Choices Video - Switched On

GLADIATOR (15) Action

Russell Crowe, Richard Harris, Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen

nicelegs.jpg (17821 bytes)Ridley Scott is famous for making blockbusters with braincells, but Gladiator eclipses even his previous bests of Alien and Blade Runner.   From its brutal opening battle to the awe-inspiring recreations of Ancient Rome, it is a truly astonishing spectacle.  The most successful commander in the Roman army, and unswerving in his loyalty to emperor Marcus Aurelius, General Maximus is cast down when the emperor is murdered by his ambitious son Commodus.  His wife and son are killed and he himself is sold as a slave to Proximo, a gladiator-trainer.  Forced to fight for his life for the entertainment of the masses, Maximus vows to avenge his family - and save Rome from its crazed new ruler.

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smallflannelpic.jpg (11115 bytes)YOU'VE COME A LONG WAY, BABY

You can pinpoint the exact moment in Gladiator when Russell Crowe takes his place among Hollywood's icons.  Oozing testosterone from every pore and spattered with the blood of his enemies, he flings his arms wide and bellows 'ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?' at his audience: both the crowds in the arena, and us.
Born in Strathmore Park, New Zealand, on April 7 1964, to film-set caterers Alex and Jocelyn, Russell and his family moved to Australia when he was 4. He now says he considers himself Australian 'except when the All Blacks are playing'. Thanks to his parents' job he caught the acting bug young, and made several TV appearances as a child. He also had dreams of rock and roll stardom, forming the prophetically named Roman Antix, which later evolved into his present group, 30 Odd Foot Of Grunts. The fact that he had three extra jobs to make ends meet says a lot about their musical ability. SO Russell returned to the stage, including an astonishing 415 performances as Dr Frank N Furter, the cross-dressing villain of The Rocky Horror Show! Finally, at the age of 25, he landed his first film role in Blood Oath.
There followed several appearances in acclaimed Australian films, such as The Crossing (a part he only got by agreeing to fix the front tooth he'd knocked out when he was 10), Proof and Romper Stomper. It was his performance in this last, as the neo-Nazi thug Hando, which caught the eye of Sharon Stone, about to start filming The Quick & the Dead. Stone brought filming to a halt until Russell could be cast, and though the film flopped, it led the way to more Hollywood roles, such as Virtuosity and No Way Back.
Then in 1997 came the part that first brought him to international prominence, Bud White in LA Confidential.  It's a tribute to his talent that he could turn a character he describes as 'a racist, self-righteous, foul-mouthed son of a bitch' into a sympathetic anti-hero.  This feat was not achieved without great suffering: 'the author kept telling me that Bud White wasn't a drinker.  So for five months and seven days I didn't have a drink.  It's probably the most painful period of my life.'
Now firmly established as A Serious Actor, Russell was unimpressed when he was offered the lead role in a 'sword'n'sandal' action film.  'When your agent says "It's a gladiator movie", the first thing you do is laugh,' he says, 'but if you think back 40 years ago, if you hadn't done a gladiator movie, a couple of westerns and played a pirate, you weren't acting'.  He signed, only to realise he had to rapidly lose the 50 pounds he'd put on for his part in The Insider.  He managed it by chasing cows on his New South Wales farm.
It's to the farm that Russell likes to retreat between projects, his favourite pastime being to walk around it (all 560 acres).  However the phenomenal success of Gladiator may prevent any trips home for some time.  He'll be seen next in Proof of Life, a hostage thriller in which he falls in love with married Meg Ryan ( a case of life imitating art...), and Flora Plum, directed by Jodie Foster.   Tickets to see 30 Odd Foot Of Grunts have been selling for up to $500.  At the last gig somebody threw a dead dog at him.  He used it to wipe the sweat from his brow and flung it straight back.  Clearly, Russell will be entertaining us for some time to come.


