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Strength and honour: looking back on 20 years of Gladiator

Are you not entertained?!

Artillery Row

Last week, I finally succumbed to one of those Facebook ‘challenges’ to name 10 films that made an impact on me. It wasn’t difficult (barring the usual over-thinking); but I made one mistake. I posted Gladiator three or four days ago – when obviously it should have been today.

For me this is a purely personal issue: Gladiator and I have history.

Ridley Scott’s sword-and-sandal smash hit opened in the UK on 12th May 2000. According to IMDb it cost about $100m to make, took in approximately $35m on its first weekend in the US alone, and to date has done almost half a billion dollars’ worth of business worldwide. Much more importantly, that ‘year’ it won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actor (for Russell Crowe), and received another seven nominations including Best Original Music Score (for Hans Zimmer).

I didn’t know any of this at the time, mind you, as I was in the middle of my A levels. But the other day some bloke in the Guardian asked if such a summer blockbuster could really have been worthy of Best Picture and, well, I mean… Seriously.

For me this is a purely personal issue: Gladiator and I have history.

An epic of full-hearted patriotism, unrequited love, heroic battles, and a simple Spanish farmer who defied an empire, I saw the film for the first time in Woodbridge, Suffolk, having gone there specifically (from Kent) to have my ticket sold to me by a girl who looked like Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra. I don’t know if it had been a long time since my last visit to a cinema (entirely possible, at that stage), but I was completely and immediately blown away. Certainly I don’t know how else to explain what I knew even then was the film’s disproportionately massive impact (self-consciously peeling my knees away from my chest at the end of that first great battle scene, to Zimmer’s valorous and Holstian accompaniment), but I can attest to the repeated aftershocks.

As a penniless gap-student in South Africa, a friend bought me the CD of the soundtrack (I’m listening to it now), and a distant family member of his, who owned some cinemas, gave me a set of full-sized ‘theatre’ posters, which I have never yet found a wall big enough to host. Watching the newfangled ‘DVD’ at their farm, I remember vividly his grandmother licking her lips during one of the gladiatorial combats, and lamenting, “Didn’t people used to do terrible things to one another in the name of entertainment?”

At university, I got myself a simple ‘SPQR’ tattoo for my 21st birthday. I sourced it from a statue of Julius Caesar himself, but the tattoo artist saw through that before I’d sat down: “Been watching Gladiator, have we?” (Well, it was Oxford, I suppose.) And, then, within a couple of weeks, I was all-but sent down, which meshed rather too neatly – in my mind, if no-one else’s – with the betrayal of Maximus Decimus Meridius by an ancient and glorious institution he had put all his faith in. At this juncture, Maximus carves the Roman brand – no pun – out of his shoulder with a sharp stone. (“Is that a sign of your gods?” asks Djimon Hounsou’s ebony-sculpted ‘Numidian’. Maximus nods. “Will it not anger them?” Maximus gives a sad and disenchanted smile.)

But I was no more about to do that than I was to take any other form of heroic action, apparently. Instead I drank a lot and watched the movie endlessly from a mate’s sofa, talking over the first half and then falling asleep drunkenly during the second, only to wake up with a stiff neck at about three in the morning, to the menu music playing on a loop (see also: Crimson Tide, The Rock, The Thin Red Line – pretty much any film, in fact, that had a Zimmer soundtrack). A conductor when he wasn’t reading Classics, said mate even embarked upon a project to perform the whole thing in concert, until he found out what the scores would cost.

Meanwhile, we found that we had accidentally memorised the script for random, uninvited use in conversation – a sort of shibbolethic phrase book for our group of friends.

I’m not talking about the entry-level “Not yet” memes and “Are you not entertained?!” stuff here. “Hold the line…” Please.

At university, I got myself a simple ‘SPQR’ tattoo for my 21st birthday.

I’m talking about where you’ll be three weeks from now; “Then have him kill Commodus!”; what precisely is a ‘rudius’; and “I did not say I knew him, I said he touched me on the shoulder once!” I’m talking about reciting all of Maximus’s ‘vengeance’ speech before he turns his back on the ignoble emperor. I’m talking about being introduced to someone at a dinner party and shaking his hand with the words “Strength and honour,” just to check that he’s a proper chap. I’m talking about using Maximus’s not-quite-anti-Antipodean voice to say the ‘Hail Mary’ for a entire year in chapel services. Truly, what Russell Crowe says in life, echoes in eternity.

Eventually, someone even invited me to an actual – but obviously ‘ironic’ – toga party. I was delighted. I had my wolfskin (possum), plastic breastplate, sword, and arms that looked like bent pipe cleaners. The host turned out to be a long-haired, brilliant blond Classicist and Sanskrit scholar… called Alexander.

