Theatrical Version (2000)
Extended Version (2005)
DIRECTOR: Ridley Scott
May Contain Spoilers!
The year 2000AD saw the return of the long-lost epic. Yes, Kevin Costner had heralded its return with Dances With Wolves (1990) and many refer to Titanic (1997) as an epic, which I’m not too sure about, but this was a traditional Roman epic back on the big screen, the first time in something like 35 years.
Ridley Scott would do a better job in my opinion with his next period epic, Kingdom Of Heaven in 2004, which had El Cid (1961) stamped all over it, but this was looking back to Kubrick’s Spartacus (1960) and The Fall Of The Roman Empire (1964), with the first being quite a benchmark to live up to. Gone are the bombastic marches and bright red MGM capes, and in are overcast Germanic war zones and the Wagnerian tones from the ever evolving Hans Zimmer, with a score which made his name.
Set in the latter days of the Caesars, Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) has just concurred Germania and is ready to lead a peaceful Rome, but his son, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) is not fit to succeed him and is to be passed over with the Empire being restored to the republic that it once was, but under the care of his General, Maximus (Russell Crowe). Commodus is displeased to hear this and murders his father and ordered the execution of Maximus.
Needless to say that he escapes and becomes the eponymous Gladiator, and fights he way back into a position where he can depose Commodus. Now from that crude description it sounds a bit like a Boys Own adventure, but it isn’t. It’s a deep and heartfelt drama, with some cracking action and a real sense of historical accuracy, even though it isn’t really accurate at all. The story of Commodus has been dramatised before, probably because it’s really quite dull, but in both this and The Fall Of The Roman Empire, which covers the same root story, the invention of a fictional lead has been used to propel the story, in this case, Maximus.
Marcus Aurelius and Commodus are real, as is his fate and that of the Roman Empire but the story of how they fall is fictitious though it feels quite real. The recreation of the Empire, specifically the Colosseum is second to none. This film looks and feels awesome with the equivalent in CGI terms to what MGM and Samuel Bronson would do with building city sized sets in the 1950’s and 60’s.
Scott’s vision and drive to revive the scale of the epic was perfectly pitched at the time, only a year or two after James Cameron had completed Titanic, in which he had constructed a 90% scale set of the ship itself, and basically sunk sections of it on cue! The public’s attitudes to the epic projects at the dawn of the century led to this revival, with long running times becoming a staple, and The Lord Of The Rings owes a lot to this, certainly in preparing the audience for a three-hour at time movie experience.
The problems with Gladiator are more do with pacing for me and some of the historical liberties, but there’ nothing substantial. I like this film and I respect it. It looks and sounds great. Rome had been brought back to life after a 35 slumber and not before time either. This was the movie sensation of the year and what a way to usher in a new century, let alone millennium of movie magic.
As for the 2005 Extended Cut, as Ridley Scott goes to great pains to state during his opening introduction on the DVD, this version is not a director’s cut, it is just a restoration of the deleted scenes and it does the film no favours. It only adds to some of the film’s pacing issues and though adding some interesting plot elements, it doesn’t add enough to justify itself.
So, my recommended version is the Theatrical (2000), tough it won’t do you any harm to watch the Extended Cut if you get a chance and judge it for yourself.