That Moment In ‘Gladiator’ (2000): Maximus Turns His Back
A closer look at a crucial moment in this classic action thriller.
Gladiator is a 2000 action/adventure film about a Roman general who is betrayed and his family murdered by an emperor’s corrupt son, coming back to Rome as a gladiator to seek revenge.
“Are you not entertained?” So says Maximus Decimus Meridius (Russell Crowe) a former Roman general, now slave gladiator in Ridley Scott‘s epic sword and sandals action thriller Gladiator, a film that while having its detractors, did very well at the box office and went on to win a number of Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Purely fictional, it plays with some historical facts in delivering a mostly satisfying story with plenty of jaw-dropping action sequences, if big battles and bloody arena fighting are your thing. Packed with plenty of memorable moments, the film has become highly-influential and parodied, but remains one of the best in the genre.
After leading a brutal victory against Germanic tribes in the final days of war, General Maximus is met by the Roman Emperor himself, Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) who has reshaped the Empire with decades of conquering. Despite his success, he fears Rome is falling to corruption and plans to name a regent to lead Rome in his stead, giving the title to Maximus. This does not go over well with Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), the emperor’s son, who is expecting to be named the new ruler. Bitter by his father’s choice, he murders him in grief and rage under the guise of an embrace, then announces himself emperor, demanding loyalty from Maximus, who refuses, knowing Marcus’ real intent. This further angers Commodus, who has been a lifelong friend with Maximus, but he sentences him to death, though unbeknownst to Commodus, the quick-thinking general escapes and learns that his family has been slaughtered. He soon ends up captured by slavers who take him to North Africa under the ownership of Proximo (Oliver Reed), a former gladiator, now trainer, who sees great potential in the solemn Roman soldier. He advices him to fight all the way to Rome and earn his place in the Colosseum where Maximus believes he can finally get his revenge.
THAT MOMENT IN
Gladiator is a dark and dirty movie, one never all that comfortable in quiet, and such, is loaded with a continuous run of action set pieces that center on combat, beit from the stunning opening conflict, featuring one of the best large-scale battles ever put to film, to much more personal bouts in various arenas where men fight to the death in gruesome contests. There are some hard knocks.
Meanwhile, Maximus is a man resigned to his fate, ready to die and journey to Elysium to meet his wife and son, wrecking his way through fight after fight with savage intent, something Proxima eventually curbs, telling him it’s more than just lopping off limbs and heads, it’s about winning the crowd with showmanship. That’s what will get him to Rome.
So that’s what he does and it’s not long before he’s earned himself a reputation and several fans while slicing and dicing his way to the top. At last, Proximo brings him and his troupe to Rome where his men are set to fight in the scheduled 150 Days of Games arranged by Commodus, who still doesn’t know Maximus is alive. But he soon will.
Now comes the re-enactment of the Roman victory over Carthage at the Battle of Zama in the famed Colosseum, the massive arena packed with cheering fans looking to see blood spilt. Commodus is in the stands, perched in the Emperor’s box as the slave gladiators, playing the part of the doomed Carthaginians take to the field as heavily armored Roman soldiers, some on chariots, charge them. Big surprise though, the slaves, rallied around Maximus’ years of training and skills, reverses history and defeat the attackers, definitely winning the crowd.
So well does Maximus and his men perform, it earns a visit from Commodus, who decides to take to the field to meet and congratulate the masked gladiator. This is Maximus’ chance. When the Emperor is close, he will strike down the man who betrayed him and his own father. He knows he will die soon after, but he will do so with glory and vengeance, except …
Coming up beside Commodus onto the field is Lucius (Spencer Treat Clark), his nephew and son to Lucilla (Connie Nielsen), sister to the Emperor, with whom Maximus is well acquainted, if you know what I mean. Not wanting to kill the boy’s uncle right in front of him, he chooses mercy and stays his sword, much to his agony. Meanwhile, Commodus beckons to the helmeted man, whose face is still obscured, to be the hero and reveal himself to him and the excited crowd, but Maximus refuses, simply saying his name is ‘Gladiator’ and then turns (gasp!) around and takes a few steps away. This riles Commodus and hush falls over the audience. No one shows their back to the Emperor. Commodus demands the man remove his helmet and so, Maximus does, saying,
My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius, commander of the armies of the north, general of the Felix Legions, 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.
Needless to say, Commodus is a bit flustered, standing slack-jawed speechless. In panic, he has his Praetorian guard surround Maximus and his men, which gets the crowd in a huff, sensing something isn’t fair. They just saw these men earn the right to live to the next day and aren’t about to see them offed. Not wholly understanding what is happening, they chant “live, live, live,” putting extreme pressure on Commodus to raise a thumb and spare Maximus’ life. And as he arranged the games in the first place to sort of win the crowd and be a popular leader, he’s got no choice. He gives his approval and Maximus is led away to fight again. Vengeance will have to wait.
The moment is a crucial one as it sets the stage for the rest of the film, but more importantly, it creates the greater shift in Commodus who now knows he has to kill Maximus but can’t do it cold-blooded as he did his father, but through loss in the Colosseum. This is the only way that he can keep the people on his side, and so he arranges for difficult one-on-one battles and such, but the point is that he is now feeling cornered. Lucilla is not to be trusted either, she and Maximus close and Commodus is already not a stable man, wanting to sleep with his sister so she can give him heirs. He’s a messed up guy and he’s only going to get further reckless.
So why is the moment so great? Well cinematically, it’s a wonderfully conceived and executed sequence, slowing the action down to bring two sharp points together. We are well into the story here and have come to know both sides, the plight of Maximus and the corruption of Commodus. The confrontation is inevitable, a trapping of the story, but the build up has been sensational, so when the two are at last given a chance to meet again, it has tremendous weight.
More significant is the position and expression of the two characters with the sniveling, smaller Commodus flanked by color guards, appearing weak despite his forces, while Maximus stands with fellow slaves, looking larger than life. The masked helmet, one he picked up earlier, one we didn’t give much thought, finally reveals its purpose, his identity meant to be hidden until he allows it to be exposed. And what a terrific reveal. With his back to the camera (and to Commodus) he slips off the rig and slowly gives a turn while delivering his speech. This is a very strong moment, punctuated by composers Hans Zimmer and Lisa Gerrard‘s rousing score. With the film to this point one where Maximus has been in such terrible depression and singular strife, the time has come to reset and channel those emotions to the end goal, and this spine-tingling revelation in the Colosseum gives us that twist and it’s ridiculously gratifying as all the pieces come together. It’s a great cinematic moment.