Earlier this year, Ridley Scott’s Gladiator celebrated its 20th anniversary. The celebrated film wasn’t only the second highest-grossing film of 2000 (only behind Mission: Impossible 2), it dominated the next year’s Academy Awards, winning Best Picture and netting Best Actor for star Russell Crowe — an impressive feat, especially given that the movie is fucking terrible.
Call it a two-decade-old hot take if you must, but Gladiator is a dumb, bad action flick with a big budget and… that’s it. Yet it somehow tricked people — and the Motion Picture Academy of America — into regarding it as some dazzling historical epic, despite being a mash-up “homage” (to put it charitably) of Stanley Kubrick’s masterful Spartacus and the 1964 flop Fall of the Roman Empire, tarted up with a bunch of incredibly violent, yet practically indecipherable fight scenes. Legendary film critic Roger Ebert knew the score, writing in his original review, “[The movie] employs depression as a substitute for personality, and believes that if the characters are bitter and morose enough, we won’t notice how dull they are.”
If you don’t recall, Gladiator is about Rome’s most kickass yet peace-loving general Maximus, a Spanish man who just wants to be done with war so he can return to his Spanish farm and Spanish family, played by noted Spanish actor Russell Crowe. Maximus is charged with restoring the Roman republic by emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris). But the noble emperor’s shithead son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) would prefer to be in charge instead. And so, he murders his dad before Maximus is officially put in charge and has Maximus sent off for execution. Unfortunately for Commodus, Maximus escapes; unfortunately for Maximus, Commodus has his family executed, and the despondent former general lets himself get enslaved and turned into a gladiator. Eventually, Maximus becomes such a good gladiator that he gladiates his way into killing Commodus in a one-on-one match in the Colosseum, freeing the Roman Empire before dying from his wounds.
On a basic storytelling level, Gladiator is dumb as rocks. The characters are cartoonish: Maximus is the Roman Empire’s most skilled and most brutal killer, yet all he wants to do is personally plow his fields; Commodus is so evil he wants to rape his own sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen). Maximus, a slave with no rights whatsoever, becomes so popular that somehow the goddamned Emperor of Rome feels he doesn’t have the power to have Maximus killed. You also don’t need to be a historian to wonder, if Marcus Aurelius wanted to turn the Roman empire into a republic, why didn’t he do it himself sometime over the last 20 years of his reign?
Yet the stupidest part of this very stupid movie has to be the stunningly contrived way it ham-handedly sets up the final fight between Maximus and Commodus. Maximus’ fame is such that Commodus decides he has to personally fight the slave in one-on-one combat for control of the empire, which is so absurd it boggles the mind. Let’s put this in a modern perspective. Imagine that in the 1980s, Ronald Reagan felt so threatened by Hulk Hogan’s immense popularity that Reagan chose to wrestle him for the presidency. (This was when Hogan was a genuine, massive pop-culture superstar and not a sad racist man who looks like an overcooked hotdog.) Then imagine that everyone, including the judicial and legislative branches of government, decided this was an okay and legally binding way of transferring the highest office in the country. Oh, and then Hogan won the match and took control of America, because Maximus wins the fight and commands that Rome be turned into a republic again.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the script was constantly rewritten, even through shooting. Reportedly, Scott found the first draft’s dialogue too “on the nose” — Crowe himself told BBC Radio in 2016 that the production only had 21 pages when they started filming, calling it “the dumbest way possible to make a film.” Back in 2000, Time Magazine reported that Crowe constantly questioned the dialogue and frequently stormed off set. According to Nicole LaPorte’s book The Men Who Would Be King: An Almost Epic Tale of Moguls, Movies and a Company Called DreamWorks, Crowe not only threatened to kill a producer, but said of the movie’s most iconic line — “And I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next”— “It was shit, but I’m the greatest actor in the world and I can make even shit sound good.”
If you believe the scholarly record that is IMDb Trivia, Crowe wasn’t the only problem on set. Supposedly Oliver Reed hated Crowe so much he challenged him to a fight. Richard Harris simply refused to learn new lines. During the scene where Commodus murders his father, Phoenix acted so hard he fainted, beginning a long career of on-set antics. Reed demanded that his working day end every day at 5 p.m., and drank copiously on the weekends, leading to his death via heart attack three weeks before principal photography ended. Wikipedia — that other scholarly record — states, “According to witnesses, [Reed] drank eight pints of German lager, a dozen shots of rum, half a bottle of whiskey and a few shots of Hennessy cognac” before he collapsed and died of a heart attack.
Furthermore, Gladiator looks like everyone making the movie felt angry and depressed. It’s dark and drab and filmed primarily in browns and oranges, so much so that the Universal Pictures and DreamWorks logos at the beginning of the movie are themselves orange. The film’s many battle scenes are comprised of about a hundred shots each, mostly all only half a second long and all close enough that it’s impossible to get any sense of what’s happening, where and to whom. The battles are just muddled chaos until the action finally winds down, and Crowe’s Maximus resumes glowering. The few battle shots that linger are maddeningly altered — their frame rate drops, like the movie is buffering on a shitty Wi-Fi connection, and also look absolutely terrible.
Although I’m a big fan of Roman history and classic literature, I do know that criticizing a big-budget action flick like Gladiator for its historical inaccuracy would be pedantic and unnecessarily mean-spirited… unless Ridley Scott claimed he wanted the film to be historically accurate and hired Harvard professor Kathleen Coleman as its chief academic consultant, which he did. It would take thousands upon thousands of words to explain everything the movie messed up — my personal favorite is that the German barbarians in the film’s initial battle used a Zulu war chant — but I will say Coleman felt the film was so inaccurate and her expertise so unheeded that she asked to be listed in the film’s credits without her job title so no one would erroneously believe she’d signed off on it.
Despite this, despite Crowe, despite the script, somehow everything came together to form the Best Picture of 2001. “Are you not entertained?!” screamed Maximus at the crowd, after one of the movie’s muddy, bloody fight scenes. Clearly, most audience members were. But much like the audiences watching gladiators fight in Ancient Rome, all they really got was a bunch of people running around in sandals butchering each other.
At least the Romans didn’t pretend it was high art.