There are really three aspects to the movie Gladiator, the religious, the political and the familial. The political aspect is interesting, but the familial aspect is really the driver behind the whole story.
There are two families, that of Marcus Aurelius, and that of Maximus the general. (note: the movie has some historical flaws but for the sake of this review it will be taken has history.)
It starts with Emperor Aurelius overlooking the war, as he has spent 16 of his 20 years as emperor. The movie suggests he was war-like in his early years as emperor but then had an awaking. Of course the fact that he dies at war somewhat flies in the face of this. Furthermore it seems Rome is going to hell in a hand-basket during his tenure. However he did end the gladiator fights (not historically accurate) and wrote some good words down on paper. By empirical reality probably not the best of men, but emotionally we are supposed to identify and respect him in the movie, or at the very least not hate him.
|Marcus Aurelius Overlooks the battlefield- a position he was used to.|
Interestingly the man we are supposed to hate is Marcus Aurelius’ son, Commodus. This is a difficult task for the movie accomplish. The movie has to somehow make us love the father while hating the son, but deep down we know this cannot be. When Commodus is talking about his “bad” qualities, we know that he did not get them from watching Roman TV shows, he got them from his father. The movie even points Aurelius’ bad parenting out. He says to his daughter, “Let us pretend that you are a loving daughter and I am a good father.” To which his daughter responds, “This is a pleasant fiction, is it not?” More blatantly Aurelius says to Commodus, “Your faults as a son is my failings as a father.” Aurelius was of course away at war for 16 years. How could he be a good father? Or even a father for that matter. He was a sightseer and war monger who occasionally took a break to say hello to some children back at home. The movie attempts to make it appear as if Commodus is a bad egg that randomly hatched out of nowhere but deep down we know this is not true. We know instinctively that Commodus is who he is largely because of his father. It is apparent that Aurelius was gone during much of his children’s lives. He was likely gone during many of the most crucial years.
This is the story of the movie: that national disasters and wars do not begin on the battlefield, in negotiation rooms, nor in state buildings. Wars begin in living rooms, kitchens, and classrooms. Particularly detrimental are the disastrous homes of the political elite. The horrors that happen in those living rooms are acted out in grand scale with bombs and soldiers. Furthermore the movie shows that not only do wars not begin in the battlefield, they do not end there either. All wars begin and end in the home. The war pulls fathers away and families apart and sews the seeds of further conflict, destruction, and sadness. This cycle is the story of the movie.
After the opening battle sequence that is there largely to draw us in, we are shot into the actual meat of the story, the familial dysfunction. The battle with all of its evils and flaming arrows and dying people are simply the bloody manifestations of the familial dysfunction juxtaposed in the movie just after the battle sequence. To make it more complete the movie should have opened with the familial politics and then gone to the battle scene, but cinematic demands make you come in with a more visual stunning bang (mad props to the special effects crew and all that, the battle scene does have some pretty breath-taking images.).
Of course the war itself makes no rational sense (as always). But wars are not rational, they never are they never were, they are emotional manifestations of familial dysfunction and are not based at all on their supposed political goals. The movie claims that after the Romans fight this final battle against the Germans the whole empire will be safe and at peace. So this was not the first, or last, “War to end all wars.” Every war is the war to end all wars. That is how politicians get people to fight “Just fight this war, and then there will be peace and all your children and grandchildren will be able to live in peace! Do it for your children and future generations! Fight for peace!” And so, people sign up. This is what they said during World War I. The war to end all wars. Fight for peace, so your children can live in peace. Was there peace for their children? No of course not. The children had to fight in the bloodiest conflict in human history, WWII. Politicians have been saying this is “the last war” since before ancient Rome, you think this time it will finally be true? Marcus Aurelius is of course aware of this; shortly after the battle he says “There will always be people to fight.”
Clearly, they did not need to fight this random Germanic tribe. “People need to know when they are conquered,” says one general. It is about being in charge, not actual threats or safety. What were a bunch of hairy men in the mountains really going to do to the Roman Empire? Indeed it makes about as much sense as our wars and military bases throughout the world that do not make us safer, but do give us a superiority complex. Did Rome really need the northern half of Germania to survive? Surely the Roman army could not think they were “helping them out?” Like we so daringly say about our wars in the Middle East, “We are there to help them out.” Say that to the Iraqi who is dead and to all of his family. How much did we “help them out?” Similarly the Germanic tribes who were slaughtered probably did not feel so “helped” by the Roman army.
|The opening battle is great cinematography|
The worst part about war is that it always lays the seeds for future wars and familial dysfunction.
It is not far into the movie when Commodus kills his father. He does this just after his father tells him that he does not trust him enough to be the next emperor. Commodus murders his father to become emperor. Is this not what his father taught him? Aurelius has “murdered” to maintain the empire, in fact he has sent thousands of young men to their deaths, as well as ordered the deaths of “barbarians.” So though we are supposed to hate Commodus for killing his father, and love Aurelius for his valor in battle, they are the same thing. Commodus is doing exactly what his father has taught him to do his whole life, or at least 16 years of it, to go out and kill anyone who threatens your hold on the empire.
