Movies for the Resistance: Gladiator

(Welcome to Movies for the Resistance, a weekly column intended to showcase films with particular pertinence for 2017. One of the fundamental purposes of art in general, and movies in particular, is to serve as a spiritual armory: bringing hope, timely lessons and shared experiences when times are dark. They can move us to positive political action, lend insight to the inexplicable, and sometimes just give us a moment to remember that we’re not alone. I’m hoping to embrace as many genres and subjects as possible here: nothing is out of bounds and the plan is to vary the content as much as I can from week to week. But all of them are chosen for the same basic purpose: to support, comfort and inspire as we enter a troubling new phase in our nation’s history. We’ll showcase a new film every Tuesday.)

Starring: Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen, Oliver Reed, Richard Harris, Djimon Hounsou and Derek Jacobi
Directed by: Ridley Scott
Running time: 155 minutes
Rating: R
Year of release: 2000


I believe quite firmly that this nightmare will end and that better days lie ahead. The darkest possibilities suggest otherwise of course: starting with a tilt into full-bore fascism (likely with a giant helping of Handmaid’s Tale-style theocracy) and ending with the formation of a new asteroid belt between Venus and Mars. They keep a lot of us up at night, and I imagine the psychiatric profession is doing gangbuster business these days. But hope endures in even our bleakest moments. More importantly, it gives us the strength to keep fighting when all seems lost. Sooner or later, this will end. I believe it will be sooner, and I hold fast to the notion that we can repair the catastrophic damage inflicted and build something better.

That means reckoning with more than just the orange buffoon in the White House, of course. It means dealing with a substantial part of our country that has overlooked what he’s done to us, and a smaller but even more troubling percentage that understands exactly, precisely what he’s doing and actively cheers him on. It comes down to which vision of the nation proves stronger. Trumpism espouses white nationalism, patriarchal dominance and the active persecution of anyone who doesn’t look, act and follow a so-called “natural” (read: Chrsitian) order. The rest of us, no matter where we may lie on the political spectrum, think much more inclusively: a nation where all are accepted, where everyone’s story is embraced, and where opportunities are defined by vision and drive rather than skin color.

Of course, as a nation, we’ve never approached that ideal. We’ve never even come close. Ours is a history dominated by racism, slavery, genocide and oligarchy. Our foundations are stained with blood, our national vision hides nightmares behind it, and as the first year of this horrendous presidency draws to a close, the notion of a government of the people, by the people and for the people has rarely felt like so much wishful thinking.

But that does not erase the power of the ideal. It doesn’t eliminate the Herculean efforts of those who have fought and died for it, who stood up and demanded it in the face of heated opposition. And it doesn’t mean we abandon it now, when it seems so far away, and when the belief that we are a nation in active decline seems so utterly self-apparent. We fight for the ideal because it’s worth fighting for. Period. Full stop.

We fight for it because we become better people by doing so.

Which brings me to Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, a movie initially intended as summer popcorn, but which somehow scored a Best Picture Oscar: the only one of Scott’s lengthy and impressive canon to have done so. The director embraces a staggering variety of themes and subjects in his films, such that narrowing his vision to a few easy themes becomes an exercise in futility. But a critic much wiser than I made an elegant stab at it: his films all entail good people working for corrupt institutions that are not worthy of their loyalty.

Such was his hero Maximus (Russell Crowe), a fictional Roman general who finds himself on the wrong side of a palace coup and winds up face down on the arena sand with the mob howling for his head. As a military commander, he fought at the behest of Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris), hoping to bring about a lasting, prosperous peace. His loyalty, compassion and adherence to the highest ideals earns him the enmity of Marcus’s son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), who disposes of his rival and seizes a throne intended for Maximus.

The tale is pure fabrication, but it highlights the popular notion of a Rome in active decline. Decadence and ennui rules its streets, brutality dictates its policies, and whatever remains of its better angels slowly drowns in duplicity and blood. Maximus, however, always fought for something better. “There was a dream that was Rome,” he tells those close to him, and he’s not referring to power or spectacle. He fights for that even though he never truly sees it himself. He fights for it despite the egregious flaws in the system he’s defending. He fights for it because its worth fighting for, and as long as he does so, the idealized Rome – the Rome that never existed – stays alive.

That colors his journey through the arena and holds him strong in the face of near certain death, Indeed, it becomes all the stronger when he’s practically helpless: reduced to battling thugs in the arena for entertainment as his rival watches from behind armed guards. He speaks truth to power, even when it means his own death. He demonstrates mercy to those he could (and probably should) cut down like wheat. He holds fast to his comrades and encourages them to stand together. And always, he points out the hypocrisy of the culture around him, most memorably in the line that defined the film.

He’s far from the capital when he speaks it, uttered at an indifferent crowd in a dusty backwater there to watch him casually cut people in half. But it strikes at the heart of the problem for him: not Commodus, whose policies are rapidly driving the Empire into a ditch, but the whole system that enabled such barbarity to flourish.

In the process, he shakes others out of their stupor, notably Oliver Reed’s cynical slave trader, but also Commodus’s sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen) and her son (Spencer Treat Clarke), who see in him shades of nobility far too scarce in the world they inhabit. His battle is doomed from the start: the weight of Rome’s descent may be moving too fast for anyone to stop. But his example reaches others, and they carry on without him. And it spreads and it stays alive, and others eventually rise who share it.

The vision is old, but the message is timeless. This is not who we are supposed to be. We have never been what we thought we were, but we can fight for it. We can do better. We have to.

I believe our country holds the seeds of something better in its heart. I believe we can become something closer to what the Founding Fathers had in mind: maybe not in this form, but in another one that summons our higher instincts in a purer form. We’ve seen it in our history, in flickers of light through the dark, and the men and women who protected that light now look to us to keep it alive however we can. There was a dream that was Rome, and it’s still worth fighting for. Especially when it feels so far away.

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