RECAP: Gladiator

Gladiator (2000): Ridley Scott

Coming out at the turn of the century, Gladiator represents Ridley Scott’s most successful film to date and in his best genre–historical epic.

ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: A Roman general left for dead becomes a gladiator to kill the man who orchestrated his demise: the emperor. 

Hero (9/10)

“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.”

Few paragraphs of dialogue summarize a character’s biography and motivations like that one, spoken by Russell Crowe as the General, after he turns his back on Emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), the man who ordered the murder of his wife and son, and against whom Maximus seeks said vengeance.

SO entertained
SO entertained

Maximus speaks to the emperor in this way because he was meant to be emperor. Gladiator opens with a battle between the legions of current emperor Marcus Aurelius, commanded by Maximus, and barbarian Germanic tribes.

The battle, a Roman victory, supposedly ends Rome’s intrigues in northern Europe, a kind of capstone on Aurelius’s two-plus decades ruling the empire.

Maximus, who fights valiantly whatever the reason, is pleased with the campaign’s end for one reason: he wants to return home. How long has he been away? “Two years, 264 days from this morning,” he tells Aurelius.

Events turn in Germania, and Maximus gets the chance to return home, but alone, without honor, assumed dead, and to the hanging burnt corpses of his family.

Marcus Aurelius wanted Maximus to become emperor, for one purpose, to restore imperial rule to the Senate. Commodus, the emperor’s son, on hearing this news, murders his father and orders his bodyguards to murder Maximus.

Maximus escapes, rides to his family home, buries his family, and swears revenge. He’s taken by slavers, raised in gladiatorial arenas, and comes to Rome to fight in Commodus’s games. He fights so well that the emperor wants to meet “The Spaniard.” When he does, Maximus delivers the lines that open this section, with enough venom to poison a snake.

The general of the Happy Legions is revered by his troops; they smile at him as he inspects the lines in Germania. Commodus’s sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen) has a thing for him. Marcus Aurelius calls him the son he wished he had raised.

People like Maximus, and that’s why Marcus Aurelius chooses him to be Emperor For a Day. “With all my heart,” Maximus says, “No.” The emperor says, “That is why it must be you.”

When Maximus sees his family dead, he embarks on his quest of revenge. He rides for days from Germania into Spain. He kills dozens of gladiators in podunk arenas and the Colosseum. He refuses to become emperor even though he swears to kill Commodus.

His family’s death reduces him to a man without the will to live, except long enough to achieve one goal: murder the emperor.

This goal is different than his earlier life purpose. Marcus Aurelius asks Maximus why he fights. “For the glory of Rome,” the general responds automatically. “And yet you have never seen it,” the emperor responds.

True. How strange that Rome’s top general would never have seen the city. They couldn’t hop aboard a C-130 back then, but still. Maximus arrives in Rome, not a as hero, but as a slave. The city’s, and especially the Colosseum’s grandeur impress The Spaniard, but its politics do not.

“I am a slave,” Maximus barks at Lucilla. “What possible difference can I make?” Turns out, all the difference.

Villain (8/10)

Phoenix mesmerizes as the usurping emperor Commodus. He first appears while riding toward the Germanic front, boasting to his sister that he will soon be named emperor.

The trip to Germania ends with Commodus murdering his father. He really wanted that job. Commodus acts like that snobbish older son who knows he’s got a job at his dad’s car dealership lined up after college. And a posh salesman job with a line toward eventual ownership.

Yeah, things are going pretty well for Commodus. He meets his father one night after the battle is won. “You will not be emperor,” Marcus Aurelius says. Gulp. It’s to be Maximus.

Jordan Face
Jordan Face

A hard scene to watch, Commodus recalls a time when his father wrote him a letter listing the four chief virtues: wisdom, justice, fortitude and temperance. “But none of my virtues were on your list,” Commodus says, choking back many, but not all, his tears.

Marcus Aurelius drops to his knees to calm his son. “Your failings as a son,” he says, “are my failings as a father.” I’m not sure if dragging your son down a level after you’ve told him he’s not getting that dealership job after college is the way to parent with love.

Commodus understands this, because he says, “I would have butchered the whole world, if you would only love me.” He says this as he embraces his father and suffocates him.

