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Ridley Scott‘s historical drama follows the story of General Maximus Decimus Meridius (Russell Crowe), a successful leader who has led Emperor Marcus Aurelius’ army to the black forests of Germania. Victorious again, he’s poised to become the regent of Rome since Aurelius’ own son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) is too weak-willed and unworthy. Upon hearing this news, Commodus murders his father and has his guards take Maximus away with orders to kill him. They fail though Commodus does not know, instead sending assassins to kill Maximus’ wife and son. Betrayed, left for dead, and his family murdered, Maximus ends up a slave and sold to a former gladiator who trains him to be his best fighter with the promise that if he wins the crowd, he will get to Rome. They will be entertained.
Ridley’s dark and earthy film is drenched in sepia tones and heavy dialog, shot with breathtaking cinematography by John Mathieson, though the palette grows dreary with time, a directorial choice that tends to give the film a sometimes joyless quality. Still, this Academy Award winning film is a rousing, sometimes brutal fighting movie, that provides equal time to developing the central character, a complex man with a singular vision portrayed very well by Crowe. Well-written and immensely satisfying, it’s numerous flaws are easily overlooked by its production, performances, and music. It also has a remarkable opening shot.
Scott begins, a little unfortunately, with a long string of reading. Large blocks of text spell out the setting and overreaching plot that while presented beautifully with the achingly dramatic score by Hans Zimmer and Lisa Gerrard, hinders the first impression, especially since the story very easily makes everything the text explains just as clear. As Scott has opened a few films with text, including his masterpiece, Blade Runner, this can surely be attributed to him and not a studio pressure. Fortunately, once the words fade, Scott sets things right and delivers a powerful, deeply-affecting opening.
It starts with a closeup of a man’s hand dropping in from the top right, his beefy fingers spread open and running along the tops a wheat field ready for harvest. As the unseen man moves slowly forward, his hand skims along the crop, and there is a sense of knowing in his touch, an unspoken trust between the figure and the audience that this is a man of the land, connected to nature, wholesome and pure.
It then cuts to the image of the film’s protagonist, at this point unnamed. It is the first shot of the man we will soon learn is Maximus, and like any initial impression, is vital for making a judgment. Who is this character, what is his role in the film? How are we meant to interpret his actions. Certainly that can shift as the story unfolds, but establishing these factors from the start can profoundly alter how we proceed. He is adorned in armor and the pelt of a large animal, his dour expression a volatile mix of ferocity and contemplation. He does not welcome what lies ahead.
The image is bold and it is immediately, by intent, connected to the previous sequence of the lone hand. One belongs to the other, even if it’s not explicitly made. The figure is seen from the chest up, his head dropped slightly at an angle. The connection is further strengthened as it becomes clear he is reflecting on a time before, walking in a lush field (which will serve as a stark contrast to the carnage he is about to face). The somber tones of the lush score give this moment great weight, setting a tone that remains for the film’s duration.
Let’s consider that shift from the golden field to the isolated man framed in blackness. There is a hope in the gentle sway of the wheat and the assuring hand gliding over them. For nearly a half-minute we are drawn into this highly constricted shot, forced to populate our own vision of what it represents. It jumps with no fade straight to Maximus, the change is as jarring for us as it is for the man having the vision. We don’t want to leave that peaceful moment. Nor does Maximus. He turns to leave this private moment but spins back to see a solitary, colorful bird that appears to look right at him (directly into the camera) before fluttering away. Maximus watches it fly with a bittersweet smile, the implication obvious. He longs to do the same.
The name of the film itself has a lot of influence on our expectation of the story. Even a limited understanding of what a gladiator is offers hint to where the plot might take us. To begin as this does, soft, haunting, and decidedly non-violent forces us to examine our own assumptions. Interestingly, adding the wheat field shot was the idea of film editor Pietro Scalia, now a long time collaborator with Scott, then, working on his second film with the director. (Trivia bit: That’s not Russell Crowe’s hand but that of his stunt double Stuart Clark). The decision to insert this brief, dramatic image is a good one, especially as it reinforces later themes of a man bound by military duty yet driven by the soil under his feet. The dichotomy of the soldier who destroys and the farmer who creates is visited upon frequently in the story, appearing here first. Maximus is a true soldier and leader of men. It defines him and put him in a position of power and influence, but his heart is with the soil and the farm left behind to fight in the campaigns.
The bird is also of great significance as the tiny creature holds more than the metaphorical desire to fly free of the fight. The bird is ‘innocence’ as well, a thing devoid of understanding about the ways of man and the motivations for their wars. Here, in the burnt and gutted forest, as two armies lay waste to each other (something we have not seen yet but are about to), the small bird represents the indifference of nature to the meaningless battles humans partake on the land we all share. It has no stake in this fight, chooses no side and will feel no effect by its outcome.
In the following scenes, a horrific, bloody battle is shown in devastating detail with Maximus at the heart of it. We see the warrior within him win the day but not before great sacrifice and harrowing violence. By prefacing this conflict with the image of that warrior, alone in contemplation, remembering his life at his home far and away from the duty and the army he has charge of, we gain greater insight to the character, deepening our investment. He is humanized and centered before he becomes heroic. It’s a brilliant opening shot.
David Franzoni (story), David Franzoni (screenplay)
Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen, Richard Harris