BMCR 2004.07.40

Gladiator: Film and History

, Gladiator : film and history. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub, 2004. xii, 215 pages : illustrations, 1 map ; 24 cm. ISBN 1405110430. $24.95 (pb).

The remarkable box-office success of Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000), the first Roman epic film for more than thirty years, has generated a new wave of popular interest in the ancient world. Some of this has motivated increased student intakes in classical subjects, and simultaneously into more institutions offering courses that include classical reception in popular culture. For those of us who already teach such courses, this book is a welcome (and until now, largely absent) set of useful resources on a popular text; for those considering their introduction, it will demonstrate the broad range of possible approaches. Its editor, Martin Winkler, asserts that the book is aimed at an inter-disciplinary audience (classics, film studies, comparative literature, cultural studies), with the multi-perspectival content offering, at different times, a better understanding of ancient history for the film scholar and a better understanding of cinematic concerns for the historian. The level of discussion also varies, being generally pitched at undergraduates with some more sophisticated analyses. No doubt it will also find an audience among non-academic readers interested in learning more about the background to the film, and the stated decision to avoid jargon will be much appreciated.

The book opens with a brief editor’s preface, followed by ten separately authored chapters on various aspects of the film and its historical context and concluding with translations of relevant major sources, a chronology and a short list of further reading. The chapters are loosely grouped into cinematic, historical and narrative concerns, though this division is not stated.

Chapters 1 and 2 are concerned with cinematic matters. In Chapter 1, Jon Solomon traces the film’s development from David Franzoni’s early script of “a satire on modern life set in antiquity” to the final “heroic tragedy” of the screen version (p.15). The film was still evolving until shortly before its release; Solomon indicates the major changes and offers speculations, in some cases based on interviews given by the filmmakers, on why they came about. The variety of creative (and commercial) contributions on any film make this potentially an extremely complex task. Solomon concentrates on Franzoni and Scott, with brief mention of John Logan, who effectively rewrote the script for the second draft. While it is sensible in a work of this scope to exclude the inputs of leading actors (and the historical consultant Kathleen Coleman is represented elsewhere in the volume), it seems surprising that the third consecutively credited writer, William Nicholson, is unmentioned, especially as it is his final alterations that mostly survive. Solomon points out that the availability of electronic resources (online and as extras on DVD releases) have made the complex process of disentangling textual influences much easier. However, he somewhat undermines this argument by an apparently uncritical acceptance of these unmediated resources, including the mistaken inference that the Franzoni script published online is his first version (it is his second).1 In addition, his suggestion that the value of such analyses stems from their ability to offer a model of how ancient authors operated seems to come from a time (now thankfully past) when classicists felt compelled to offer justifications for working on popular culture.

In Chapter 2, Martin Winkler sets Gladiator in the context of the tradition of historical films. The chapter is divided into two parts, the first a polemical defence against classicists’ charges of cinematic inauthenticity. Winkler quite rightly notes that the same charge might be made about literature, painting or opera on ancient themes (p.17). In fact it rarely is, certainly in comparison to the contempt in which cinema is still sometimes held by classicists. One reason for this might be the vivacity of film,2 which (as the author points out) has the advantage of giving us an idea of what life in antiquity might actually have been like; however, it does so at the expense of transforming the ancient world into a cinematic simulacrum. (Another reason, unmentioned here but especially influential on both production and reception, is cinema’s commercial status.) Winkler sidesteps these problems to focus on shared characteristics, appealing to statements by both ancient and modern historians to remind the reader that historiography, like filmmaking, is concerned with creating narrative. In the second part of the chapter he turns his attention to the narrative itself, offering a convincing and extensively illustrated argument that plot patterns in Gladiator should be read as archetypal structures owing as much to films set in contemporary and future periods as those set in the ancient world.

Chapters 3-6 address historical issues, beginning with Allan Ward’s analysis of the historicity of the film. Ward is concerned mostly with situating the leading characters within their historical context. In the case of historical figures like Lucilla, Commodus and Marcus Aurelius, there is plenty of evidence against which to compare the cinematic versions. Ward shows that the two rarely meet, even in features that one would suppose to be attractive to filmmakers, like Commodus’ frequent forays in the arena and his self-identification with Hercules. The entirely fictional Maximus’ historical aptness is acknowledged as an example of the “able men from the provinces” (p.38) favoured by Marcus Aurelius. However, he finds a series of errors in the portrayal of the lanista Proximo and the gladiators generally. The chapter ends with a clever rewrite of the plot in accord with historical facts. While the discrepancies are clearly displayed, Ward does not ask the more interesting question of why they happen. Commercial films have access to ample resources for research, and the fact is that inaccuracies are almost always the product of choice rather than ignorance.