He would have butchered the whole world for his father’s love. Isn’t that how neglected children feel sometimes? Problem is, Commodus COULD butcher (much of) the world. He’s an argument against himself being emperor.

That doesn’t stop him from usurping the throne. His first task as self-appointed emperor is to have Maximus killed. That fails. But he doesn’t know it for a while. He returns to Rome and quarrels with the Senate.

During Commodus’s first meeting with the Senate, he hears a senator inform him of Rome’s many problems. Commodus hears, but doesn’t listen. He’s more interested in twirling the point of a sword on the floor. Later, he threatens to toss that senator to a plague victim.

Perhaps no scene is more memorable in Gladiator than when Maximus reveals himself to Commodus. I already quoted Crowe’s speech, but Phoenix offers an equally memorable moment. ***

Commodus, recall, believes Maximus is dead. He learns the opposite when he sees the general’s face before him. To say that Commodus looks as if he’s seen a ghost makes it sound like he’s gotten off easy. Phoenix looks more like he’s been punched in the stomach by a ghost, which is about what happened to his character.

The real Commodus actually did climb into the ring with gladiators. The movie version wanted to give Romans “something they’ve never seen before.” *** Rome

Phoenix toes the line, without falling into, camp. He creeps on his sister, oozing anti-charm like a dark quark. In each scene he looks jaundiced. There’s a casual malice to Commodus, as if cruelty flows from him like air. I loved it.

Action/Effects (9/10)

Two terrific action scenes soar in Gladiator like the columns of Trajan and Septimus Severus. The first opens the film. The battle in/for Germania pits Maximus and 5,000 centurions against a bearded horde that doesn’t know when it is conquered.

Only a taste, this scene shows us Rome’s might at its fringes, and that nothing can stand in its way. The Romans are shown preparing their lines for war. The metal and fire of industry comprise much of Rome’s power. Soldiers crank wheels and cinch ropes that will, at Maximus’s signal, “unleash hell.”

He wasn’t far off. The Germanic tribe sends a Roman peace negotiator back to his brethren and without his head. “They say no,” Maximus shrewdly interprets. The Romans weren’t going to pack up and leave anyway.

Winning the crowd
Winning the crowd in the Colosseum

Maximus leads a band of cavalry from the woods. The foot soldiers have cleared away much of the forest to better suit their tactics, perhaps antiquity’s most effective. The legion marches toward the charging barbarians in a two-line format. With their rectangular shields, the lines can create a tortoise formation by slapping shields from the back line atop the front line’s forward-facing shields.

The Romans do just that as the arrows and spears fall on them. With little damage, they are prepared for hand-to-hand combat.

Roman lines break, but the cavalry charge is effective. Maximus kills a few enemies before being unhorsed. He’s forced to fight from his back, repelling two men before gaining his feet. He nearly kills Quintus, his second-in-command, before flashing him a *** smile.

The battle is quickly won. It is the last battle of Rome, but not for Rome.

The second action scene occurs on the floor of the Colosseum, one of history’s deadliest buildings. How many people died in Flavian Amphitheater? Ten thousand? One hundred thousand? Half a million? Hard to say, but Maximus and his crew ensured that they weren’t part of the body count.

A senator brays to the crowd of 50,000 that Proximo’s gladiators represent the barbarians of Hannibal, Carthage’s greatest general and Rome’s all-time worst enemy. “We who are about to die salute you,” the slaves chant to Commodus, all but Maximus.

“Whatever comes through those gates,” Maximus tells the gladiators, “you have a better chance of survival if we work together.” *** From those gates burst about six chariot crews. “Come together!” Maximus shouts. Most obey, and those who don’t are shot by the spear throwers and archers riding the chariots.

Proximo, late to the battle, watches with glee from a private box as the gladiators form a tortoise shell. The chariots encircle the formation, but the blades sticking out from the wheels can’t penetrate the shields. The huge gladiator, who looks as if he could stop a chariot by punching it, is shot in the leg. He’s nearly cut in half, but Maximus saves him.

Maximus orders a diversion that breaks one chariot. And another. And another. An archer is sliced in half. A chariot flips through a gate and another crashes into the wall. With so much detritus, the gladiators move chariots to create a barrier.

