Political Film Society - Newsletter #76 - July 10, 2000



July 10, 2000


 

A GLADIATOR FINDS VIETNAM ON THE DANUBE
In the year 167 A.D., the first full-scale barbarian attack on Rome destroyed aqueducts and irrigation conduits, but the army of emperor Marcus Aurelius repelled the invaders. In 176, Marcus Aurelius and his son Commodus entered Rome after a campaign north of the Alps in which they were again victorious over the "barbarians." In 180, Marcus Aurelius died at age 58 from an illness at the time of the Battle of the Danube led by General Narcissus Meridas, and was succeeded by his 18-year-old son Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus. In 183, Commodus escaped death at the hands of assassins who attacked him at the instigation of his sister Lucilia and a large group of senators, whereupon he put many distinguished Romans to death on charges of being implicated in the conspiracy. In 185, Commodus drained the treasury to put on gladiatorial spectacles and confiscated property to support his pleasures. Finally, in 192 Commodus was murdered by the wrestler Narcissus after the emperorís mistress, his chamberlain, and the prefect of praetorians found their names on the imperial execution list. These events frame the film Gladiator, a blockbuster directed by Ridley Scott on a grand scale not seen since Spartacus (1960), though the story is a permutation of the plot set forth in The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) in which Marcus Aurelius is poisoned. If we are to believe the fiction in Gladiator, before Marcus Aurelius (played by Richard Harris) dies, he asks his commanding general Maximus (played by Russell Crowe) to visit him; after articulating some vague Stoic observations, the emperor asks Maximus to succeed him and then to end the corrupt court politics by returning power to the Senate of Rome for the good of the people. When Marcus Aurelius discloses his plan of succession to his son Commodus (played by Joaquin Phoenix), the latter kills his father in order to ensure his inheritance and orders the execution of Maximus and his loyalists.

Maximus, however, overpowers those assigned to kill him and escapes to the desert stronghold of Zuchobar, where he is enslaved and trained by Proximo (played by the late Oliver Reed) to be a gladiator. When Commodus orders one hundred days of gladiatorial games to commemorate the memory of Marcus Aurelius, Maximus disguised as "the Spaniard" heads for Rome along with Proximoís other slaves. Ultimately, Maximus triumphs in the Coliseum and fulfills his destiny as "the general who became a slave, the slave who became a gladiator, and the gladiator who defied an emperor." Commodus wounds a chained Maximus and then insists on combat in the Coliseum, but Maximus triumphs, kills Commodus, and then dies of the wounds originally inflicted by Commodus. Power then reverts to the Senate, or so the film tells us. Thematically, Gladiator glorifies violence. We find that soldiers say that they fight for "glory and honor," though in fact Maximus is motivated by the desire to defend his family and the prosperous way of life that Roman imperialism provides. The simple materialism that motivates Maximus is contrasted with Commodusís profligacy. Whereas Commodus proves that the masses enjoy bread and circuses, Maximus in the end gains support from the masses by displaying the martial virtues that supposedly made Rome great, but of course these virtues were most heroically illustrated by the Germanic fighters who were defending themselves against Roman imperialism at the beginning of the film, so the message of the film is in the end as confused as the historical fictions of the scriptwriter. The subliminal subtext, however, is that politicians are assholes while soldiers fight nobly but are not given the credit that they deserve, a moral that recalls the unfinished national debate over the American role in Vietnam, another war in which the superpower of the day failed to bomb the adversary back to the stone age. MH