Gladiator (2000)

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Have you ever said to yourself, “Gee, I’d kind of like to watch Ben-Hur, but I was really hoping for something shorter – not much shorter, mind you, I’m still looking to clock in a solid two-and-a-half hours – and while we’re at it, maybe we can take out the Jesus stuff and throw in a little more incest.  And tigers.  Give me all of the tigers.”  Well, do I have the movie for you.

I’m not sure whether to think of Gladiator as senseless violence in the guise of provocative drama, or as a modern Shakespearean tragedy.  Just like Ben-Hur, it tells the story of a man who starts out a friend to people in power until he becomes an outcast.  Enslaved, he finds a special talent that enables him to work his way back through the ranks and eventually exact revenge.  The film touches on themes of loyalty and otherness, but seems to be less interested in complex emotions than in base feelings:  rage, lust, grief.  Why waste time thinking about stuff if you can spend it disemboweling a guy with a blunt short sword?

Spectacle it is, but it is entertaining spectacle.  In the same way that you watch the chariot race in Ben-Hur not because you’re not sure how it will turn out but because of the sweet ride, Gladiator is a film without much in the way of surprises but plenty of massive battles to hold your attention.  Of course there’s a good guy – the dude who turns down the chance at dictatorship because he just wants to get home to his wife – and a bad guy, the entitled, bitchy son.  And of course the good guy is going to carry on, determined, and defeat the bad guy by turning his fatal flaw against him.  And the bodies will pile up, and whoever’s left will be there for the sequel.

Fun fact:  apparently, they actually considered making a sequel, Gladiator 2:  The Gladdening.  (Actual name may have varied.)

I’m trying something different this round.  Instead of stopping at two films that fit one theme, I’ve added a third one into the mix.  My uniting theme is “chariot,” though it could have been Roman if I’d left out the running movie.  There is definitely a chariot in Gladiator, which certainly justifies the whole thing.  It’s all arbitrary, anyway, isn’t it?


Theme:  Chariot

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  Aren’t you entertained?


Chariots of Fire (1981)

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The problem with sports movies is that there’s really only two ways the story can go – either they win or lose, and if it ends in a loss, there’d better be a damn good reason for me to be watching a movie about a bunch of losers.

If you don’t care much for running, you might wonder how someone could stretch out a two-hour movie leading up to a ten-second long race and somehow keep it interesting.  If you learn the answer to this question, please let me know, because I feel like I would have happily watched the ten seconds and been done with it.

Okay, I’ll admit it – it’s difficult to sustain interest when the stakes are only as high as whether someone wins a particular arbitrary race.  Nobody’s life is at stake.  Any of the runners could have just as easily won an Olympic gold medal, and they could have made a movie about that person.  That’s why they always do those clips on reality TV shows or competition shows that show somebody’s life story and all the travails they’d encountered before they reached this Extremely Important Point in their life where they could put everything on the line.  And then they faceplant into a pool of dirty water – or have I just been watching too much American Ninja Warrior?

All I knew about this movie was the majestic theme song, which they totally wasted in the first few seconds of the film.  Build up a little anticipation, why don’t you?  What I didn’t realize is that Vangelis also composed plenty of other classical-electronica for the rest of the film, including a crazy synthesizer-heavy training montage (another absolute necessity in any sports movie – not just the training montage, but the 80s synth music).  In other Oscar-winning movie tropes, I can’t help but notice the “old people, possibly at a funeral, looking back on the era of past glory, exchanging some apparently significant-if-innocuous words about said glory which are repeated later in case you missed the Theme).

It’s not worth dragging this out – Chariots of Fire falls into that style of 80s movie that is a little too ponderous, about a topic that should be exciting but doesn’t quite pull it off.  I’ve seen them before in this quest, and I still have enough 80s movies to watch that I know I’ll encounter it again.  Such is the burden I bear.


Theme:  Chariot

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  Run for your life!

Ben-Hur (1959)

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You’ve probably already forgotten, but there was a remake of this movie released just last month or so.  It came out with virtually no fanfare, and apparently disappeared with as much to-do.  I’m not even sure how faithfully it might have retold the story, and though I’m a little curious, I’m not so curious as to actually look it up.

Ben-Hur is about a Jewish prince (Judah Ben-Hur) in some Biblical land who is remarkably successful considering the Romans have long since conquered his territory.  He happens to be about the same age as this other famous Jew of the same era, a fact which only became clear to me when it was literally spoken aloud by someone, because I was certain that Ben-Hur was well over 40.  His old Roman buddy, Massala, has just returned to town to take a position as some kind of military leader.  He pays a visit to Judah, in part to relive old memories of throwing javelins together, but mostly to convince Ben-Hur to snitch on his fellow Jews who defy their oppressors.

There’s so much homoerotic tension in their scenes together that I created a completely different story in my head.  Honestly, there’s a moment where they toast each other by intertwining arms and sipping from their wine goblets, like a wedding couple.  Eventually, Massala turns against his former friend, perhaps because his advances have been rejected.  According to IMDB trivia, I’m certainly not the only one to draw that conclusion.

Ben-Hur goes off to labor as a galley slave, rowing in the bowels of some warship.  Then he gets adopted by a Roman general, despite being a fully grown-ass man who certainly doesn’t need a dad to tell him what to do (the location of his actual father remains unclear).  He spontaneously develops an interest and mastery over horses, which leads to the big chariot race that most people associate with the film.

You might think that an epic chariot race would be the climactic finale of a movie, especially one clocking in a 3 and a half hours, but you’d be wrong.  After the race, Judah has to figure out what happened to his family, and why they’re hiding in the leper colony (spoiler: because leprosy).  If only there was a guy who was renowned for his ability to cure such an incurable disease.

Though Ben-Hur is subtitled “A Tale of the Christ,” you never really see Jesus’ face.  The movie is essentially bookended by Jesus’ birth and death, but you only get glimpses and suggestions of him in between.  It’s kind of a clever technique, the dramatic irony of this mysterious carpenter’s son whose trajectory happens to align with Ben-Hur’s.  The viewer only sees Jesus from behind (which, granted, is probably because he has great hair).  I only wish it had remained much subtler than the way it ended up.  Maybe it’s just personal preference.  I find most stories about Jesus a bit boring from a narrative perspective, because you already know his character and how the story ends – there’s not much room for novelty.  Then again, the Harry Potter movies are kind of the same:  you already know it by heart but want to see whether they’ve screwed up your favorite part.


Theme:  Chariot

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  I hardly felt a slave (said no slave ever)