Gladiator (2000), and Those About to Die

Gladiator won the Oscar for Best Picture of 2000, and four others: Best Actor (Russell Crowe), Best Costume Design, Best Sound and Best Visual Effects. It lost in seven categories, three each to Traffic and to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which won both Hugo and Nebula that year.

Of the other four Oscar nominees, I have not seen Traffic, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Erin Brockovich, though I have seen Chocolat. 2000 was a difficult year for us, and apart from Chocolat, the only other 2000 films I have seen to the end are Almost Famous, Chicken Run and The Dish, all of which I really like, probably more than I liked GladiatorO Brother, Where Art Thou and Bring It On. IMDB users rank Gladiator as the best film of the year on both rankings. Here’s a trailer.

Two actors here have returned from previous Oscar-winners. Most notoriously, Oliver Reed, as gladiator trader Proximo, actually died of alcohol poisoning partway through making the film; way back in 1968 he was bad boy Bill Sykes in Oliver!

More recently, Tommy Flanagan, who is our hero’s loyal servant Cicero here, was also a close ally of the doomed hero of Braveheart in 1995.

There are a fair number of Doctor Who crossovers as well, starting of course with Sir Derek Jacobi, Senator Gracchus here and six years later Professor Yana and briefly the Master in Utopia:

Tony Curran is one of the assassins who fail to kill our hero, and also was Vincent van Gogh in Vincent and the Doctor (2012).

David Scholfield is Falco here and went on to be Odin, leader of the Mire, in The Girl Who Died (2015).

I could not find good Gladiator shots of David Bailie, credited as the engineer operating the catapults in the opening battle scene, and also of course Dask in Robots of Death (1978), or of Alun Raglan, here a Praetorian guard, and Mo Northover in the 2010 story The Hungry Earth / Cold Blood.

So. Before I start, the opening titles greatly amused me:

That’s “Northern England”, or, as the locals call it, “Scotland”. (Subsequent social media discussion revealed that the Antonine Wall has a bit of a marketing problem.)

The film is the story of Maximus, chosen successor of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who is displaced by the Emperor’s horrible homicidal son Commodus. Maximus escapes Commodus’ assassination attempt, but is captured by slavers in Spain and sold into slavery in North Africa. He comes to Rome as a gladiator, wins all his battles and challenges Commodus for power in Rome. They both die. It’s great to look at, especially if you are the sort of person who likes to see acres of rippling male flesh (limited appeal for me, I’m afraid). But I think we had a rather similar plot with a happier ending 41 years ago.

The scenes set in Africa, like Casablanca, have a notable lack of actual Africans, apart from Djimon Hounsou as Juba, our hero’s ally and the black guy in the film.

I thought Connie Nielsen was very good as Commodus’ elder sister Lucilla, even though she is given very little to work with and has the only female speaking part to have more than one scene. (Later to appear as Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons, in Wonder Woman.)

The core performances of Richard Harris as Marcus Aurelius, Joaquin Phoenix as Commodus and Russell Crowe as Maximus are all solid and carry the story. (And Oliver Reed and Derek Jacobi, already noted, are good too.)

The filmography is good and the music really good.


But at the same time there isn’t really much there there. I’m putting it two thirds of the way down my list of Oscar winners, ahead of My Fair Lady, which may have more parts for women but is much more sexist, and behind How Green Was My Valley, also a spectacular landscape film but with a bit more of a human heart.

