Episode 3: Gladiator


In preparation for the March 28 release of Darren Aronofsky’s epic Noah, starring Russell Crowe, Nate defends another Russell Crowe epic set in ancient times: Gladiator. Ryan and Nate clash with the fury of slaves forced to fight for their survival.  This is the showdown you’ve been waiting for.

Do you agree with Nate or Ryan?  Do you find yourself getting steamed, just wishing you could set one of us straight? Get involved in the discussion in our comments section!

In this episode, Nate briefly mentions letterboxd.com, which is a great website for tracking, rating, and reviewing movies while following friends to see what they’ve been watching.  Once you set up your free account, follow Nate and Ryan to see what they’re watching.

Surprisingly, this is not a sponsored post. If you know how to get sponsored, let us know. We love free stuff more than we love movies.

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  1. Great conversation and analysis, friends.

    I think the genre is worth talking about a bit more in this case, because a lot of the elements you guys talked about – piously delivered emotional lines that are dumb when looked at objectively, a mixed approach to violence that presents itself as self-aware but is still presented theatrically, a mix of serious themes (revenge, politics, freedom) that are used as emotional bait but don’t ultimately get resolved – are staples of the historical epic genre. I think these films are ultimately about that “YEAAAH” feeling, the “give me freedom or give me death” moment, and are geared towards engendering that in the viewers. If you go into it wanting that, they’re fun; if you don’t, they’re revealed as insubstantial.

    And I think that on the average, we’re more into those kinds of movies at a certain age than others, and that this sort of movie only works once or twice before you realize what they really are, what they’re trying to do to you emotionally. Gladiator was it for our generation, Braveheart for those a little older, perhaps Spartacus for an earlier generation. But with each iteration they seem to get worse as they attempt to ape the ones that came before (as Nate mentioned), more blatant about skimping on substance and going straight for your righteous anger emotions, until you get 300 (bleurgh).

    Looking forward to more episodes!

  2. You bring up a great question, Dan, and one that I hope we’ll be able to get at more in future episodes: How much does genre play a part in the amount you can dissect something? It’s a question I struggle with, because while I can enjoy the tropes of some genres, and there are movies I like, but can defend not much further than, “I thought it was fun,” I often get irritated by how some people place their work above criticism by claiming genre-based carte blanche.
    One thing that always bugged me about Gladiator is how it (in my mind) presented itself strongly as primarily a historical drama, as evidenced by the awards push, not just for technical aspects (which many blockbuster genre films are happy to get), but for best picture, actor, and (most insultingly) best screenplay. Best screenplay. This wasn’t a movie that was happy to be a YEEAHH! movie, but then when it’s called on its flaws, people and (this strangely anthropomorphized entity I’ve developed called) the movie are happy to fall back into a “but it’s an action movie” safe zone.
    As I said, I have still not settled my mind on this issue. I don’t think that genre films that aren’t aspiring to artistic heights don’t need to be held to the same standard as the great films, but I also don’t want to sit back and let a movie be as terrible as it wants while cashing in on a built-in fan base.
    Do you consider yourself a fan of genre in general? Do you find it harder to find quality films within your favorite genres?

    • Ryan, I agree that genre shouldn’t be abused as a get-out-of-criticism-free card. Most of my favorite media would be considered “genre” fiction/movies/games/etc., but my favorite works in any media are usually those that are aware of the conventions of their genre and are pushing its boundaries, subverting its conventions, asking questions about the assumptions of its genre. Works that don’t can still be fun, but they are often flawed, and I don’t think they should be given critical immunity. To work within the confines of a genre and not push it or refine it, at least a little bit, is lazy art. I do think, however, that it’s an important piece in understanding people’s individual reactions to a work, and how people can enjoy something that’s flawed, because both genre and emotional responses are largely about expectations.

      On that note, to answer your question, it is hard to find films/novels/music/games or what have you within a genre that are pushing their genres in ways that are interesting, but they are out there. In science fiction, for instance, China Mieville is writing some really great stuff. In fantasy, there have been several authors in that past couple of decades that I’m discovering have been doing really unique things with the genre (Lois McMaster Bujold’s fantasy novels, Robin Hobb’s focus on character development, and the Black Company series by Glen Cook, to name a few). In sci-fi movies, Moon made me very happy. But those lists are shorter than I’d like them to be, and it takes a lot of work and conversation with like-minded people to find things of the quality I’d like.

      • I want to jump in here and say that you’re making some really interesting distinctions here Dan.

