Gladiator – Great Storytelling, Bad History

Disclaimer: There are a lot of people who rag on the Gladiator movie from the historical standpoint. Which is fair enough, because there are a boatload of historical inaccuracies. But Gladiator is also an extremely well-crafted story, hitting many emotional ‘hot buttons.’ Here are five reasons I loathe and five reasons I love this movie:


On the loathe:

  1. Gladiators didn’t fight animals! Argh! There were a class of fighters in the amphitheatre who fought animals (bestiarii), and a class who ‘hunted’ animals (venatores) – sometimes amidst lush nature-inspired scenery. But gladiators only fought other gladiators in duels of two or, very rarely, three. Just say no to tigers.
  2. Playing loosie-goosie with a real emperor’s death. I know this seems petty of me, but I really don’t like when writers take a known fact of history and change it completely. Marcus Aurelius wasn’t killed by Commodus, he (likely) died of a fever. Don’t f*** up people’s limited understanding of historical fact by giving them something that seems more ‘real’ because it’s in a movie. The overall playing loose with the facts is summed up very nicely by this article.
  3. So much wrong with the Battle of Zama scene (with the chariots and lots of gladiators working as an army unit). So very much wrong. I don’t know if I can go on. Honestly, it would have been better if they had just filmed a naumachia (mock-naval battle) and gone for the whole hog! Aside: The scene itself was great from a cinematic standpoint.
  4. Where’s the colour? The buildings and statues in Rome are presented as white – they way we would picture them. But in ancient times the statues would have been painted in life-like colours. The columns would also have been painted. They did a great job on effects, but it could have used that extra touch to transport us back into the ‘real world’ instead of a museum.
  5. It was way too easy to kill Maximus’ family. I know the plot made him out to be a ‘simple farmer turned solider’ – but look at his estate. He was well-off by the time the story begins, therefore he should have had dozens, possibly hundreds of slaves working his fields, tending to the household and production of goods, and protecting his family. While from a story point there could have been a mini-fight scene at his home and ended up with the same result, I disliked how easy it seemed to be for just a few guys to ride in and destroy it all.

On the love:

  1. Tight, well-constructed story. There are some nit-picky things in the editing department that every move has to deal with, but by and large the plot is smooth, giving us only the information we need to take us logically and emotionally from one scene to the next.
  2. Every character’s motivation is clear. From Maximus and Lucilla to Proximo and Senator Graccus – every character acts in a way that makes sense for that character. And when, for example, Lucilla betrays the plot of the Republicans at the end, we perfectly understand her rationale in protecting her son.
  3. The movie is the highly personal journey of our hero, Maximus. The other characters exist to round out Maximus’ story-line, but we are never in doubt that this movie is being driven by his desire for revenge and his sense of responsibility to the old emperor. Every move that Maximus makes is with one of these two motives in mind.
  4. While it is Maximus’ personal journey, it does double duty by carrying the theme of tyranny vs. democracy. This was powerful theme even in ancient Rome, where the Senate was the seat of power for hundreds of years before the Empire. As a storytelling technique, pitting Maximus as the people’s champion vs. Commodus as the corrupt tyrant – and layering that on top of the personal animosity between the two characters – makes for a very highly charged and emotional final scene.
  5. Ramping up the emotional stakes. The death of Maximus’ wife and young son was a clear indication that this movie was not looking to find a happy ending. It’s still painful for me to watch the scene where Maximus finds his family, after struggling through so much – his despair at his failure is gut-wrenching. I also appreciated that the hero died at the end. (Oops, spoiler). There are not many movies that even dare to do that, or that have done it so well.

So there you have it. Do you give Gladiator the thumbs up or thumbs down? (Though, historically speaking, we aren’t even sure which thumbs was the good one…)

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