But life goes on. I left university. I went to Rome again. I bought the various extended DVD editions (no clear recollection of what was extended about any of them, except for Derek Jacobi’s senatorial scheming, which does actually make rather more sense), and of course the double-CD soundtrack (in which Maximus’s horse still doesn’t take quite long enough to gallop from Germania to Spain). I became an assiduous watcher of Russell Crowe’s movies, and occasional enjoyer of his Aussie rock band, Thirty Odd Foot of Grunts. Less so, admittedly, his Twitter account, where he very unironically posts the results of each and every workout – or used to, anyway.

Thanks to my photographer friend Rich Hardcastle, I read Nick Cave’s amazing but unfilmable script for a Gladiator sequel. Sharp-eyed viewers will recall that Maximus died at the end of the original [spoiler schmoiler: you’ve had two full decades to watch it]; but apparently Cave’s deal was that he could write whatever he liked, and so the end result was Maximus being sent back to Earth by the gods to kill a man called Jesus Christ. “Don’t like it, mate,” was Crowe’s inflexible response.

I also read the OG Marcus Aurelius (currently a ‘rediscovered’ hit on lockdown-Stoicism reading lists), prompted, I think, by the decidedly ungladiatorial Alain de Botton. The first book – ‘written among the Quadi’ (a Moravian tribe) ‘on the Gran’ (the Hron, in Slovakia): i.e. the opening, Germania scene of Gladiator – begins with a somewhat formulaic list of people to whom the emperor gives credit for his life’s learnings. It names his grandparents, his mother, his departed father, a couple of tutors, his friends – and then:

‘From Maximus: self-mastery and stability of purpose… cheeriness in sickness as well as in all other circumstances… to perform without grumbling the task that lies to one’s hand… the confidence of every one in him that what he said was also what he thought… never to be hurried, or hold back, or be at a loss, or downcast, or smile a forced smile, or be ill-tempered or suspicious… and to give the impression of a man who cannot deviate from the right way, rather than of one who is kept in it… and [amusingly: I quote from the somewhat stilted 1916 Loeb edition] to keep pleasantry within due bounds.’

That’s quite the education, there, from a farmer.

Now, Edward Gibbon will tell you that there was no such general during Marcus’s reign; and that Commodus (thumbs up/down?), already co-emperor before his father’s death, went on to reign for 12 more years only to die in his bath at the hands of a weightlifter called (rather splendidly) Narcissus; and that anyway the great personal characteristics of ‘Maximus’ should doubtless be attributed to another man with the same name. But what do they know of Rome, who only properly researched and documented Roman history know?

(Top Tip: the Odeon is not the place to go for history lessons. That said, the Gladiator storyline is broadly based on real events, and true enough in spirit, certainly. In several aspects, it does not go far enough. Feel free to look it up. Or watch the near-identical Fall of the Roman Empire from the 1960s. For those who prefer the movie-nerdy stuff, meanwhile, the Internet also has Scott and Crowe talking over each other for almost three hours while watching the film – not visible – in real time. It’s probably one of the DVD extras I haven’t watched.)

Eventually – and this would have come as a considerable surprise to the 21-year-old me – I ended up joining an army myself (blame shared with several other films, all represented in my Facebook list) to go and fight in foreign lands against the barbarian hordes, etc. We did most of our training – weekends, anyway – in the very Surrey woodblocks that Maximus had fought those proto-Germans in when they said no.

On pre-deployment leave, my girlfriend and I went, more or less at random, to Morocco, and took the opportunity to make a day-trip pilgrimage to Aït Ben Haddou or ‘Zucchabar’, the North Africa location where, after being trafficked from Spain by Mauritanian traders, the general who became a slave achieves his unsought gladiatorial status. From where I sit now, on a third continent, I can see my souvenir A4 painting of the town, made from a wash of tea and (I think) saffron, by a local artist.

This isn’t a matter – or even a film – of great profundity. It’s stuck with me, is all, and I with it: that’s just the way it is with culture we consume at that age.

This isn’t a matter – or even a film – of great profundity. It’s stuck with me, is all, and I with it: that’s just the way it is with culture we consume at that age. I continue to watch Gladiator every other year or so, I suppose: but I don’t dress up for it. Several times, now, they’ve done a live-orchestra screening at the Albert Hall – once, even, on my birthday, I think – but I’ve not paid to see it. (I may have sent an e-mail asking if there was any chance that I could sing in it… but the gods must not love me.)

And I am not alone in this, of course. I was delighted when my Latin teacher from the mid-90s shared a Gladiator still, in honour of the movie’s anniversary. About 10 years ago I recall bestselling pop-Classics author Harry Sidebottom telling me the film had single-handedly revitalised the entire genre. And one of my last army drill nights was accompanied by the wonderful spectacle of the CO trying to make a dignified speech for an exceedingly long-serving colour sergeant with the latter standing behind him dressed in a complete but nonetheless frankly revealing Roman legionary’s uniform.

Was Gladiator the rightful winner of a Best Picture Oscar, 20 years back? I couldn’t possibly care less. But looking up a YouTube clip last night entitled ‘Strength and Honor’ (sic), I found a comment (1 of 47): ‘The last great release of the 20th century, movies were supposed to get even better. They did not.’ I feel no need to disagree with that assessment.

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