Courage, Democracy, Entertainment, and Vengeance: Gladiator, starring Russell Crowe, directed by Ridley Scott

By Daniel Garrett

Directed by Ridley Scott
Starring Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix,
Connie Nielsen, Djimon Hounsou
DreamWorks, 2000

Is it possible to be brave and moral when power is aligned against you? Is it possible to use force or the vulgar appeal of might for an ideal or intimate purpose? Is it possible to have a life worth living when those you love have died? Gladiator is example of an entertaining epic, of a film that has great action and large themes—courage, family, honor, integrity, nation, democracy—that are attractive to a mass audience, and to individuals who want something to think about: in the film, a betrayed and enslaved warrior attempts to gain personal vengeance and redeem a corrupt Rome in which war and dictatorial personality and the entertainment of the mob are prevalent. Russell Crowe is that warrior, a brawny, honest, tough man, once a general, then a slave, now a gladiator; and Joaquin Phoenix is an ambitious, hurt, pale and perverted boy, the tormented, twisted new king and emperor, who helped his dying father to a quicker death, and is infatuated with his own sister, an elegant, imperious, and shrewd, but vulnerable woman, played by Connie Nielsen, an actress with a significant interest in ancient Rome. Gladiator is a film of sand and blood, of secret intrigue and smashing power, of family and friendship and bread and great robes and marble statues and sport and death, of noble ideas and brutal contests, a film of history and myth. The last dramatic scene is carried by personality—a heroic but humble and victorious but dying warrior, and a strong, relieved princess, and a betraying friend who remembers his better virtues—and carried by the gorgeous film’s momentum rather than what is likely or practical. The whole film inspires applause.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, was an intern at Africa Report, poetry editor for the male feminist magazine Changing Men, founded and acted as principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, wrote about painter Henry Tanner for Art & Antiques, organized the first interdepartmental environmental justice meeting at Audubon, wrote about fiction and poetry for World Literature Today and international film for Offscreen, and has done music reviews that constitute a history of popular music for The Compulsive Reader. Daniel Garrett’s work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Black Film Review, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Wax Poetics.