        Your point about the age in which we come to some of these movies is so right. I’ll never know how I would feel if I was just now watching Gladiator for the first time, but I think there’s a very good chance I wouldn’t be so generous towards it.

        I think you’ve also hit the nail on the head about how some people (myself included) can enjoy something we know is flawed. So much of our expectations going into a movie start with our preliminary feelings about that movie’s genre. Ryan is going to go into a historical epic movie needing something more. I have a similar predisposition towards superhero movies, of which I’ve grown tired. In fact, its likely we avoid them altogether until we’ve heard lots of buzz around a specific title. By then there’s a good chance we go in with overly high expectations and are surprised when we’re disappointed.

        I want to throw a question to Ryan that I meant to ask in the podcast- Is there ANY example of an ancient historical epic that you DO think surpasses your natural dislike of the genre and stands out in your mind as an unequivocally great film?

        • Nate, that is a good question (why is a good question always hard to answer?). Ancient historical epic? I don’t think I’ll hate Noah. Is that an answer? Off the top of my head, I can’t think of many. Spartacus is probably the best one in my mind. There’s a place in my heart for The Ten Commandments, but I haven’t really seen that since I was a kid. Other than that, I’m having a hard time thinking of others. Which other ones does everyone else find “unequivocally great?” (Please tell me you aren’t calling Gladiator unequivocally great.)

          • Relax, I’m not calling Gladiator unequivocally great. I don’t want to stir up old emotions. But I think its important if we want to stretch ourselves as moviegoers, to discover at least one film in every genre that we can at least respect.

            I agree with Spartacus and Ten Commandments. I would add Ben-Hur and I think there’s a strong case to be made for Braveheart, even though its out of fashion to claim any admiration for Mel Gibson’s work. These are the same titles I listed in the episode so nothing new here.

            Maybe “ancient” limits the choices too much, but I wanted to separate historical epics from other historical dramas or period pieces. Its actually difficult to pinpoint what makes a film “epic.” In my understanding, epics generally focus on a heroic character in addition to their big scope and budgets. Often the character is at the center of a societal conflict. If we remove the “ancient” limitation but stick to this criteria I would include Lawrence of Arabia, Gandhi, and Reds as unequivocally great epics.

            As an honorable mention I would like to throw in one more Russell Crowe movie. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is a film that I’ve seen several times and I like it more with every re-watch. Holds up much better than Gladiator. Roger Ebert gave it 4 stars and said “it achieves the epic without losing sight of the human.”

          • If we’re excluding historical dramas, then my list gets quite a bit shorter. I was discussing this last night with some people, and, in an effort to come up with any kind of historical (especially ancient) period pieces, I stretched as far as Monty Python and the Holy Grail, The Life of Brian, The Last Temptation of Christ, and the first season of Downton Abbey. I really like Barry Lyndon, too. But I feel like many of those are movies that people who do like period pieces (Downton Abbey excluded) wouldn’t really like because they aren’t like any other period pieces. Lawrence of Arabia is probably the epic-est, historical movie I like, and I like it a great deal.

            I haven’t seen Master and Commander, which sort of indicates a trend. Unless I hear things about a movie that sounds like it sets it apart, or unless it is directed by someone I admire, I probably won’t see it. Maybe that’s closed-minded, but for me, it’s just a matter of being economical with my time and money.

      • That’s very true, there is a difference between genuinely enjoying the conventions of a genre and excusing it from criticism. I think I lose sight of that difference often when it comes to genres that don’t always click with me.

        I also agree that many of my favorite genre films have tried something new, and I am almost always more forgiving of flaws when people are testing limits and attempting new things. I’m interested to check out some of the people you mentioned.

  3. Much like Ryan, I love Gladiator . . . when I have been plagued by insomnia. I will be the first, or possible second, to admit that I will watch a substance-less movie for pure enjoyment. I think I saw SPEED twelve times in the theater, (Not one of my top 1, 2, 3, 4, etc. proudest moments) but I think dating was involved in many of the viewings. I will watch things bleed and grimace a smile, but I have to position myself next to Ryan and say I will not be re-watching this movie again. As I absorbed your banter I reverted back to many of the movies I enjoy and they all seem to be driven by good writing, investment in character, and implementation of physical cinema that surprises me. If course, SPEED had all of these (what was I thinking?) Anywho . . . that’s my 4 1/2 cents worth.

    • Good to have you standing next to me, Drew. I’m not opposed to fast-paced, action-y movies, but I agree that I’m often not in the mood for such elements without solid writing and craftsmanship.