Someone well placed to answer this question is Kathleen Coleman. Famously employed as historical consultant on Gladiator, Coleman was so dismayed by the final product that she asked for her credit to be removed from the film on its release. Nevertheless, her name was still included in ‘thanks’ at the end of the credits, giving credence to her suspicion in this paper that consultants are sometimes hired merely “to give a film a veneer of respectability” (p.48). Coleman’s impassioned account of her experience, first posted on a classicists’ mailing list, has been widely disseminated.3 In Chapter 4, she offers a more general analysis of the role of the historical consultant on Hollywood films. While Gladiator is not specifically named, her experience (mentioned by many other contributors) is inevitably in the mind of the reader. Coleman argues for better communication between participants in the filmmaking process, noting that this is quite different from the humanist’s more usual independent method of working. Importantly, she also notes that the test question in consultancy is not “Did this happen?” but “Could this have happened?” (p.50). Focusing on the problems that arise when the historian meets the cinematic process, this piece might have been better placed one chapter earlier, naturally bridging the cinematic and historical discussions.

In Chapter 5 Arthur Eckstein defends Commodus’ role in the halt to Rome’s expansion which forms the historical backdrop to Gladiator’s narrative. This chapter is probably the most academic in the book, providing a focused argument on the propriety of Commodus’ strategy. The film itself gets rather lost, appearing mostly in a somewhat problematic description of its portrayal of Commodus which it is Eckstein’s intention to dispute. Eckstein cites particularly two aspects which he claims to find in the film: that Commodus’ abandoning of Marcus’ Germanic conquest is presented as “wrong and dangerous from a military perspective” and that Commodus is depicted as sexually debauched, for example by his threat to seduce the boy Lucius (p.54). The first assertion is questionable; the impression given is rather that the war’s purpose has been achieved, and so it is of no further interest.4 The second assertion also is dubious: Commodus certainly threatens to kill Lucius, but there is nothing in the film about sexual predation; rather it is our own contemporary concerns about paedophilia that motivate this reading. While these non-standard readings might discourage a non-academic reader interested primarily in the film, Eckstein’s explicit appeal to “those who read essays by historians” (p.72) suggests that such a reader is not his intended audience.

David Potter’s contribution in Chapter 6 appears initially to have the least association with cinema, only mentioning Gladiator once in its final paragraph. In fact it is highly pertinent, being an overview of the historical gladiator, the games and the arena, which discredits many of the popular perceptions created by the films. Potter divides his account into three sections, with a brief introduction explaining the centrality of the games in Roman life. He goes on to dispel the exaggeration of mortality rates, explain the historical origins of the games, and discuss the recreation of myths and the association of emperors with the arena. His conclusion highlights the particular capacity of cinema to recreate “the experience of spectatorship” (p.86). In this relatively brief chapter, Potter succeeds admirably in explaining historical errors without either patronising the reader, or condemning the film for lacking an historical authenticity it does not claim to have. This chapter is a model of inter-disciplinary, cross-level communication: focused, informative and constructive.

The final four chapters, discussing narrative issues, are perhaps the most productive. It is epic film’s ability to draw out contemporary relevances and universal themes through narrative that transforms entertainment into event: that Gladiator possesses this ability is amply demonstrated here. Martin Winkler’s second contribution in Chapter 7 is an examination of spectacle which provides a bridge between the historical and narrative sections, drawing out the parallels between the ancient arena and modern cinema that have contributed to the filmic gladiator’s persistent popularity. Winkler’s sophisticated analysis focuses on representations and uses of the Colosseum in the context of Rome as political metaphor for America. The discussion ranges over our ambiguous feelings about the ancient arena, the fascination of violence, the new cinematic technologies, and spectacle as an instrument of power. It concludes with the representation of Commodus as cinema’s old favourite, the evil emperor, and the film’s anachronistic pro-(Roman) Republican political schema. The chapter is informed throughout by the author’s extensive knowledge of popular cinema and of the American appropriation of Rome as model for its own national identity. Winkler’s American viewpoint yielded one particular revelation to this non-American reviewer in his description of the behaviour of audiences watching Gladiator; I have not yet seen a reserved British audience emulating the shouts and cries of ancient arena viewers, however visceral a spectacle they are presented with.

In Chapter 8, Arthur Pomeroy shows that spectacular battle scenes and combats with tigers are not the only things Gladiator has borrowed from earlier Roman epics. The association of Rome with Fascism is the darker side of the “Rome as analogy” model presented by Winkler. Pomeroy argues that although the film assumes an anti-Fascist narrative agenda in its traditional identification of evil Roman emperor with Fascist (or Nazi or Communist) dictator, its mixture of iconographic borrowings from nineteenth century art, Nazi propaganda and earlier films results in a deeply conservative, and ultimately incoherent vision. Pomeroy’s identification of parallel imagery and shotmaking in Gladiator and Leni Riefenstahl’s 1936 film Triumph of the Will is especially illuminating, demonstrating that imagery associated with Nazi values infuses the film’s vision of Rome. This elegant analysis synthesises elements from classical architecture, art history and popular culture to uncover the “neo-conservative rural utopianism” (p.121) underwriting the film’s heroic narrative. Crucially, Pomeroy treats Gladiator as a genuine instance of classical reception, worth the serious analysis he produces.

