Morituri Salutamus

In Ridley Scott's epic new film Gladiator, the brutality of the ancient Roman 'Games' is vividly brought to life. Here's a look at the gladiator in both fact and fiction.

Not so long ago it was said that huge historical films like Cecil B. De Mille's The Ten Commandments (1956) and William Wyler's Ben Hur (1959) were, literally, a thing of the past. Such films would be simply too expensive to make today. Yet recent advances in computerized special effects have changed all that. It is no longer necessary to build enormous sets and hire thousands of extras to convincingly recreate the life of ancient times. Realistic effects can now be achieved by means of computers, although a lot of time, patience, talent and money (Gladiator cost some $120 million to make) are still needed. Gladiator is an impressive vision of imperial Rome in its splendour and decadence, well-acted and stylishly directed, with the unexpected bonus of a literate script.

Without revealing too much of the plot, Gladiator is the story of the decline of Roman general Maximus (Australian actor Russell Crowe) from much-respected soldier to slave and gladiator. His downfall is caused by the weak and cruel Emperor Commodus, against whom Maximus has every reason to take revenge. Kept alive by his fighting skills and fuelled by hatred, Maximus becomes a legendary gladiator in the Colosseum of Rome. Buckets of blood are spilt as Maximus fights his way to victory after victory, even against chariots and ferocious tigers.

Although Gladiator includes scenes of graphic violence, these are mild compared to the horrors that really took place in Rome's Colosseum. The giant amphitheatre could seat 50,000 spectators, who went to see the 'Ludi', or Games, where for their entertainment thousands died over the years. The Games probably reached their peak during the reign of the emperor Trajan (AD 98 - 117), who staged a festival during which 10,000 people and 11,000 animals were killed.

Gladiatorial shows were among the most popular events at the Games, though chariot racing (as in Ben Hur) was the sport that really drove the crowds wild. Rival fans often rioted in much the same way as today's football hooligans, huge bets were placed, and fatal crashes were commonplace. As time went by, the crowd demanded more and more extreme spectacles, often involving Christian captives being crucified or eaten by lions. This barbarism was finally ended by the emperor Honorius, himself a Christian, in AD 404.

The fascination of the Roman public with gladiators lasted about 700 years. Mainly slaves and criminals, their name meant "swordsman", from the Latin gladius - a sword. There were various classes of gladiators, grouped according to their weapons or methods of fighting. Many fought with sword and shield, while others used a net and trident, or rode chariots. They marched into the arena through the Gate of Life, turned to where the emperor sat, and shouted "Ave, Caesar! Morituri Salutamus" (Hail, Caesar! We who are about to die greet you). Fighting to the death would then begin. If a gladiator fell wounded, the emperor or other president of the Games gave a sign: thumbs up for life, thumbs down for death. The loser was dragged out on meat hooks through the Gate of Death.

Successful gladiators became famous, and supposedly enjoyed the favours of high-society women. If they managed to survive a number of combats, they might be retired: they often worked as politicians' bodyguards; sometimes they themselves became politically important; and on occasion they revolted against their masters, as in the Spartacus uprising, the subject of Stanley Kubrick's 1960 epic film starring Kirk Douglas (Michael's dad) in the title role.

The fate of Maximus, forced in Gladiator to fight for a living, is a variation on what really happened to some men, and other elements of the film are based on fact. The emperor Marcus Aurelius did fight against the German tribes, and Commodus did become increasingly insane, amusing himself by entering the arena as a gladiator and, of course, winning every contest.

Gladiator really succeeds due to its visual impact and acting more than its closeness to fact. The opening scene of the battle in Germania is stunning, and director Ridley Scott goes on to sustain the optical feast to the very end. Always noted for the power of his images, Scott has directed such science-fiction classics as Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982). In Gladiator he is at his best, using a variety of techniques to keep your eyes glued to the screen.

Nevertheless, no amount of special effects and fine camerawork would be of any use without solid acting. In Gladiator all the players deliver just that, none more so than Russell Crowe, who is highly convincing as the fearless warrior seeking justice. He somehow manages to make us believe he really could survive so many battles. We are never tempted to laugh at our hero's capacity to overcome everything thrown at him. As a screen actor, Crowe has real presence, and in how he carries the film is its main strength.

Gladiator resurrects the conventional epic film at a time when it was thought dead and buried, updating it with blood-soaked action while following tradition by relying on a comprehensible story line. Any future film set in Roman times is sure to be compared with this one, fairly or not. Historical epic, Quo Vadis now...?