is gladiator a tragedy?

When I first saw Gladiator, at 19, I was only really watching Maximus.

The general-turned-warrior, played by Russell Crowe, was a real man any which way you looked at him. You could love him for his intelligence; you could love him for his brawn; you could love him for being a leader; you could love him because he actually just wanted to go home to his family. If the fearsome killer didn’t do anything for you, you could admire the family man.

In theory. I, for one, could not have given two hoots about the family man. Gladiator worked for me because it elaborated vividly and at length on the premise that Maximus was a badass. The beginning and ending of Gladiator’s appeal was that it let me forget I was myself for a while and pretend I was him.

photo by Nick Thompson

Of course, one finds oneself a bit lost in the end when this is what one yearns for in a film. Leaving the movie, I went through a sort of withdrawal. The fantasy ended, I was left with the reality that I was an anonymous college student waiting for a bus in the basement of the Mall of America. Spending time wanting to be Maximus was time wasted, and I knew it. Now, more than a decade later, I find that a little part of me still enjoys watching Maximus being a badass, but it’s no longer the only story in the movie. I have traded my ability to become completely engrossed in a dream for the ability to watch a movie more carefully and for other reasons.

Part of this is that I care about things other than the triumphant feeling of superiority that the film originally gave me. Nowadays I draw more from character and theme and cinematography. Recently, I’ve even found myself curious about a genre I had never had any interest in at all before, tragedy. For years, even the idea of dramatic tragedy was like a bad dream I had forgotten. It was easy to ignore; hardly any of the movies at the multiplex had a tragic ending, and on the occasions they did, my first instinct was merely to dissociate. Wasn’t the point of a movie to lose yourself in the illusion that the movie was real, to become absorbed in a reverie where the people were sexier and funnier than you or your friends?

At first blush, Gladiator might have some superficial resemblance to tragedy, since the hero dies. But finally, the movie suggests that Maximus is heading off to a blessed afterlife in the Elysian fields , having achieved his vengeance. A real tragic drama is less comforting. In a real tragedy the characters’ deaths and failures become lessons for the audience, not for the characters themselves, who are often too dead to enjoy them, and were too wrong in life to merit much of a hereafter. Tragedy is a drama of mistakes and damnation.

And it’s not, of course, a mode that gives the audience any pleasure in imagining themselves as the protagonist. Maybe this is why it took me so long to see the point of tragedy; when I was younger, I didn’t care about other people’s experiences or the grand drama of humanity so much as I enjoyed the idea I could be excellent and admired. Now, in my mid-thirties, I am long past the time of wishing I were Maximus. These days I’m more occupied with all the ways humanity goes astray. Instead of idolizing Maximus, I’m more concerned with understanding Commodus, Gladiator‘s boyish, petulant emperor.

photo by Trey Ratcliff

Commodus, in the end, is much more compelling to the adult me than Maximus can manage to be. The man-child, played by Joaquin Phoenix, is monstrous, sure, but for identifiable reasons that make him all too familiar. He desperately wants his father’s respect, and ends up hating (and smothering to death) the old man out of the hate borne of wanting approval and not getting it. The murder comes out of Commodus’s crushing desire to please a father that he never had the character to satisfy. You don’t need to feel that way to understand what it means to feel that way.

Later, as emperor, Commodus has ideas, even ideals, that are not entirely selfish. In one scene he argues with the Senate in a debate that does credit to both sides; both he and the senators have some reasonable points to make about the failures of the political system. What becomes clear — and what drives Commodus, in part, to be a tyrant — is not that he has no democratic or idealistic aspirations, but that he has no clue how to realize them. He is too young and spoiled to understand the compromises, both moral and emotional, that come with power. Notice that Maximus never needs to compromise. The gladiator is a protagonist who is his own force of nature. The movie tries to make something of the conflict between Maximus’s desire for revenge and the middle steps he needs to take to get there. But ultimately his appeal isn’t about how he changes over the course of the movie but how he changes the world – largely by hacking it to bits.

I see a parallel, actually, between the uses of the dramatis personae and the actors playing them. Russell Crowe is charismatic and easy to identify with. He often seems to be playing some version of himself, just as Maximus is likable for fairly conventional and straightforward reasons. Joaquin Phoenix is another beast entirely. Like Johnny Depp, Phoenix is almost unrecognizable from movie to movie. It’s impossible to imagine Commodus as Theodore, from Her, or the lost soul Freddie in The Master, or the dissolute “Joaquin Phoenix” of I’m Still Here. They are completely separate entities with little to no overlap and, between them, piddlingly little natural appeal. But I like Joaquin Phoenix for a more transcendent, cerebral reason than the reason I like Russell Crowe: Through some combination of talent and luck in landing challenging roles, Phoenix demonstrates tremendous talent, much more than I’ve seen from Crowe.

But try to sell acting chops to the average person. Crowe knows how to look good on screen and be sympathetic (no skill to sneeze at), and by my measure, that’s why he’s famous. Phoenix is famous for the less pleasant trait of being a damn fine actor. It’s easy to like Crowe, harder to like Phoenix, but learning to appreciate the latter has lent something important to my life. At the very least, fewer symptoms of withdrawal.

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