Maximus mounts a horse and baits a chariot into chasing him. His horse leaps the barricade, but chariots don’t leap. It smashes and the gladiators pounce on their tormentors. The beatings are savage. Helmets to the face. Commodus chuckles and sticks his tongue out like Michael Jordan. Remember, he would butcher the whole world for his father, in whose honor the games are being held.

Juba (Djimon Hounsou) tosses a sword to Maximus. Two chariots remain. The gladiators line up across the chariots and pelt them with spears. It’s all academic now. Maximus cuts a couple of throats and the battle is over. Carthage wins.

“I rather enjoy surprises,” Commodus says to an apologetic senator. Guessing he’ll change his tune in a few minutes, after he meets The Spaniard.

These two fantastic action scenes are (musically) scored identically. They show Maximus on both sides of the Roman divide.

Sidekicks (6/8)

Maximus does a lot of work on his own, but he drops from Rome’s #3 to a literal slave. Slaves need much help. These are some of Maximus’s helpers:

ProximoOliver Reed‘s final onscreen performance ends with his character’s death. How presumptive, as Reed died before the release of Gladiator. Proximo buys Maximus in a package deal with Juba and the huge guy who knows no pain.

Proximo was once a gladiator himself. He was the best, not because he could kill the fastest, but because “the crowd loved me.” He was good enough to have earned his freedom from Marcus Aurelius.

Proximo instructs his property. "Win the crowd, and you'll win your freedom."
Proximo instructs his property. “Win the crowd, and you’ll win your freedom.”

Proximo is the anti-Aurelius in Gladiator. Whereas the late emperor would ask Maximus questions like “What is Rome?” and “How will I be remembered?”, Proximo asks no questions. “Thrust this [sword] into another man’s flesh, and they will applaud you,” he says. He tells his purchased gladiators that he will be a better parent to them than “that bitch of a mother that brought you screaming into the world.”

Marcus Aurelius lived with his head in clouds, A practical man, Proximo scratched through the dirt to earn a place in the world. Both men owned, so to speak, Maximus during the film. Maximus speaks eagerly to Proximo of his desire to kill Commodus. “Why would I want that?” the old man asks. “He makes me rich.”

Juba: Djimon Hounsou should be in more films, but I’ll settle for Best Picture winners. Juba hails from lands far from the Roman Empire’s domain, yet here he is, a slave to it. He speaks of his daughter and wife, living out their days in their village.

Juba doing the sidekick thing
Juba doing the sidekick thing

Juba smiles when he says he will meet them in the afterlife, where he will be very soon.

Juba is Maximus’s staunchest ally. The pair are chained together during their first gladiatorial bout in Zucchabar. That kind of (figurative) bond is never broken. It’s Juba who buries Maximus’s totems in the Colosseum.

Henchmen (3/8)

No one in the empire seems to enjoy Commodus’s company. They might enjoy the power he bequeaths them, but not more. Thus has he few henchmen.

One senator, a skeezy man named *** helps Commodus ensnare those conspiring against him by telling him of a sea snake that will feign death to trap its victims.

I hate to do it, but I have to place Lucilla (Nielsen) in this category. She might be better described as a prisoner to Commodus, but “Prisoners” isn’t a section of these recaps. In fact she chides Maximus, telling him he doesn’t know what it’s like to live in a prison all his life. “Life is more simple for a soldier,” she says.

Commodus and Lucilla/sitting on the throne/K-I-S-...
Commodus and Lucilla/sitting on the throne/K-I-S-…

And Lucilla is a prisoner. Her wardrobe consists of ribbons tied around her dresses, as if they are shackles. She has a son, Lucius, and Commodus has no children, making the boy next in line. That’s a problem for Lucilla, and proves her undoing.

Lucilla plots to have Maximus freed to lead his soldiers into Rome to overthrow Commodus. For some reason she talks to her son about Maximus’s being “The Savior of Rome.” Big mistake. Commodus hears of this and forces from his sister the entire plot.

You can’t blame her for trying to kill her brother. Dude’s a creep, always hitting on her. He demands she produce an heir for him.