What is more, the physical killing of Aurelius is his son’s retribution for his father’s killing of him. You cannot kill unless you have first been killed inside. Aurelius, through lack of love toward his child, through abandonment as he was off to war, killed his son inside, leading to his own eventual murder.
Most people see the villain and his lust for power as the drive behind the movie, but this is not the case, that is the mere outward manifestation of the abandonment because of the wars and ambitions of his father. This is the tragedy behind the horrors of the movie.
The war, as all wars, is fundamentally a war against families, not against Germanians. The Romans were told they were going to kill Germanians, but they were killing Roman families. Similarly when we go to Iraq or Afghanistan, or wherever else, the war is not against whoever the supposed bad guys are, the war is against American families and children who lose fathers for years or forever and who come back with PTSD and an inability to function in society. The war is caused by dysfunctional families and it then spreads that disease of dysfunction and violence to others. Maximus loved his family and his children. Apparently (as far as the movie showed) he had a good home. Then he had to leave for war, as he says he hasn’t seen his family for “2 years, 264 days and this morning.” His boy was only a few years old. During those crucial years he was left without a father. His family is fundamentally wounded. To make this clear the movie shows the Roman troops crucifying and burning Maximus’ wife and children. This is simply physically doing to his family what the Roman army had already done emotionally.
No family involved in war can be spared this fate. They lose their father, or get a father severely wounded coming home. Many soldiers and families are able to survive and live well, but others’ lives are almost as that of Maximus, half-awake nightmares. This is shown by the fact that soldiers are more likely to commit suicide and about 20% of those involved in Iraq and Afghanistan have PTSD and/or depression.
|Maximus' family who he never sees again in the flesh. Family is the true cost of war.|
After the death of Maximus’s family the story line splits. Maximus through some truly strange circumstances is picked up by slavers and becomes a gladiator, while Commodus is in the capitol scheming to eliminate the senate.
Here there are some interesting political discussions. Commodus talks to his sister about the need to get rid of the senate. Commodus is completely unable to negotiate or connect with people. This is seen in the scene at the senate where he simply plays with his sword and ignores the senators, then gets mad at them for nonsensical reasons and walks off in anger. This of course is a manifestation of his inability to connect with his father, but he extends that to everyone. He can’t make real connections or do real negotiations so for this reason he wants totalitarian power. If only there were not people in the way he could do what is right. If he just didn’t have to negotiate. This is also why he basically holds his sister captive. She becomes his “connection” the person he can relate to, even though she is completely scared of him.
She tells Commodus in her attempt to get him to step down from his ambitions, “leave the people their illusions, their traditions.” Isn’t that so fitting to what we see today? Princeton and Northwestern proved that the whole democracy thing is just that, a sham, an illusion, a tradition (at least in the United States). In reality “the people” have no control over what takes place in Washington. We are just like the people in Rome, kept with our “illusions.”
Commodus desperately wants the respect of the people, because he thinks it will fill that gaping hole in his soul where his father should be. He thinks being loved by the people will finally make him feel secure, complete, and not scared of being alone. “What do the people care about?” he yells. His sister suggests they care about the war, about the victory. “They never saw the battles – what do the people care about Germania?” Interesting because it is so true. What do they care about random fighting of people in a distant land they will never see. Yet that is war. It becomes important only because we are told it is. And so we grow to worship it as our defender when it is really all the opposite. “They care about the greatness of Rome.” Says his sister, which really just shows the lack of connection with people. People care about their families, they care about their businesses, they care about their hobbies, they care about their friends. It is these mere abstractions that people put up as important when they are unable to connect to those more important things.
The whole political section is extremely fascinating because it is so relevant to our current political condition, as well as for the fact of its slightly conservative bend which is almost non-existent in Hollywood. All the politicians are represented, rightfully so, as out of touch, entitled jerks. There is of course an exception: The “good” politician. The existence of a “good” politician is more Hollywood fiction than reality, but I suppose relative to other politicians, some do look good. The good guy is Gracchus. He is wealthy (as all the senators were and are), intellectual, and well-read. When he shows up to the gladiator games, one of the other senators is surprised that he would show up to see the “mob.” “I never pretended to be a man of the people,” says Gracchus, “I do strive to be a man for the people.” In the Senate we see him discussing minutia such as how to fix the water supply and ward off a growing plague. He isn’t talking about grandiose ideas. He is an Edmund Burke politician, the intellectual father of conservatism. He has a pragmatic, gradual change, virtue to him. He is not pretentious, but straightforward and pragmatic. Ironically this is the opposite of all Hollywood stands for, which is why it is not often glorified.
|Gracchus, the "good" politician (as if that existed).|
In what Gracchus calls a “brilliant” move, Commodus brings back the gladiator games (his father had ended them for moral reasons). Gracchus doesn’t think the action is good or right, just politically brilliant. He knows how people think. The people are losing what little political control they have, so Commodus says, “here is some entertainment,” and everyone cheers. Is this any different than today? We all know we essentially have no political voice, and we all know the government is going to hell in hand basket, and the debt is a mess, and people are dying because of our facetious wars. And what do we do? We wonder what the last thing Miley Cyrus did at her concert. We get together and drink beer and watch some guys run into each other gladiator-like in stadiums modeled after the very coliseum where the gladiator games were held. Have we really advanced that much? We still fall for this stupid gag. Throw some games and put out some celebrity, and BAM they don’t even care or notice that we are financially raping them and they can do nothing about it.
