One of the great changes in academia at the time this film was released was the re-ignited interest in the Roman Empire of old. I remembered that many journals and magazines were peppered with articles and facts about the victories, drama, politics and ultimate downfall of the greatest empire in human history. Rare feat for a film in my own opinion.
There were a lot gore in the show – no sexual graphics – and a lot of story. It was the time tested story of a man who gained the world and lost it all in a moment. Against the rule and wrath of a mad emperor, this broken man begins to claw his way out of the pit of despair, long enough to fulfill his promise and… depart. The grandeur of the movie hinges not on the scenes, filmography and breathtaking landscapes – but in the superb acting of the cast. Russell Crowe’s expressions of hopelessness, doubt and determination were more than believable – the audience could feel it, from moment to moment, scene to scene; no wonder it swept most of the awards of that time!
“Win the crowd, and you will win your freedom.”
If not for the irony of the statement and the context of it, the quotes in the film would be called prophetic (for our time)! Did I forget to mention that the villain (emperor) was brilliantly acted by Joaquin Phoenix, way before his acting chops were acknowledged in the disturbing anti-hero film “Joker”? Without the stellar cast, nothing would have worked.
“My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius, Commander of the Armies of the North, General of the Felix Legions, loyal servant to the true emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife. And I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next.”
The film came out at a time when civil disobedience and the rise of social justice issues were starting to gain traction in the West. I could remember watching this movie twice during OCF (Overseas Christian Fellowship) in 2000. I did some research as I wrote the newsletter of our newly formed bible study group – there was an unwritten tradition that the gladiators that were to fight, were to face the Emperor and utter a vow of the dead men. They knew they were at the foremost – entertainers. And with that, their lives were not their own, but held by the audience and the emperor.
This was one of the first movies I watched where the hero died fulfilling his mission – and died with dignity. There was no moving on – but in single-minded fulfillment of his heart’s mission – to see his family in the afterlife.
In some sense, this is the great intention of the Christian believer. It is not about platitudes or encouragement, for the struggle will always be personal and always while we are disadvantaged by our weak flesh. Nevertheless, the hope of the eternal propels us forward, to finish the race.
That lesson, I kept in my mind – and I choose to revisit it every now and then through this epic film.