  4. One thing the discussion made me think of, on the topic of the moral attempted in Gladiator, was the commentary that runs through the Hunger Games series. Given that they are YA novels and films that don’t seem to aspire to the same artistic recognition as Gladiator received, one doesn’t need to spend as long covering their flaws (confusion of message in the action, loss in romantic subplots, the fact that Peeta wasn’t that hot). I think that the message these books/films tries to present is indebted to Gladiator’s message and I think they often get even more lost, but in the end it needs to be said that their message is also a lot more ambitious than the message of Gladiator. The parallels of empire to America are more overt (and ham-fisted, but YA gets away with that). But beyond that it tries to dig deeper into messages about the frequently self-defeating nature of using violence as an implement of change, and I think that this addition alone gives the stories a great deal more moral complexity than Gladiator.

    YA as a genre is supposed to deal with big ideas, so it’s not like I can point at the Hunger Games series and say, “look, this pop-corn flick clearly did a better job with it’s point so 0 points awarded to Gladiator for trying to add a message to an action movie.” Moreover, compared to other YA novels (and films) like The Book Thief, The Giver etc., I think the Hunger Games stories lack a lot of grace. It did, however, cut a much better line showing that you were cheering for the protagonist’s survival and not the violence itself and actively endeavored to make you sympathized with characters that would have to die for the plot to progress.

    I think a comparison shows that it is a difficult thing to combine gladiatorial tropes with a serious critical message and not end up with a big old mess, but that also may be a reason film-wise to consider that avenue of thought explored and exhausted.

    • That’s a fascinating distinction to draw. I never really thought about how the way the Hunger Games deals with its violence makes it easier to handle. I wonder if I would have enjoyed Gladiator better if it had went a similar route. As it is, the path of violence doesn’t fail Maximus, it was just sort of the end of the line for him.

      But your last paragraph is even more fascinating to me (if I’m hearing you correctly): do themes and messages run their course, just as any artistic choice has its day and its time to be fashionable? It probably sounds unwise to say that we’ve had enough of a particular message, especially when the issue being criticized is still a problem, but I think we could only benefit from people trying to say new things thematically, as well as artistically.

      This is still a germinating thought, but I really am intrigued to think more about it, and I’d like to hear what other people think.

      • I think as long as a message still needs to be heard there is value to continuing to present it in art. That said, I think the gladiator story as a vehicle for socially relevant messages may be a failed experiment.

        The core of the story seems to be that of a radically de-privileged person rising in favor with the masses so that they can challenge the powerful and obtain justice from an otherwise unjust social order. The trope therefore tends to partner with messages about the intrinsic worth of all individuals including those outside of privilege, and the dangers of unchecked power.

        However, certain flaws seem to be inherent in the vehicle. First, the audience always has a wide open door to identify with the mob, who by definition is generally morally complicit with the regime and so getting the audience to break away from that identification can be difficult. Second, the mechanism by which the hero wins the crowd over is generally morally ambiguous at best. Violence and entertainment winning the mob over also tend to satisfy the viewer, reinforcing that already problematic identification. Third, the shift in power occurs with the gladiator backed by the crowd, but leaves the conscientious viewer having to ask what it is about winning the crowd over by playing to their base natures that leaves the gladiator a valid spokesperson for the disenfranchised.

        I think that other stories can make better vehicles for messages about the inherent value of human life in the midst of a corrupt system that makes people disposable for the sake of comfort or ignorence, such as the “sacrificial lamb” type of story like one finds in Moon or Never Let Me Go.

        • Tim,
          I agree with your very eloquently stated arguments. There’s a lot to chew on here.

          I don’t think Gladiator is making any sort of effort to have the audience identify with the mob. This is also true of The Hunger Games. In both films the mob is not worth identifying with. That is why contrary to the epic label, the scope is actually rather small during the battle scenes because we are only supposed to identify with the small group thrown into battle, not the mob. The exception to this is Gladiator’s opening battle where Maximus as general is arguably part of the mob, but even in this case he quickly becomes disillusioned with the empire’s stated goals and even makes an empathetic statement regarding the Germanic tribes they’re warring. I didn’t make this case very well in the podcast, but I think its something that separates Gladiator from a lot of the other epics.

          I admit its a convenient plot point to have the main character die at the end because it sidesteps the question you mention about the transfer of power. But in the movie’s defense the disenfranchised group is not portrayed as the mob, but rather the other fellow gladiators (aka slaves).

          To give this a more concrete yet imperfect and admittedly insulting analogy. If Rome is indeed America. Gladiator actually follows a similar structure to 12 Years A Slave. The protagonist is someone who enjoyed privilege, is reduced to slavery, and spends most of the film trying to win over those in power in an attempt to gain back freedom. In both instances, the mob is never worth identifying with and the movie actually forces the viewer to question their complicity with the mob. There are major differences in the two movies but I can’t get into those without giving away spoilers which I don’t want to do here.

