Russell Crowe in a Toga, but Not a Single Orgy

Ridley Scott’s Gladiator , from a screenplay by David Franzoni and John Logan and William Nicholson, has been hailed in some quarters as a triumphant restoration of the long dormant toga-and-tunic superproduction genre that seemingly faded into oblivion with the critical and commercial failures of Anthony Mann’s The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) and George Stevens’ The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965). Indeed, Gladiator bears a strong resemblance in its anachronistically liberal sentiments and character alignments to The Fall of the Roman Empire , which marked instead the fall of offshore producer Samuel Bronston’s Spain-based empire in the bankruptcy courts. Hence, I suspect that graybeard critics look back instead to the genre’s comparative glory days with William Wyler’s Oscar-winning Ben-Hur (1959) and Stanley Kubrick’s cult-favored-and-flavored Spartacus (1960).

I have never been particularly fond of historical and Biblical spectacles, preferring as I do D.W. Griffith’s True Heart Susie (1919) to his Intolerance (1916); Cecil B. De Mille’s The Cheat (1915) to his The Ten Commandments (1923); and Abel Gance’s La Roue (1923) to his Napoléon (1927) though that is admittedly a close call. The point is that I am an extreme case in favoring intimacy over scope in the cinema. Two people talking away their share of eternity passionately, dramatically, decisively and intelligently excites me more than all the legions of Rome and Germania in Gladiator .

Still, I did want almost desperately to like Gladiator despite my genre prejudice–if only to help make Russell Crowe a big star to go along with his being just about the best movie actor around in the past few years. Indeed, if I had been the emperor of the Motion Picture Academy, Mr. Crowe would have had two Oscars by now for his portrayals in Michael Mann’s The Insider (1999) and Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential (1997). Hence, at the very least, I hoped that Gladiator would get Mr. Crowe an Oscar in the way Charlton Heston got his for Ben-Hur after not even being considered in 1958 for a superior job in Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil .

To be as kind as I can to Mr. Crowe, I can say that he manages to make Gladiator only intermittently tedious, and if that isn’t damning with faint praise I don’t know what is. In fact, Gladiator is just teeming with negative virtues. It is almost never campy or derisively decadent by post-pagan Suetonian standards. There are no orgies even in this post-censorship era of permissiveness with respect to nudity and simulated carnal congress. Consequently, the R rating has nothing to do with sex, and everything to do with violence, of which there is a considerable amount, though it is never grossly or tastelessly sustained for exploitation purposes.

Oddly, there is no male skin-show with Mr. Crowe as there was with Mr. Heston in Ben-Hur and Kirk Douglas in Spartacus . By contrast, Mr. Crowe in Gladiator is usually encased in either armor or fur-lined coats. He looks shorter and slighter than most of his adversaries either in battle as the empire’s commanding general, Maximus, or after he has been nearly murdered by the Emporer Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), as the slave-gladiator known as “the Spaniard.” Lacking the buff physique of Mr. Heston or Mr. Douglas, Mr. Crowe internalizes the narcissism associated with roles of superhuman strength and courage. Will today’s fans of the World Wrestling Federation identify with a more cerebral action figure? Only time and the box office will tell.

If I seem to have backed into telling you the “story” of Gladiator , it is because I think it is the least of the film’s negative virtues. Richard Harris plays the emperor Marcus Aurelius,who lives long enough to tell Maximus that he, not the emperor’s foppish son Commodus, will lead Rome back to being a republic. When he unwisely tells his son, Commodus proceeds to murder his father and order the execution of Maximus, his wife and his little boy. The rest is standard Jacobean revenge melodrama diluted by the usual movie-hero hesitations and soul-saving scruples. Yet Gladiator resists bringing in the Christians of 180 A.D. as civilizing influences on the wickedly pagan Romans, thus forfeiting its Easter-time bookings on television for decades to come.

Instead, the avatar of reform in Rome is the Senate, led by Derek Jacobi’s incorruptible Gracchus, who looks with elitist disdain on the cruel Roman circuses so loved by the “mob.” The model for which Maximus and Gracchus risk their lives is the kind of secular republic that concentrates its attention on the domestic issues like sanitation and plague control. As evil as Commodus may be, he is at least more entertaining and media savvy with his frequent crowd-pleasing spectacles featuring bread and circuses. Yes, we actually see loaves of bread being thrown into the stands by the emperors’ charioteers, certainly a forerunner of today’s high-Nielsen-rated quiz shows.

The late Oliver Reed is almost unrecognizable in the prominent role of Proximo, the gladiatorial promoter who serves as the hero’s mentor. The film is deservedly dedicated to this memorable trouper who lived not wisely but too well. Two subplots involving Lucilla (Connie Nielsen), the terrified sister of Commodus and an old flame of Maximus, and Juba (Djimon Hounsou), the hero’s closest friend in gladiatorial captivity, add to the number of sympathetic characters arrayed against Commodus, who is not shown as even marginally gay in the stereotyped manner of previous imperial villains. Ultimately, Gladiator is an honorable and inoffensive spectacle with nothing extraordinary to recommend it.

An Eye for an Eye

Anthony Stark and Sean Smith’s Into My Heart , from their own screenplay, is as minimus as Gladiator is maximus. Costing at most a hundredth as much, Into My Heart manages to be low-key in the best sense of the term, which is to say that it packs a wallop without losing its cool. Its directorial style is unobtrusive without its effect becoming indistinct, and its characters grow and change without being twisted out of shape by facile contrivances.

The title of the film is derived from a somber poem by A.E. Housman: “Into my heart an air that kills/ From yon far country blows/ What are those blue remembered hills/ What spires, what farms are those?/ That is the land of lost content/ I see it shining plain/ The happy highways where I went/ And cannot come again.”

Rob Morrow’s Ben and Jake Weber’s Adam have been best friends since childhood, “Like two olives in a martini,” in the words of Adam’s father. Yet, they are strikingly and ultimately tragically different in temperament. Adam is a romantically naïve idealist, Ben a casually careless cynic. From the first moments we see them together, there is a shadow over their friendship in the form of a black patch over one of Adam’s eyes. It is the result of a childhood accident caused at least partly by Ben’s negligence, and the guilt has never ceased to weigh on him despite Adam’s reassurances.

After going to a preppy boarding school together they both go on to Columbia, and at the local watering hole, the famous and notorious West End Gate, Adam begins a romance with a student-waitress named Nina (Claire Forlani). She almost immediately assumes the role of the great love of his life while Ben looks on with mildly unbelieving amusement, mixed with genuine concern that Adam has never developed any “emotional scar tissue,” and is thereby dangerously vulnerable to heart-breaking disillusionment. Hence, while Ben accepts the adulteries and prospective divorce of his own parents, Adam is shocked at the idea that married people can ever be unfaithful to each other.

Yet it is Ben who finds himself, after a series of troubled temporary relationships in college, with a marriage that is conspicuously less idyllic than that of Adam and Nina. When the two couples gather for a reunion, Adam and Nina cannot help noticing that Ben is not entirely happy with his super-career-woman wife Kat (Jayne Brook). For his part, Ben is deeply jealous of his friends for what he perceives is a storybook marriage. Yet at the first opportunity, Nina forgets her marriage vows to enter with Ben what starts out as an almost hypothetical adventure and ends up with tragic and life-altering consequences for the foursome.

The story is told in a series of one-scene blackouts so artfully composed and sequenced that the effect is more cinematic than theatrical. A single act of betrayal becomes the detonator for all the emotional havoc that follows; to the very end much is left unsaid, but little is left unfelt. The easy rapport established between the cast members is a sign of non-star professionalism honed mostly on television.