Its influence is undeniable, of course, and I can’t resist posting the stunning 2004 Pepsi commercial starring Britney Spears, Beyoncé and Pink and the music of Queen:


The film is supposedly based on Those About to Die, a 1958 book by Daniel P. Mannix IV, which starts off as a historical survey of Roman games and then becomes two short stories, the first longer than the second, about men who worked in and around the arena. The second paragraph of the third chapter is:

The greatest naumachia of all time was the naval engagement staged by Claudius. As Augustus’ lake was too small, the mad emperor decided to use the Fucine Lake (now called the Lago di Fucino) some sixty miles to the east of Rome. This lake had no natural outlet and in the spring it often flooded many miles of surrounding county. To overcome this trouble, a tunnel three and a half miles long had been cut through solid rock from the lake to the Litis River to carry off the surplus water. This job had taken thirty thousand men eleven years to finish. For the dedication of the opening of this tunnel, Claudius decided to stage a fight between two navies on the lake. The galleys previously used in such engagements had been small craft with only one bank of oars. For this fight, there were to be twenty-four triremes (three banks of oars), all regulation ocean-going warships — and twenty-six biremes (double bank). This armada was divided into two fleets of twenty-five ships each and manned by nineteen hundred criminals under the command of two famous gladiators. One fleet was to represent the Rhodians and the other the Sicilians and both groups wore the appropriate costumes.

In fact the book is much less about gladiators and more about the people who arranged fights with animals in the arena, particularly the arrangements for torture and execution by damnatio ad bestias. Mannix has a bit of a fixation with the unpleasant things a trained animal can do to a woman prisoner. But he also makes interesting comparisons with the showmanship of the twentieth century, and although it’s really not all that interesting a subject he covers it breezily enough.

The next Oscar-winning film is A Beautiful Mind; but before we get there, it’s going to be Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Fellowship of the Ring.

1920s: Wings (1927-28) | The Broadway Melody (1928-29)
1930s: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30) | Cimarron (1930-31) | Grand Hotel (1931-32) | Cavalcade (1932-33) | It Happened One Night (1934) | Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, and books) | The Great Ziegfeld (1936) | The Life of Emile Zola (1937) | You Can’t Take It with You (1938) | Gone with the Wind (1939, and book)
1940s: Rebecca (1940) | How Green Was My Valley (1941) | Mrs. Miniver (1942) | Casablanca (1943) | Going My Way (1944) | The Lost Weekend (1945) | The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) | Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) | Hamlet (1948) | All the King’s Men (1949)
1950s: All About Eve (1950) | An American in Paris (1951) | The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) | From Here to Eternity (1953) | On The Waterfront (1954, and book) | Marty (1955) | Around the World in 80 Days (1956) | The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) | Gigi (1958) | Ben-Hur (1959)
1960s: The Apartment (1960) | West Side Story (1961) | Lawrence of Arabia (1962) | Tom Jones (1963) | My Fair Lady (1964) | The Sound of Music (1965) | A Man for All Seasons (1966) | In the Heat of the Night (1967) | Oliver! (1968) | Midnight Cowboy (1969)
1970s: Patton (1970) | The French Connection (1971) | The Godfather (1972) | The Sting (1973) | The Godfather, Part II (1974) | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) | Rocky (1976) | Annie Hall (1977) | The Deer Hunter (1978) | Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
1980s: Ordinary People (1980) | Chariots of Fire (1981) | Gandhi (1982) | Terms of Endearment (1983) | Amadeus (1984) | Out of Africa (1985) | Platoon (1986) | The Last Emperor (1987) | Rain Man (1988) | Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
1990s: Dances With Wolves (1990) | The Silence of the Lambs (1991) | Unforgiven (1992) | Schindler’s List (1993) | Forrest Gump (1994) | Braveheart (1995) | The English Patient (1996) | Titanic (1997) | Shakespeare in Love (1998) | American Beauty (1999)
21st century: Gladiator (2000) | A Beautiful Mind (2001) | Chicago (2002) | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) | Million Dollar Baby (2004, and book) | Crash (2005) | The Departed (2006) | No Country for Old Men (2007) | Slumdog Millionaire (2008) | The Hurt Locker (2009)
2010s: The King’s Speech (2010) | The Artist (2011) | Argo (2012) | 12 Years a Slave (2013) | Birdman (2014) | Spotlight (2015) | Moonlight (2016) | The Shape of Water (2017) | Green Book (2018) | Parasite (2019)
2020s: Nomadland (2020) | CODA (2021)

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