Gladiator – Extended Cut (2000) dir. Ridley Scott
Starring: Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen, Oliver Reed, Richard Harris, Derek Jacobi, Djimon Honsou and David Hemmings.
By Greg Klymkiw
On the recent release of the “Gladiator” extended cut via the Sapphire Edition Blu-Ray, director Ridley Scott tersely admits in an ever-so-dour tone that the true director’s cut is not this one, but the 155-minute theatrical version. Why Paramount Home Entertainment bothered to include this introduction is rather beyond me since Sir Ridley’s bitterness could put one in a rather negative frame of mind before viewing the next 171 minutes. For me, though, it wasn’t much of a bummer since I’ve never particularly enjoyed the picture anyway. While “Gladiator” is not that much better in this form, the extended version is a tad more cohesive and, dare I say, blessed with a bit more depth – not much, mind you, but at least a pubic hair’s worth.
There has also been some controversy surrounding this Blu-Ray Sapphire Edition. If I actually liked the movie more, I doubt I’d be THAT disappointed. It’s crammed with tons of extra features – many of which are kind of interesting to watch and if you ever craved to get more Ridley Scott than you ever imagined, you sure get healthy doses of him here on the commentary track and all the various introductions to the extra features. What many geeks have complained about is the high definition transfer itself. Not that I’m much of a Blu-Ray-o-phile, but the transfer looked quite fine on my 32-inch flat screen and was crisp enough to reveal that the film’s leading lady appears to have a woeful skin condition. Either that, or it IS a dreadful transfer.
As for the picture itself, everyone is, I’m sure, rather familiar with the plot – a fictional rendering of the beginnings of the fall of the Roman Empire. General Maximus (Russell Crowe as the imaginary title character loosely based on a number of personages – most notably, Spartacus) is loved as a son by Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris). Marcus’s jealous psychotic progeny Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) murders his father and orders the execution of our hero.
A badly injured Maximus narrowly escapes death and is sold into slavery to eventually fight as a gladiator under trader/trainer Antonio (Oliver Reed). Here he befriends the gorgeous black warrior Juba (Djimon Honsou) on the blood-soaked coliseum grounds and plots his revenge against Commodus, the new Emperor of the Roman Empire.
In Rome, the ex-lover of Maximus, Lucilla (Connie Nielsen) plots with Senator Gracchus (Derek Jacobi) to overthrow her insane Emperor brother who not only runs amuck like a headless psycho chicken, but also has incestuous designs upon her. When Maximus enters Rome, he becomes a star of the Coliseum games, presided over by the foppish Cassius (David Hemmings). Maximus threatens to become more popular than Commodus amongst the rabble. Revenge follows, but only after lots and lots of bloodshed.
At the end of the day, “Gladiator”, for all its Oscar glory, surprisingly positive critical response and huge boxoffice, is little more than a sword and sandal epic in the tradition of innumerable Steve Reeves epics of the early 60s – albeit with a budget far exceeding the sum total of every Steve Reeves movie ever made (and there were many). Sadly, for all its multi-millions-of-dollars, the pectoral and firm buttock action in “Gladiator” is a pale shade of the glory that was the Italian sword and sandal epics of the 60s. (For those so inclined, the entertaining “300” served up some mighty juicy homoerotic goods for the edification of libidinous lassies, Nancy Boys and closet cases the world over.)
Some of the scenes that appear in the extended edition of the “Gladiator” Blu-Ray are actually pretty decent. In spite of this, Scott natters on during the extended scene intros about how they weren’t all that necessary in moving the story forward. A few quasi-literate moments with Derek Jacobi spouting mock philosophical dialogue might bolster Scott’s snooty argument, but within the context of this longer version, one would, I’d argue, have been quite happy to listen to Derek Jacobi recite the contents of a Racing Form, so one wonders why Scott is so high and mighty about this. Odder still is Scott’s dismissive attitude to a great scene where the men responsible for lying to Commodus about the death of Maximus are executed. It’s one of the few moments where Commodus displays the kind of despotic evil that goes beyond mere insanity, yet Scott was quite happy to dispense with it in his theatrical “director’s cut”.
However, one does not wish to reserve all one’s bile for Scott since many sequences are genuinely well directed in the manner that all works by great hacks are directed. He manages to elicit some extremely fine performances – especially from such stalwarts as Oliver Reed, Richard Harris and David Hemmings – and under his command, the picture is blessed with some fine production and costume design.
What one really wants to question is why this movie was made at all in the manner in which it was made and with the somewhat dull script it was made from. As a machine-tooled semi-remake of “Spartacus”, one can acknowledge the business decision to green light the picture, but frankly, “Gladiator” is a case of where truth is definitely stranger than fiction and could have been far more entertaining if it had been adhered to.
I suppose it’s not fair to imagine a movie that could have been instead of what was eventually delivered, but the hell with it – life’s not fair, and “Gladiator” is definitely a movie that deserves a bit of trouncing for being so tediously by the numbers. The bottom line is this – Maximus, as presented, is a bit of a dullard. He’s certainly not the piss and vinegar of Kirk Douglas in “Spartacus” and he is most definitely not endowed with the magnificent pectorals of Steve Reeves. Maximus, as a hero, is a bit of a washout – a pudgier Charles Bronson in sword and sandals.
In any event, the really cool character from this period of history was the nut bar Commodus. In real life, this bloodthirsty bonehead was not only a poor substitute for his philosopher king of a father, but he was so clearly and utterly out of his mind that his antics would have been way more entertaining than watching Joaquin Phoenix mince about like some Roman Snidely Whiplash. Commodus, you see, fancied himself a bit of a gladiator and often went into the ring himself to fight with real gladiators – though he seldom killed anyone in the ring since all of them were instructed to let him win so he could grant them their lives in front of the rabble. Commodus instead murdered the gladiators he sparred with in preparation for the games. He also had this truly bizarre habit of instituting wholesale public slaughter – by his own hand, no less – of various cripples who were defenceless and hundreds of exotic animals that Commodus butchered in front of the masses. Tigers, lions and even elephants kind of made sense, but he also delighted in chasing ostriches around the coliseum and eventually beheaded them. The weirdest thing Commodus did in public was to hack a giraffe to death. I kid you not! A giraffe!
This sounds like a movie I’d like to see.
But until such time as someone (Terry Gilliam, perhaps) makes “Commodus: Giraffe Slayer of Rome”, we have Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator” – in an extended version no less.