Stunts (5/6)

I need hardly tell you that hand-to-hand combat dominates Gladiator‘s action scenes. Combat scenes are some of the many places that the film shines.

Once Commodus learns Maximus is alive, he arranges, again, to have him killed. He lures from retirement the only undefeated champion in Roman history, Tigris of Gaul.

Tigris has let himself go in his five years of retirement, but that doesn’t wane his lethality. Wearing an Oedipal mask and a metal helmet, Tigris is armed with a gladius and an ax.

Maximus sports a sword and a shield. He wears his patented gray chest plate armor. Tigris opens the fight by kicking sand in Maximus’s face and coming at him hard.

These two slap their weapons at each other as if they were air drumming. Rat-tat-tat go their weapons on each other. Then the tigers come out. Tigris knows where they are, and Maximus keeps nearly falling into them.


During this slap fight between Rome’s greatest gladiatorial champions, a tiger latches onto Maximus. The general spins around and plunges his sword into the beast’s neck. ROAR.

Maximus, fighting the dying tiger and the charging Tigris from his back, again, draws first blood by smashing the ax point into Tigris’s foot. The old champ drools blood through his mask’s mouth.

Maximus throws off the tiger and kicks the man over, lifting his ax and nearly killing him, deciding at the last moment to ignore the emperor’s order and become “Maximus the Merciful.”

Gladiator offers five (!) gladiatorial contests: two in the outlying provinces (minor leagues) and three in the Colosseum. They are fast-paced and quickly cut. Action viewers might not be used to this, but Scott’s style adheres closer to real life.

Fighting with weapons is exhausting, especially if you’ve sustained injury or have barely eaten in days. Maximus dispatches half a dozen gladiators in an early bout and the crowd boos him for it. Yet a brief fight would have been much closer to the norm.

Climax (3/6)

Of all the characters that would ruin Maximus’s escape plan, did you think it would be young Lucius? Well, it was. Commodus catches him playing as Maximus, “The Savior of Rome.” When the boy whispers in his uncle’s ear who had called Maximus that, Commodus shakes like he’s learned his mother has cancer.

Commodus uses the boy to draw out the plot from Lucilla. The Praetorian Guard, having already arrested Senator Gracchus, moves on Proximo and the others in the plot.

Proximo, perhaps “in danger of becoming a good man,” sends Maximus on his way, accepting that he will soon die. The other gladiators fight the Guards to cover their general’s escape.

Maximus finds armor waiting for him in the passageways beneath Rome. He finds Cicero, his servant, waiting on a horse outside the walls. Running to him, he’s too late to save him from three arrows. Maximus is captured.

That morning, the sun warms Commodus’s face as he hears news of Maximus’s capture. Commodus, speaking to his sister in the third person as if she is not present, though she is, tells her that if she even looks at him funny, Lucius dies. If she goes out using the Cleopatra method, Lucius dies. “You will love me,” Commodus says, “as I loved you. You will provide me with an heir.”

Lucilla can neither look at nor speak to him. “Am I not merciful?” Commodus asks. “AM I NOT MERCIFUL?”

The arrested Maximus the Merciful, Savior of Rome, will have a final fight before his adoring fans. They chant his name in the stands. Rose petals adorn the sand below.

Beneath the arena Maximus is chained to a platform that will raise him to the arena floor. Commodus, adorned in white armor, not the imperial purple, speaks with his enemy. He congratulates Maximus for being a slave who defied an emperor. “Now the people want to know how the story ends,” the emperor says.

Commodus challenges Maximus to a fight to the death. Maximus laughs. “Do you think me afraid?” *** Commodus asks. “I think you have been afraid all your life,” Maximus says.

Commodus leans in and stabs his antagonist in the torso, ordering Quintus, Guard captain, to conceal the wound. The dais rises into the heaven-like sunlight above. A group of guards surround the general and the emperor. Each receives a sword. They battle.

Early in the film we watched a shirtless Commodus practice swordplay against a handful of opponents. Their moves were choreographed, as you could hear one of the practitioners counting sword hits like they were dance steps.

Back in the Colosseum, Commodus charges the stumbling Maximus, who rallies to fend off the attacks. Were it not for the gaping wound in his side we would say that Maximus was toying with the emperor. Commodus is, however, faster with his strokes, and he’s the first to draw blood, slicing Maximus’s leg.

