Blockbuster Video - The Scene




The film that made history exciting again, Gladiator is that recent slice of heroic celluloid that everyone, but everyone, was talking about earlier this year.  For not once since Stanley Kubrick's epic Spartacus (Made back in 1960) had a historical saga so captured the film-going imagination with quite the passion that Gladiator has.  And it's easy to see why, now that the film has arrived on video.

First off, there's the sheer grand scope of director Ridley Scott's vision.  Using state-of-the-art computerised special effects, Rome is shown with thousands of extras, towering architecturally grand buildings and enough action to give even films like Braveheart a serious run for its money.

But first, here's the plot.  Fresh from the forest of Germania, the victorious General Maximus (Russell Crowe) prepares to retire.   But the dying emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) has other plans for Rome's greatest hero because he hopes Maximus will become the next emperor.  But Aurelius' natural heir to the throne Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) is outraged by the insult and naturally attempts to have Maximus murdered.  Maximus manages to escape his potential executioners, but wounded in the escape, is captured by slave traders, sold to an impresario (Oliver Reed) and 'trained' as a gladiator.  Forced to constantly fight for his life, Maximus becomes so famous he is a threat to the new Emperor Commodus.

From its opening scenes of bloody hand-to-hand violence; a forest alight as catapults sling their balls of fire; sweat, swords and testosterone fill the frame with unrelenting spectacle - Gladiator sets out stall from the off.  But this is merely a taste of things to come.  Director Ridley Scott has a keen eye for detail, and the ability to nurture larger-than-life performances from his cast (especially Crowe).  Scott's strong sense of dramatic thrust helps propel this gripping saga of tragedy, power, politics and revenge through nearly two and a half hours of visceral thrills.

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Yet for all the sword fighting, tiger dodging and general butchery, at the film's heart is a simple tale of one man.  The story follows Maximus' path from hero to slave, to gladiator to revolutionary - and a genuine cinematic hero is born.  Crowe is perfect: reluctant, stoic, embittered, he is a brooding outsider intent on revenge for the murder of his wife and child.  These are the same characteristics that Crowe brought to his most recent film offerings, LA Confidential and The Insider, and again he excels.

Crowe is surrounded by an excellent cast.   Oliver Reed (who died before the end of filming) puts in one of the finest performances of his long career, Richard Harris as Aurelius oozes class and Joaquin Phoenix is suitably nasty as the power-hungry Commodus.

But aside from the strong performances, the real winner is the visual strength of the film, aided by remarkable digital effects which help bring ancient Rome vividly back to life.  As Crowe wanders into the great Coliseum for the first time, surrounded by a 50,000-strong audience cheering for carnage, his eyes go wide with wonder - and we too are equally awed by the vast panorama that greets us.

Scott has created a glorious movie that, while massive in vision and choc 'o' block with special effects, is essentially a carefully worked drama focusing on individuals who are desperate to stay true to their paths, fair or foul.  It is a testament to the acting abilities of the cast that they are not swamped by the scale of their surroundings.

This is epic, thrilling cinema, painted on the broadest of canvases and boasting a supercharged cast.  There's as much passion, energy and excitement as you'd have any right to expect.  In a word, unmissable.

FINAL VERDICT Director Ridley Scott's vast, sweeping epic, gives us Rome and armour-clad sword-wielding gladiators in all their magnificent glory.  One of the biggest, most thrilling films you'll ever see.

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Resurrecting an entire 2000-year-old civilisation without making it look like a superficial computer animation was one of the biggest problems British special effects house Mill Film had to deal with on Gladiator.

Perhaps the biggest feat of all was the recreation of the vast Colosseum, where Crowe and his cohorts do battle.  Says Nikki Penny, visual effects producer at Mill Film: "Ridley Scott said that, if this was a sci-fi feature, then the Colosseum would be the mothership."  Rebuilding the entire Colosseum was of course, far too expensive, so the crew constructed one side of the amphitheatre and two of its tiers, and the rest was filled in with computer-generated imagery.  The art department also built a 50ft section of the Colosseum

for close-ups, so they had to digitally recreate the entire exterior of the Colosseum as well as the interior.   Computers then filled the stadium with a 35,000-strong roaring crowd, although 2,000 locals were also employed to help give the arena, its sell-out, cheering atmosphere.

During one of the fights in the Colosseum, Crowe is forced to do battle with some ferocious tigers.  Says effects supervisor Rob Harvey: "For that scene we shot live animals growling and swiping at the air against a blue screen background. 

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We then shot Crowe fighting, and combined the two images."

Even the awesome battle scenes between the Romans and the Goths at the start of the film are filled with Mill Film's special effects shots.  Says Penny: "We've used crowd replication, multiplying the Roman army by about four times, and the fireball explosions were replicated by computer."

Sadly, the most publicised during the shoot was the sudden death of legendary British actor, Oliver Reed (Proximo).  Says Penny: "We used an earlier take of Ollie and positioned him into the new plate.  We lit him very sympathetically, giving him a haircut and a digital shave.  We also turned his beard into a goatee."


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~Article transcribed from "The Scene," October 2000/ISSUE 31, given free in Blockbuster Video stores~