It was beginning to look like sword-and-sandal epics had been swept into the dustbin of movie history, but here, rising from the dead, is Ridley Scott's Gladiator, a massive spectacle drenched in blood, sweat and tears. The blood is expected, so is the sweat, but the tears are a surprise. Working with a superb cast, Scott has wrenched genuine emotion out of the story of a Roman general who wants only to return to his farm in Spain but is instead betrayed by the emperor's son, sold into slavery, trained as a gladiator and brought to the Colosseum, where he will change the course of Roman history. Gladiator changes the course of Roman history as well, of course. Playing fast and loose with the facts, it interjects Russell Crowe's Maximus into the reigns of Marcus Aurelius and Commodus (in and around A.D. 180), suggesting that, had the rulers only listened to the voice of the Senate, they might have avoided the decline and fall of the Roman Empire--Gibbon lite. The movie opens in the dark forests of Germania, where the Roman army is about to make mincemeat out of a band of barbarian marauders. And Scott, employing a full arsenal of cinematic techniques, tries to give us some idea of the sheer firepower that imperial Rome had at its disposal. "At my signal, unleash hell," Maximus tells his second-in-command, and there follows a veritable hailstorm of flaming arrows and catapulted boulders, infantry and cavalry, blood and guts, the soundtrack's orchestral strings mourning the dead before the battle's even over. The movie's set-pieces, of which there are several, all of them top-notch, should leave viewers' bloodthirstiness quenched, though Scott slightly estheticizes the gore with the use of skip-framing. Only an infested shoulder wound, which Maximus picks at like it was a leech feeding on his blood, seems truly beyond the pale. But a word of warning: Gladiator is not for the faint of heart or the weak of stomach. Victorious in battle, Maximus has to choose between home and Rome when a dying Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris, in a whispery, wintry performance) offers him the keys to the empire. But before he can say yea or nay, Marcus' son, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), the heir apparent, has literally taken matters into his own hands. A truly Shakespearean concoction, the movie's Commodus is a sensitive brute driven to distraction by his need to be loved--if not by his father, then by his sister, Lucilla (Connie Nielsen), if not by Lucilla, then by the Roman people, who only need their daily quota of bread and circuses. Complicating things further is the fact that Lucilla was once involved with Maximus, which nearly spoils Commodus' deep (perhaps too deep) affection for her. Adopting the requisite British accent, Phoenix is a slithering snake of evil, but a snake that would prefer to hole up in a corner of the palace if only there were another snake he could coil his body around.
Oliver Reed, who died near the end of filming, leaves a memorable last impression as Proximo, a slave trader and gladiator trainer. And Derek Jacobi, British to the core, stands in for the Roman Senate. But it's Crowe who keeps the movie, which is always teetering on the edge of farce, safely within the realm of historical drama. The poor man's Mel Gibson, Crowe is perfectly cast as a battle-scarred general who would dare to defy an emperor, but the key to his performance is his Odysseus-like longing for home, the sadness in his eyes when he's not hacking away at his formidable opponents in the arena. Gladiator is one of those Hollywood movies that practices what it preaches against, spilling blood in the name of no longer having to spill blood. And it doesn't take a history major to notice the parallels between pax Romana and pax Americana. But if the mob I saw it with seemed to luxuriate in the blood and the sweat, I for one was reaching for both a towel and a hankie.