Commodus before he stabs Maximus in the back
Commodus before he literally stabs Maximus in the back

Maximus fights back to slash the emperor’s arm. Commodus probably sees his blood for the first time in his life. Maximus starts to see flashes of a wood door–the gates of the afterlife–as Commodus begs Quintus for a sword. The leader of the Praetorian Guards orders all swords sheathed. (A key point I’ll touch on later.)

No worries, as Commodus has a knife up his sleeve. Villains always do. He slashes at Maximus, who dodges, barely existing in the mortal plane, until Maximus blocks the knife arm and delivers several unanswered punches. He grabs the emperor’s knife arm and drives the blade into his neck.

Crowe gives the camera a thousand-yard stare as his character approaches his family in the afterlife. Quintus calls to Maximus, and you can see Crowe shaking off the cobwebs and stumbling to meet the Guards’ gaze. Free my men, The General says, and reinstate Senator Gracchus.

Lucilla comes down and asks the gladiators to bear his body away. The movie should have ended there. For some reason Lucilla gets the last word and Juba returns to the Colosseum to bury Maximus’s figurines.

Jokes (1/4)

There’s juuuuuust enough levity to keep Gladiator afloat. Its few jokes come from its slaves. Juba and the huge gladiator joke about swift deaths. They live as close as they can to death, so the idea of it makes them laugh. Commodus, the senators, and Lucilla are afraid to die. They believe themselves above death.

Setting (2/4)

Ancient Rome. A time and place of plebeian ideals and patrician enslavement. Gladiator‘s Rome is as gleaming and spotless as a mall floor in the morning.

The effects team tinged overviews of the city in blue, adding sombre tones to music that soars as high as the architecture. Look at the Colosseum’s exterior and notice the birds flying around, helpfully providing scale for the building.

Watch the scene when Maximus first enters the acclaimed building. The camera is set low, shooting upward, encircling the blue-clad gladiators as they take in the immense, unimaginable size of the world’s largest public building. We see the building as they see it, and it’s spectacular.

Gladiator spends as much time in the provinces as the capital. Germania, Spain, and Zucchabar (invented location) all get scenes. We expect nothing less from ancient epics.

There’s little insightful about these locations. They are spartan sets; Scott did not want them overshadowing his scenes, which they do not.

Commentary (0/2)

Maximus begins Gladiator as the second- or third-most powerful person in the Roman Empire, and, arguably, the world. Marcus Aurelius dies, and in a few days Maximus becomes a slave.

Has any film character fallen as far as fast as that without dying? A debatable fact. What’s certain is that Maximus rose back to his former status by movie’s end.

Maximus is a shockingly mobile character. Shockingly to Romans, at least, who lived in a semi-caste system. Top men (senators, praetorians, generals) were not meant to fall as far as Maximus, nor were slvaes meant to rise as highly. Maximus achieved this in a few months.

Scott’s Roman Empire can be viewed as a proto-democracy nestled inside absolute despotism. Consider the scene in which Commodus meets Maximus in the arena for the first time. As the crowd chants “Live! Live! Live!” Commodus turns his thumb upward as if a magnet pulled on his ring. He wanted nothing more in life than to kill Maximus, but the crowd wouldn’t let him.

Senator Gracchus extols Commodus’s ruling style to a bemoaning senator. “The mob is Rome,” he says. ***

Despite all this, I don’t think Gladiator has much to say about the fickleness of power; I want to read much into it. The movie is a ripping good yarn that becomes a well acted revenge fantasy after Commodus kills Maximus’s wife and son.

Offensiveness (0/-2)

Gladiator wisely steers clear of more base depictions of casual -isms among residents of antiquity. You won’t find soldiers raping and pillaging, for example. You will hear talk of “barbarians,” but from the people who practically invented the word to describe the speech patterns of Germanic tribes, exactly the people the Romans were conquering in the film’s opening sequence.


  • (1) All time great soundtrack from Hans Zimmer.

Summary (47/68): 69%

Gladiator has long been in my personal top 10 movies, and watching it anew, 16 years after its release, changes nothing.