On ambition: 'Even at 6, I would look at the 28 year-old guy playing the war veteran in a film and tell my parents, "I don't know why the director doesn't see me in that role.  I might be a little short, but I can do it"'.
On his acting ability: 'I'm still prepared to believe that I'm learning this job, and sooner or later I might give a performance I like.'


Sir Anthony Hopkins: 'He reminds me of myself as a young actor''.
Sharon Stone: 'Russell is not only charismatic, attractive and talented, but also fearless.'

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Rome's craziest emperors (and where to find them on video)

Caligula (John Hurt in I, Claudius, Malcolm McDowell in Caligula)
Showed much early promise before a mystery illness robbed him of his reason. After which he married his sister, ate his son, and declared war on the sea. As you do.

Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix in Gladiator, Christopher Plummer in Fall of the Roman Empire)
Put the Senate in its place by brandishing his sacrificial knife at them at religious functions. Thinks he can have Russell Crowe in a fight - now that IS mad.

Nero (Christoper Biggins in I, Claudius, Peter Ustinov in Quo Vadis)
The myth that he 'fiddled while Rome burned' is based on fact: delusions of his own artistic prowess occupied him more than affairs of state.   Tried to assassinate his mother with a booby-trapped boat.  Appalling taste in interior decoration.

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("Hail Caesar, those who are about to die salute thee")

It is entirely appropriate that the 'Arrival of the Gladiators' march from Aida has become a terrace anthem, because gladiatorial combat was as much a part of Roman society as football is for us today.   Like football stars, the gladiators rose to fame and fortune from the lowliest social strata: they amused great riches, were hero-worshipped by the public and frequently had scandalous affairs with famous ladies of the time.  And like football, they had a hooligan problem: <snip> (In the magazine, there's a little painting showing the hooligan problem, of a crowd riot at the arena in Pompeii)

Originally held as a munus, or funeral gift for the dead, the games soon became a political tool.  They were the only place where ordinary people could interact with the emperor: the crowd would heckle him, complaining about local officials or the price of wheat.  It worked both ways though: Caligula was known to order particularly noisy spectators to join in the fighting!   The types of gladiators were distinguished according to costume: some, like Thracians and Samnites, wore the uniforms of conquered nations.  Others were named after their equipment: the retarius, or fisherman, carried a net and trident.  Not all bouts ended in death: when a man was wounded, the crowd would shout 'hoc habet' (he's had it) and the emperor would signal whether he should die or not.  Death was administered by a sword blow to the neck, then the body was carried away and poked with a hot iron to check he wasn't faking!

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Maximus Decimus Meridius (Russell Crowe)
Hailing from Spain, a Roman province since the 2nd Century BC, Maximus probably joined the army in his late teens, military service being compulsory for all citizens.  Now a general, he has spent the last three years battling rebellious German tribes.  Although he is an entirely fictional character, Romans would have viewed Maximus as the perfect man.  He has a quality they called piets, a nearly untranslatable word that means a sense of duty and honour to the gods, the empire and his family.  Maximus' vision of his wife and son on their farm represents the Romans' ideal way of life.

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Marcus Aurelius Verus (Richard Harris)
Sick and aged, the emperor has long since become disheartened by the corruption inherent in Rome.  Fearing the damage that could be done to the empire if his weak son comes to rule, he resolves to make Maximus his heir and instruct him to reinstate the Republic.  The real Marcus Aurelius reigned from 161-180 AD.  More a philosopher than a politician, his book 'Meditations' gives us an invaluable insight into how he ran the empire.  He did indeed die in an army camp on the Danube, although the exact cause of death is not known.

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Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix)
Cowardly, devious and acutely aware of his inferiority compared to his noble father or the war hero Maximus, Commodus is obsessed with becoming emperor. The historical Commodus became emperor at 18: he was handsome and athletic but also vicious and debauched. Gibbon, in Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, says: "He survived many conspiracies against him (the first of which almost certainly involved his sister) before being murdered by palace officials in AD193.




~Article(s) transcribed from "Switched On," October/MID NOVEMBER 2000, given free in Choices Video stores~