germanic tribes in their final battle. Do we stop fighting, give up when all is lost? No.
David Franzoni (“Amistad”) pitched “Gladiator” to Scott back in the 1990s, with a copy of Gérôme’s painting in hand. Scott was captivated. In the hours-long bonus features ported to Paramount’s new release, Franzoni began thinking he’d lost the game – until Scott looked up from the painting and said, “I can do this.”
Even then it was a long shot. Sword and sandal movies, widespread in the 1950s-60s, were all but dead. Fans still embraced “Ben-Hur” (1959) and “Spartacus” (1960), but most were ignored. “‘Ben-Hur’ got the scale right,” Scott says.
Charlton Heston’s chariot race with Stephen Boyd is still spectacular.
Scott surpassed it in “Gladiator.” As with “Alien” and “Blade Runner,” Scott creates an authentic, far-reaching world. His actors, again, are perfect. No one leads an army like Russell Crowe. Crowe won an Oscar for Best Actor for his portrayal of Maximus, the betrayed general who becomes a slave and then a gladiator, who makes it to Rome’s famed Coliseum. He doesn’t shout his lines – except in that famous rebuke, “Are you not entertained?” He doesn’t have to. All Crowe has to do is turn that steely blue-eyed gaze on his foe.
“My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius, commander of the Armies of the North, General of the Felix Legions and loyal servant to the true emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife. And I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next.”
The Oscar-nominated screenplay by Franzoni, John Logan (“Skyfall”) and William Nicholson (“Unbroken”) is a mix of truth and fiction. Yes, Rome had conquered most of the known world by 180 A.D. Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) ruled; he had a immoral, unstable son, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), and daughter Lucilla (Connie Nielsen). History mentions a General Maxiumus, but not much is known about him. Scott says Commodus’ bad rep may have come from enemies, although he was known to dress in a lion’s skin like his hero, Hercules, and spent a lot of Rome’s money on gladiatorial games.
The big surprise for “Gladiator” fans? Marcus Aurelius did indeed leave Rome to Commodus and, in fact, co-ruled with him for years before his death. He would never have offered the position to anyone else, especially a general. Romans have issues with armies crossing their Rubicon.
Like any good storyteller, Scott and friends make it up as they go. Told by historians that Roman women only wore white and never color, Scott demands, “Were you there? Do you know?” No cafes in Rome at that time? Scott begs to differ and has stories to back him up.
Where “Gladiator” gets it right is in its depiction of the fighters’ lives and arena battles. The massive opening battle uses known strategies and weapons. The war with Germanic tribes was real, but Scott finessed it through his imagination. As brutal and bloody as they are, Scott says “Gladiator’s” fights were cleaned up for the story. We catch a glimpse of more in the Extended Cut, but the reality doesn’t bear talking about.
Scott is on record saying he prefers the theatrical release to the Extended Cut, which he introduces on the 4K Ultra disc and Blu-ray. However, fans and newcomers will enjoy the extra 17 minutes of deleted and extended scenes which provide more character and story development. Each film has a frank and entertaining commentary to enjoy as well, with Scott, Editor Pietro Scalia and Cinematographer John Mathieson on the theatrical release, and Scott and Crowe on the Extended. The making-of runs over three hours, with director, production crew, and cast interviews; historical and production factoids popup as the film plays during “The Scrolls of Knowledge,” and deleted scenes with or without Scott’s commentary can be accessed separately.
As good as the 4K is, you might want to hold onto the “Extended Edition” DVD release, which has both versions, extras, and a booklet. Film grain in the update is heavy-handed at times, especially in the now-deep red opening. It’s probably the result of the film used then. Digital effects of “Gladiator’s” size were also problematic.
Detail remains sharp on the DVD, as noted in the fur on Maximus’ armor. Color is brighter and, in some scenes, more accurate. For instance, we could debate the wheat fields, darker with a green cast in the 4K; lush and golden as originally filmed on DVD. Maximus references returning home for the harvest (golden), yet the 4K might allude to the green fields of Elysium and the Afterlife.
It’s the kind of thing fans love to quibble over.
Another surprise is the Oscar-nominated score by Hans Zimmer. The new DTS-X and DTS-HD eight-channel track is a knock-out, with better immersion and clarity, with a pronounced – but not distracting – bass. The blend of dialogue, effects and score is perfect. However, cinemaphiles will note Zimmer copied parts of his “Gladiator” score in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” films. Now that’s perplexing and can throw viewers out of the moment.
The script was fluid, changing as new ideas developed during filming. In one tragic case, actor Oliver Reed, who plays former gladiator Proximo, died before completing the film. New material had to be developed around that, and CGI used to complete his story line, which was much different from what had been planned. Still, actors were always in suspense; would the lines they’d just committed to memory change before the scene was shot? Probably.
“Gladiator” remains one of the best films ever, with its great writing, cast, which also includes Djimon Hounsou and Derek Jacobi, and legendary director at the helm. It entertains, it enlightens, it stays with you.
— Kay Reynolds