It is also interesting that at the beginning of one of the games people go around the stadium throwing out bread; loafs of bread for all to share, a gift from the emperor. Well how about that for original? Using food and money as a way to buy popularity. This is of course exactly what politicians continue to do. Promise benefits and a constant stream of free food and goodies so that people will show up and vote for them. Humans have changed little since the days of Rome.
Throughout the movie we see poor Commodus in a desperate attempt to gather the love of the crowd. He thinks he must be everything and everyone must care about him. This narcissistic megalomania is what makes politicians. It is not about helping people or changing the world. They are up there searching for the praise and love to fill the void they cannot fill in their lives. Every vote they receive is one more badge on their ego to cover their empty souls. Look at politicians: a group of people who cheat on their wives and steel from the public purse to enforce their vision on the world. They are up their building their Utopia for us as if we did not know how to live our own lives and we need their superior knowledge on every subject imaginable to guide us. Nothing short of complete narcissistic megalomania leads you to that. Notice that there are two “i’s” in narcissist, and three “i’s” in politician.
|In a vain attempt to gain approval of the crowd, Commodus brings back the gladiator games.|
In fact, the reason we like completely evil politicians and villains in our movies is because they make our sick system, our corrupted and evil leaders, seem less evil by comparison. This is why we like the Hunger Games and movies with emperors that kill their father. We can suddenly feel comforted that though our “leaders” lie to us, steal from us, start frivolous wars, sell off our children’s futures to foreign bankers, arrest people for carrying the wrong forms of vegetation in their pockets, and just about every other evil imaginable, at least they are not killing their own fathers. At least we are not that bad.
After being a movie that has so ingeniously and beautifully opened up our minds to truth, the movie ends with what I call the great myth. The movie shows evil after evil of political power, shows the horrific effects of violence and war, and then at the end, says that the good guy wins and he wins by using violence. This is the great myth that so many movies disseminate in the minds of people. Our minds for some reason identify it. We want the good guy to rise up and kill the bad guy and make everything right. We want the white knight to save the day. This is of course why society, keeps trying to use this same solution over and over again. We cannot see that this “solution” is the very cause of the problems in the first place.
Violence cannot solve the problems violence creates. I don’t know when Hollywood and society will catch on to this one, but that is the great myth. I will rewrite this statement in a few other ways that will maybe relate to leftists and rightists. All these statements are forms of the same thing: War cannot solve the problems war creates. Government cannot solve the problems government creates, Abuse cannot solve the problems abuse creates, rape cannot solve the problems rape creates. Take any one of those statements that resonates with you and simply universalize it. War is violence, and violence can’t solve violence because war cannot solve war. Government is violence, rape is violence, abuse is violence. All these things are different form of the same thing: violent and coercive force over people. For some reason we keep thinking some Maximus will come in and kill the emperor and make everything right. We think some Hero will ride to victory and kill all these violent oppressors. Guess what? It is never going to happen. You cannot play with evil at its own game and win. You can’t expect to walk onto a basketball court with Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Lebron James, and Karl Malone and expect to come out as the winner. If you attempt to take down tyrants with violence, one of two things will happen: you will lose and get brutally killed either physically or emotionally, or you will become an even more horrible tyrant than the one you are trying to take down. This is a game you cannot win. The only way to win is to not play.
|The Hollywood myth: being able to end violence with more violence.|
Stop waiting for Maximus. Be a hero today. Not with guns or violence. Guns and violence just create more guns and violence. The only solution is to first eliminate the desire for violence in us and spread love to others. We first must fix our homes before we can fix the world. Until we love our children and our wives and our husbands, we cannot spread love to others. We cannot expect to end war and end violence against other races and cultures when we cannot even love our very own children and neighbors. We cannot expect to expand tolerance of other world views when we do not even allow our children to view the world differently than we do. Until each child wakes up every day confident the he is loved regardless of his ideas. Until each child wakes up confident there are people around him protecting him, until that day comes, we have not seen the end of war. For war begins, and ends, in the home.
Not on historicity: Aurelius really did have a son named Commodus who succeeded him as emperor. Also it is generally considered that Aurelius was a "good" emperor and his son was a complete narcissistic failure. However, there is no evidence to suggest that Aurelius appointed someone else besides his son to be emperor, though it has been speculated. Aurelius died of the plague, and was not assassinated, and his son had already been serving as emperor for multiple years. Furthermore Commodus ruled for 12 years, not just a short while as depicted. Furthermore Rome never returned to a Republic, as the movie suggests would happen. On an interesting note, Commodus was killed by a fighter, a wrestler not a gladiator, whose name was Narcissus.