Gladiator came along in 2000, when I was 25 years old and ripe for some fractured Roman history as a vehicle for a jacked-up, brooding Russell Crowe swinging a hungry sword. Because make no mistake - Gladiator isn't a very complicated movie. There are some thematic noises about corruption and wisdom and courage, and a deft bit of irony as the film extols the virtue of popular rule while simultaneously exposing the base appetites of the mob. But beyond that, this is an action flick, one that intersperses sullen, heavy dialogue about the future of the republic with the kinetic frenzy of the arena. The scenes of intrigue and manipulation are dimly lit and full of shadow, while the sun shines brightly on Maximus as he plies his gory trade on the sands of the coliseum, implying that sword and shield are the tools of the honest man compared to the politician's glib words.
At the center of this dichotomy stands Crowe's Maximus, the popular general who becomes entangled in imperial political machinations and winds up as an enslaved gladiator. His family murdered, Maximus piles up bodies as a means to stay alive and to claw closer to his revenge. He wins the mob, trading their slavering favor for the chance to get close to the Emperor he longs to kill. Maximus was a brave man, loyal and strong and caring, but with his wife and child gone, all humanity and mercy and love leave him. Empire vs. Republic is a thin veneer of pretext and it rapidly falls away, leaving a simple story of vengeance and hatred.
It's a violent, punishing film, and by the time Maximus gives his life to avenge his loved ones, there is less sorrow than catharsis. Lucilla demands that the spectators at the final game honor him as a soldier of Rome, but Maximus is beyond caring about that. He is headed home, to see his wife and his little boy. It is one of the most fitting, affecting on-screen deaths of a main protagonist I've ever seen. Yes, we are entertained.
Oh, and by the way - Hans Zimmer's sweeping score (inspired heavily by Holst and Wagner) is one of my all-time favorites. It remains in heavy writing-accompaniment rotation along with such classics as Legends of the Fall, Henry V, and the John Williams catalog.