One of the greatest military machines in all of history was that of the Roman Empire. While the Greeks had the Spartans who would fight their wars, the entire society wasn’t focused on fighting, but instead had a philosophical flair to it. But not the Romans. The Romans focused so heavily on their fighting skills that even their entertainment ended up being displays of physical prowess. Chariot races would give a great spectacle, but there really wasn’t anything better than the bouts between gladiators. Granted, many of these fights were against those who were at a severe disadvantage, being either slaves, Christian civilians, or injured fighters, but those gladiators who could defeat the wild animals or the skilled combatants would inevitably garner favor from the crowd and possibly even the emperor. After all, who doesn’t love an underdog? This week’s two films look at some fine examples of Roman Gladiators.
Length: 155 minutes / 2.58 hours
Nobody signs up to be a gladiator. They don’t wake up one day and think, “You know, I feel like I could go for a career in the sandy pits of the Coliseum, fighting to the death every day until my untimely demise.” Sure, there are those who are insane and are trained to be excellent fighters, but often the battles are stacked against the gladiator’s favor. Wild animals like tigers and bears, as well as other gladiators who want to kill you for no other reason than their own self-preservation are just some of the on-the-job hazards that a gladiator has to put up with. And yet, if you’re stuck in the position of a gladiator, you quickly learn that in order to survive you must be fearless and you must be brutal. Losers rarely live in the arena for long. Still, the gladiators who are the most successful are those who have nothing left to lose.
General Maximus (Russell Crowe) wasn’t the son of Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris), but he was treated as such and was being considered as the next Emperor so Marcus Aurelius could transfer power back to the Senate. However, the emperor’s real son, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) is not going to have his inheritance taken away by a soldier, so when Marcus Aurelius dies, he gives the order to kill Maximus and his family. Even though Maximus escapes, he’s captured and sold into slavery where he eventually is put in the ring as a gladiator. Proving his skill, Maximus makes it to the Coliseum in Rome, where he hides his identity for a time so as to highlight his prowess. In order to remain popular, Commodus lets Maximus live, even though it soon appears that Maximus is much more popular and has much more power than Commodus. But an unbalanced one-on-one fight with Maximus is Commodus’ plan to regain control.
Length: 197 minutes / 3.28 hours
Of two films that influenced the aforementioned Gladiator, both were released within a year of each other, and both are considered to be examples of great historical epics. One of these films was Ben-Hur (1959) while the other was the 1960 classic, Spartacus. In fact, the famous scene about revealing the identity of the titular hero has become ingrained in our popular culture to the point of being continually parodied, even today. And yet, Spartacus inhabits the essence of the underdog. Not often do slaves ever amount to anything, even if they are extremely talented. As we also saw in Gladiator, there are two sides to every gladiator match, and often slaves would be sent to fight as punishment for their disobedience or attitude. It’s these slaves who can defeat the best fighters that inspire us to stand up for ourselves as well.
Much like the oppressed Israelites in The Ten Commandments, Spartacus is a story of a slave rebellion led by Kirk Douglas in the eponymous role. After being made a gladiator as punishment for his insolence as a slave, Spartacus uses the opportunity in gladiator school to develop his fighting and leadership skills. When he finally escapes with the other slave gladiators, he builds an army of slaves that the Romans cannot defeat. Unfortunately, some pirates are bribed by a Roman official by the name of Crassus (Laurence Olivier), who wants Spartacus’ wife for his own, and Spartacus’ army finds itself in a dire situation. Since Spartacus was the leader of the rebellion, he’ll be the only one punished if he identifies himself. And yet, after everyone identifies themselves as Spartacus, he does eventually get captured and pitted in a fight to the death, whether victorious or not.
2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 great gladiators