The first Roman-era epic since 1959’s Ben-Hur to win the Academy Award as Best Picture, Gladiator is a gigantic and depressing noise machine. From the opening battle with its blazing fires, speeding arrows, clashing armor and rushing horses, to the exotic score mingling Spanish guitar with what sound like Irish, Hebrew and Arabic lamentations, to sound effects so piercing they hurt the ears, we’re in the midst of what is the loudest ancient Rome in movie history. Director Ridley Scott’s intent is to overpower viewers, and judging by the nearly $500 million dollar box office, he’s managed to overpower plenty. His ruckus is a redo of The Fall of the Roman Empire (a fact ignored by a lot of the critics, especially the online variety) and is as historically nebulous as well as remote. Scott might have thought his insurance against detachment would be Russell Crowe (as Maximus/Stephen Boyd) and his penetrating, sexy voice. He has the warty complexion and bulky physique for spectacle—prone to be a fattie, he lost considerable poundage while making the movie—and some will be turned on by how winning he looks in fur capes and gladiator garb. Oscar voters apparently were: he won the Best Actor trophy. (More than a few feared there’d be a legacy attached to Crowe’s Max, and sure enough Ray Winstone not only mimics the Max model in the 2003 PBS/Masterpiece Theatre production of Henry VIII, he could come very close to passing as Crowe’s father, even though they were born only seven years apart.) Thankfully Connie Nielsen isn’t Sophia Loren’s plumpy Lucilla forever reciting “Oh, Livius!” and exonerates herself after Brian De Palma’s twerpy Mission to Mars, but Joaquin Phoenix’s clefty Commodus is a lot less entertaining than Christopher Plummer’s. Promoting Roman sexual deviance, Nielsen and Phoenix do most of their creepy incestuous chitchat in elegantly appointed black marble rooms. The movie’s technology purports to show how computerization replaces the craftsmanship of real set-building and glass shots. If pardoning as well as admiring plywood being used instead of stone for the Roman Forum in Fall, the huge amounts of the computerization in Gladiator—like the falling snow or the blurs & blobs meant to be people in the Colosseum’s upper balconies—don’t pass muster, or the laugh test. Did the designers fail to watch James Cameron’s Titanic split in two? This shortage of integrity in the wizardry is unexpected, as well as disappointing; and because of the breakneck editing, we’re rushed through what otherwise would be juicy decapitations and dismemberments. (HBO’s Rome handles the CGI much more effectively.) No one who loves the roadshows, who enjoys the lavish lunacy of a Sam Bronston epic or the drag balls of De Mille is likely to leave Scott’s epic with the kind of sensorial satisfaction we get from his next one, the Director’s Cut of Kingdom of Heaven. Gladiator exhausts because, one, it’s filled with ridiculous fiction; two, it tediously strains honor via emotions long in labor; and three, it doesn’t make Maximus any more heroic than he started out as because his nemesis never moves beyond being a darkened-eyed powder puff of Commodus as trickster. (In reality he was assassinated by the athlete Narcissus, who a year later would be thrown to wild beasts in the arena by order of the emperor Septimus Severus.) Yet, to Scott’s credit, the movie’s climax becomes moving. The sound effects editing goes wimpy-limpy in not enhancing the well-deserved slaps Lucilla gives Commodus upon their father’s death. (You know it’s coming and really want to feel much like we felt the undeserved slap delivered to Rodrigo’s father in El Cid.) Richard Harris, Derek Jacobi and Oliver Reed (who died during production) provide support and, with eyebrows as swept fins, David Hemmings in a screamer performance suggesting La Liz in a blimpy upholstery-like caftan and fright wig out of These Old Broads. Dubiously awarded Oscars for visual effects, sound, costume design. Several DVD versions available, including a 171 minute “extended edition,” which returns in proper continuity 17 minutes of previous edits and somewhat ameliorates the shortcomings, though we still don’t know what happened to Maximus’s dog.

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Text COPYRIGHT © 2001 RALPH BENNER  All Rights Reserved.