Chapter 9 presents a distinctly American reading of the film’s narrative. Monica Cyrino aims to solve this puzzle: after a thirty year absence, what made this revived Roman epic so successful? Setting Gladiator within the context of earlier Roman epic films and their use of the ancient world to discuss contemporary issues, Cyrino argues that the narrative themes of Gladiator have special significance for its primary American audience. In a comprehensive discussion, she demonstrates the film’s relevance to the concerns of contemporary American society. Issues covered include the family as moral force, the multiple roles of women, the identification of televised sport with the ancient games, and modern trends towards agrarianism and apocalypticism. This yields some remarkable insights; for instance, in comparing the alienation of the gladiators in their infamia with the outlaw attitudes of modern urban gangs. Her final argument illustrates the point (also made in the next chapter) that, in Rose’s phrase, “popular art does not simply reflect but anticipates reality” (p.160), by noting ways in which Gladiator’s Commodus prefigures media images of George W. Bush (although to some extent this begs the question). A spectacular production in itself, this analysis raises a new question as it answers the original one; if Gladiator’s success is so tied to its relevance to contemporary America, what does its global acclaim tell us about cultural hegemony?

In keeping with the book’s multiple perspectives, in the final chapter Peter Rose presents a possible answer to this question in an analysis of Gladiator’s political agenda indebted to Marxist criticism. He makes a number of important points (missed in some other contributions) about the strong influence of commercialism, the fact that every aspect of cinema’s recreated worlds is the product of a conscious choice, and the pedagogical utility of popular film. Rose’s highly productive method is to examine omissions rather than inclusions, which he seeks by comparing Gladiator to two earlier films which share similar themes: Spartacus (1960) and The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964). He draws some especially interesting conclusions about the influences of gender and psychoanalysis on characterisation in the film. Extensive use of quotations from the script indicates that the primary focus here is on verbal rather than visual narrative. However Rose concludes that it is the visual display of a variety of imperial locations (Germany, Spain, North Africa, Rome) together with the conspiracy plotlines that together convey the impression of a global (rather than simply American) political system so complex that it is beyond the power of the individual to initiate change. Also not overlooked are contemporary concerns about ‘bread and circuses’: the modern use of popular entertainment to divert the masses from more serious social and political issues. Rose finds these exemplified by the film in Ridley Scott’s cynical “self-congratulation about the power of the medium” (p.172).

One of this book’s great advantages is the diversity of its contributions. However, this also threatens its success as a coherent study. More interventional editing, and especially a more extensive introduction, could have been used to avoid the restatement of issues and to provide a contextualising framework. Explicit structuring into thematic sections with brief editorial introductions would also aid the reader. The inclusion of ancient source material in translation is a particularly useful feature that points to the book’s most likely utility as a course textbook. With that in mind, the decision not to make the ‘Further Reading’ section more comprehensive is surprising. In particular, titles that specifically discuss the ancient world on film, which would set Gladiator in the context of the particular concerns and issues of this discourse, are mentioned only in footnotes to individual chapters.5 Despite these slight reservations, the book is a most welcome addition to this rapidly expanding discourse. It succeeds in collecting an insightful and diverse set of reflections ‘inspired by’ Gladiator (as filmmakers might say) and will hopefully encourage similar explorations of more recent and forthcoming films set in antiquity.


1. I am indebted to Nick Lowe for drawing my attention both to this, and to the fact that the three credited scriptwriters worked consecutively and never collaboratively.

2. On the vivacity of historical film, see Robert Rosenstone, Visions of the Past: The Challenge of Film to Our Idea of History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995), especially pp.31, 34.

3. Kathleen Coleman’s post is still accessible online.

4. This absence of concern for the fate of Germania is also noted in Peter Rose’s contribution in this volume (p.156).

5. I am thinking particularly of titles like Maria Wyke’s Projecting the Past (London: Routledge, 1997), Derek Elley’s The Epic Film: Myth and History (London: Routledge, 1984), Jon Solomon’s The Ancient World in the Cinema (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), Sandra R. Joshel et al. (eds.) Imperial Projections: Ancient Rome in Modern Popular Culture (London: Johns Hopkins Univeristy Press, 2001) and the previous collections edited by Martin Winkler, Classics and Cinema (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1991), and Classical Myth and Culture in the Cinema (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).