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August 31, 2000


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Fighting fit

Ashok Banker

They used to be called sword-and-sandal epics. During the 1930s and 1940s, they were hugely popular.

Quo Vadis, The Robe, Samson And Delilah, Ben Hur, and dozens of memorable and not-so-memorable films poured out of Hollywood studios. All tried to capture the spectacle and glory of ancient civilisations, the pomp and fanfare of Roman rule, the grandeur and the drama of a great era.

Then, something happened. An event so huge, so shocking, that all ancient stories paled before it. World War II was the event, and it changed not just American society, but film history forever. Suddenly, war was not just a distant tale of heroism and triumph; it was brutal violence, senseless havoc, mindless holocaust. Nobody wanted to make or view tales of ancient battle anymore. They seemed laughable in comparison to the real horror of war.

Only one major film-maker dared to attempt the genre again. Stanley Kubrick, the maverick genius, chose the ancient legendary tale of Spartacus for his movie of the same title. The result was a modern classic. After Spartacus, the Roman costumes were set aside for almost half a century.

Until an equally great genius, Ridley Scott, decided to step into the arena once more and challenge audiences with Gladiator.

Gladiator has the distinction and disadvantage of being the first Roman epic in almost 50 years. Not one but several generations have grown up with almost no first-hand experience of viewing this genre of film. Today's core filmgoing audiences, mainly adolescents and youth below the age of 25, come to theatres to view Gladiator with almost no idea of what to expect. Their senses dulled by nonstop actionfests and futuristic stunts, it seems unlikely that they would warm to a historical drama that took place over 2,180 years ago.

And those of us who have seen those old classics also come with sceptism in our hearts, not expecting much more than a brave attempt at nostalgia.

But whatever your expectations, be prepared to be shocked. Shaken. And stirred like a vodka martini served to a secret agent. Because Gladiator is not just an attempt. It's a triumph. A grim, magnificent spectacle of a film that isn't content with simply being a Roman epic: It's one of the greatest Roman epics ever filmed.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not getting into a slanging match about its merits vis-a-vis Ben Hur or Spartacus or whatever. The comparison is completely trivial and irrelevant.

Because Gladiator doesn't just set out to imitate those classics. It sets its own standards, virtually creating its own sub-genre in film history. A historical epic, true. But the first one made using contemporary film technique, equipment and knowledge.

Gladiator is a stunning action circus. From the opening battle sequence to the last combat in the Colloseum, it's nonstop action all the way. Be warned: The violence is so shocking, it's a wonder that the Indian censors passed the film with an U/A certificate. Even with cuts, there is so much brutality and gore, dismembered limbs and savage hacking and stabbing, you would be well-advised to leave your squeamish side at home.

Russell Crowe Is the violence justified? Certainly. This is a film about war and combat. The central character Maximus is first a Roman general responsible for many great victories. As a great champion of Rome, he could have anything his heart desires. Yet all he wishes is to return home and resume his life as a farmer with his wife and son. The fact that he is denied this wish by a cruel turn of events and is thrust into a life of slavery as a gladiator is the essence of the whole story. When he reluctantly agrees to fight again, it is only because the alternative is death. And the only reason he fights death is because he craves revenge against the man who destroyed his life and career.

Fifty or 60 years ago, especially before Vietnam, Korea and WWII, film-makers would have made all the brutality and action sequences a background story, mentioned mainly in the dialogues between characters. The few sequences shown would have attempted to show the horror of war and the savagery of armed combat, but they would have done so in the fashion of those simpler, more innocent times.

Today, director Ridley Scott and his superb team of technicians have, at their disposal, a film craft that is at the peak of its abilities. Imagine a shot or an image, any image, and it can be filmed. What can't actually be filmed live, can be added by state-of-the-art CG -- computer graphics. Whether it's a recreation of Emperor Commodus's grand victory parade in Rome, or a shockingly effective action set-piece in the roaring Colloseum, nothing is impossible for Hollywood's amazing wizards.

For technique alone, Gladiator would be worth watching twice. The stunts, the fight choreography (by the same master who choreographed the battles of Braveheart), the gymnastic action set-pieces, the towering sets (enhanced by flawless CG), the superb production design and art direction, all these are the best money can buy.

Every dollar of the film's $100 million budget is up there onscreen.

But these are the least of the film's assets.

The greatest triumph of Gladiator is the story-telling. From the very first opening shot to the last of this 154-minute film's images, every single screen second does nothing but carry the story forward. Hindi film-makers who interrupt their own films with a dozen songs and half a dozen other irrelevant 'items' could learn more from watching this film than from a lifetime of film-making.

This is one of the most taut, sustained screen stories I've ever seen onscreen. (And I've seen over 4,000 films at last count, so you know I mean what I say). Not a second is wasted on anything that doesn't tell the story and move it forward, always at the relentless, almost brutal pace of a fight in the arena.

That's not to say that it's all monotonous and mindless violence. On the contrary. We get a deep insight into every major character in the film. Every actor is given the space and story-time needed to bring forth his motivation and personality. But we only concern ourselves with them as and when they are relevant to the story of Maximus Decimus Brutus, the Gladiator of the title. Gladiator

It's a superb story, superbly told. With no distractions or gratuitous elements to add extra spice.

The casting is excellent, too: Russell Crowe's physicality and quiet power make him the perfect choice. This makes the third film in which Crowe is able to mould his body and his personality to seamlessly fit the character -- after LA Confidential and The Insider.

Joaquin Phoenix and Connie Nelson as the brother-sister duo who rule Rome are equally effective. And besides the horde of new talents and supporting muscle, there's the great Richard Harris as Marcus Aurelius, Derek Jacobi as Senator Gracchus, and the late Oliver Reed as Proximo, who died of natural causes during the filming.

Director Ridley Scott is backed by a great team of technicians. The script by David Franzoni, John Logan and William Nicholson based on a story by Franzoni deserves an Oscar in my opinion. The editing is superlative. In fact, every department fulfils its function immaculately.

But Ridley Scott himself is no novice to great film-making. This British genius (like Stanley Kubrick), began his career in 1978 with The Duellists, a memorable war story set in Napoleanic times. But it was with the film Bladerunner that he made his mark on film history.

Running against the grain of crassly imitative sci-fi films in the post-Star Wars years, Bladerunner was an instant classic, a serious science fiction thriller that broke new ground in every department of film making at the time. Through other films -- Legend, Alien, Conquest of Paradise, Thelma And Louise, GI Jane -- Scott enjoyed a rich but patchy career.

For the last ten years, his work wasn't considered as impressive as his earlier breakthroughs. With Gladiator, he proves once more that he's truly a master of his art. In the interviews accompanying the film's release, he's gone on record as saying that he enjoys 'creating new worlds on film'. This is what he does in Gladiator.

Gladiator He creates a world that is ancient Rome in every accurate detail, yet it's also Ridley Scott's vision of ancient Rome. A world that is uncompromising in its integrity. Brutal in its realism. Devoted only to the telling of one story. The tale of a great warrior betrayed and decieved, who seeks revenge and finally finds it against an epic backdrop of one of history's greatest civilisations.

The civilisation remains just that -- a backdrop -- while the story of that lone gladiator battling against incredible odds is what concerns Scott. And for 154 magnificent minutes, you can forget yourself, your life, your family and career, and live only in the world that Scott and his brilliant team have created. It's an experience that comes along only once in decades.

Don't miss it.

Also take the tour presenting Hollywood's depiction of the glorious Roman Empire!

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