May 11, 2000
Gladiator is high-concept Hollywood at its best. Like Jurassic Park, it starts with the premise of the championship fight. What is more dramatic and fun for an audience than a heavyweight fight? The question is: who will be the fighters? Michael Crichton figured he'd put the two champions of evolution - humans and dinosaurs - in the ring at the same time and see who's best. David Franzoni's idea was to take a great Roman general and warrior and put him in the ring against Rome's best gladiators.
Franzoni then strings together a series of classic Saturday matinee story techniques to make the high concept work. The film begins with a terrific battle scene whose real purpose is to show the audience what a great soldier Maximus is. He fights for the glory of Rome and an old emperor, played by Richard Harris, who reminds us of Camelot.
Having set up the moral and physical greatness of Maximus, Franzoni introduces the main opponent, Commodus, the emperor's son. This is a key technique because it expands and extends the high concept beyond the hero fighting in the ring. It is what takes the story from simply an action film to an epic. Now the future of the entire empire rides on our hero.
Intercut with the opening is an arcadian vision of Maximus' home, where he longs to return when his fighting days are over. That sets up The Outlaw Josey Wales trick where Maximus' wife and child are murdered and his arcadian home destroyed. The mighty man has fallen to the bottom and must begin his climb back to the top where he will gain his revenge against his hated foe, Commodus, the emperor.
This gives us the clean desire line, and Franzoni can then hang on that line all the old matinee tricks. I actually laughed out loud while I was watching this movie as one classic story technique after another was pulled out of the storytellers' war chest out to do its duty. There's the tiny village in the boondocks of the Roman Empire that just happens to have its own mini-colosseum. From Seven Samurai we get the calm Maximus catching a nap before his first gladiator match. Then it's Maximus cutting seven opposing gladiators to pieces in quick succession.
Each new fight is set up to show that Maximus is an even greater warrior than we had thought before. With his fellow gladiators from the boondocks - another borrow from Seven Samurai - Maximus uses his army experience to turn the tables on the hometown gladiators who are supposed to massacre them. Next is Maximus' fight against the undefeated giant gladiator and the tigers.
Intercut with these fight scenes are intrigues surrounding the emperor, his lovely sister, and the senator, played by I Claudius himself, Derek Jacobi, who wants to return Rome to a republic. The important thing to realize is that this material is the super-structure the writer has built to increase the stakes of the fights and to give the audience breathing room before the next bout starts.
This kind of story structure - esentially a tournament - often has a tough time figuring out how to end the story. This film is no exception. The hero's final battle has to be with his main opponent, who is the emperor. But the emperor's not much of a fighter. Maximus, by contrast, has already proven to us that he is the best fighter in Rome. So the writer is reduced to a ridiculous finale where the emperor fights as a gladiator with a mortally-wounded Maximus. But Franzoni gets away with it because he also pulls out the old action technique of the noble death.
In theme and story technique, this film is extremely old-fashioned. Like Last of the Mohicans a few years back, Gladiator uses 1930s storytelling with 2000 film technology. The result is one of the biggest blockbusters of all time.