          DISCLAIMER- 12 Years a Slave is a far greater, more effective, and more important film than Gladiator.

          As always Tim, you’ve given me plenty to think about and it will take days and weeks to fully unpack all of this. Thanks for commenting!

  5. Really enjoyed listening to your conversation about Gladiator! Ryan, I have to side with you on this one, and for very similar reasons. The movie had so much hype that when I finally watched I couldn’t help but think “That’s it?” Definitely a letdown.

    Also, Ryan, what was your phrase, ‘unpurposefully chaotic’? That may enter my personal lexicon.

    Nate, great job fighting back against Ryan’s ideological entrenchment. I look forward to hearing your unremitting hatred for a movie.

    • Thanks, Justin. Perhaps “unpurposefully chaotic” was unpurposefully profound.

      I too, am looking forward to a movie Nate hates, but so far, he doesn’t seem to be so against movies I like.

      And Nate, Stonewall Ebling is what they called me in my water polo days. Unfortunately it referred to my swimming ability, not my defensive prowess, hence my new nickname: “Water Lungs.”

  6. Justin, thanks for listening!

    Unpurposefully chaotic may need to be the new tagline for the podcast.

    I’ll try not to get too worked up over your allegiance to Stonewall Ebling. I gave it all I could, but he made a few points I just couldn’t argue with.

    I’m realizing that Gladiator may be one of the most polarizing movies ever made. It would be worthwhile to explore the dividing line even further. What sort of differences are there in the expectations between the two camps? Perhaps on a later “best of” clip show. Everyone loves those, right?

  7. I am extremely late to the party here and don’t know if anyone will ever see this, but, what the heck.

    “If you want something visual that’s not too abysmal, we could take in an old Steve Reeves movie.” -Frankenfurter

    I listened to this podcast late last night. Will Ryan be insulted if I mention I fell asleep during it? (Only the first time.) Hope not…anyway I found the podcast to be almost as entertaining as the movie itself, although lacking in sword play.

    My perspective on Gladiator is different from yours, both generational-wise and gender-wise. I think I saw it in the theater when it came out. For me (and most women I recall discussing it with at the time), the movie was about two things: Russell Crowe’s legs. Overlaid with a bit of history, good cinematography, some fight scenes and a little romance. I have no earthly idea why it was considered Oscar-quality for the acting or plot. I also had no idea that any of the dialogue was considered quote-worthy. Klingons, in my experience, are more quotable on the “men of valor and honor and gruesome deeds” spectrum, and that’s not a high bar.

    The whole thing appeared to be a reworking of the old gladiator (Steve Reeves style) movies. Give it prettier writing, hunkier actors, a little more class, beautiful backgrounds, and voila! Blockbuster movie. I wasn’t looking for (and didn’t see) anything of deeper meaning in it. I could see that it attempted to touch on deeper themes, such as tyranny, slavery, but it didn’t address them in any way that challenged my thinking or offered any new perspective. Then again, I didn’t expect it to. (What I expected? Did I mention the legs?)

    Nate suggested that the ending with the death of the gladiator made him a christlike figure in a way he found obvious. I didn’t get that at all… despite having a Christian background myself, it never occurred to me.(Although I can see it, now that it is pointed out.) Instead, that was where I found the “touching romance” part that brought the thing to a satisfying conclusion for me. After he died he could be reunited with his lost wife and baby. I remember liking that and being happy for him, and them. I don’t know if this is my girly romantic perspective or my parental perspective, but I was more moved by this family element than anything else in the movie.

    One small point: it was suggested (by Nate or Ryan, don’t recall) that the black character was an obvious representation of slavery. Perhaps… but then, weren’t they all slaves? I thought the black character was an example of the “magical black friend” we so often see in movies. (Similar to the magical crazy girl motif referenced in Garden State.) I’d be interested in your perspective on that. I don’t recall if the character actually had any magical qualities or enhanced wisdom, but he seemed to function in that capacity.

    I may have to rewatch it to see if it changes my opinion at all. From my limited recollection, I would say that I liked but didn’t love it. My impression at the time was that this was a movie for straight women and gay men, and perhaps boys who like historical weaponry in their fight scenes. I am a little mystified as to why Ryan, who could barely tolerate this movie, said he would like to see Noah. But let me know if Crowe wears a skirt in it… could make it worth viewing.

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