Film fanatics and friends Fred Sullivan and Yasser Akram are on a mission to watch 25 of one another’s favourite movies. Each week they will watch one movie each and then get together to discuss what they have seen. It’s been a whole year since the first Film Club, and after a winter break it returns to look at the final four films. Will the boys’ favourites find appreciation or disdain from the one another?
In at number two on Yasser’s list is a modern epic and Oscar winner starring Russell Crowe. It has shades of the 1950s and 60s, but is that enough to find favour with Fred?
You can read the entries from previous week by checking out the archives on the left of the screen.
To have a look at what Fred has picked so far, click here.
Likewise, for Yasser’s choices, click here.
Fred: ‘Gladiator‘ is the film at number two on your list. You are a big fan of Ridley Scott and a big fan of ‘sword and sandal’ epics, aren’t you?
FS: What is it about ‘Gladiator’ that makes it your favourite?
YA: Since the days of the Heston era it’s been a long time since someone made a big film like ‘Ben-Hur‘ that has caught my interest, but ‘Gladiator’ was magic. Scott did a wonderful job of getting the best out of his cast, the production was wonderful. The costumes and sets looked beautiful
FS: Okay. Let’s start with the cast
FS: As befitting an epic there is a big cast, but really it’s a story of two men – Maximus (Russell Crowe) and Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix). You chose ‘Kingdom of Heaven‘, another Scott film of this type, earlier in your list. I didn’t like it mainly due to a weak central performance. Thank God for Russel Crowe! He has the right stature to carry this kind of film
YA: He has a brooding nature that fits in well with the role he plays
FS: Generally, I think he’s a bit overrated but he is capable of being really good, and this is one of his best performances. It’s very much a Heston-type role. Not much is required from him in acting terms, but he has a presence
YA: I think Maximus is his best role to date, along with ‘Cinderella Man‘
FS: I think ‘The Insider‘ and ‘A Beautiful Mind‘ are his best, but this is up there. In most other films he would dominate the picture. However, I don’t think he’s the best person in ‘Gladiator’. That honour goes to Phoenix
YA: How did he not win the Oscar?
FS: I’m surprised too as he’s absolutely brilliant. I have never seen him be bad, but in this he’s exceptional as Commodus, who is such a warped, impotent, snivelling little shit
YA: Looking at his earlier work compared to his late brother River, I’d say he suffered from having a lot to live up to, but Joaquin has developed into a brilliant actor in the last 15 years. You can tell there are a lot of screws loose. He was an alcoholic and the death of his brother hit him hard. He probably used a lot of those emotions to help him in this role
FS: The key to this type of epic, where the story is one of good vs. evil, is to have an effective hero and villain. If either performer is poor then the whole film suffers
FS: Crowe is talented and has star quality in abundance, so to cast someone to match that to play opposite him is hard. Phoenix’s performance has to be perfect as he’s not Crowe’s physical equal. He makes Commodus so conniving, so wretched, so disgusting and despicable that you really hate him. However, he never strays into cardboard villainy
YA: He’s the main reason I love the film. Crowe has the lines that everyone quotes and the fight scenes that people remember, but it’s Phoenix who gives a career-defining performance, for me. It’s the first time he gained my respect as a viewer
YA: How did you find the story?
FS: Part of the brilliance of the movie is that it borrowed heavily from some of the older epics yet it stands alone as a great movie in its own right. The writing is very good. Films like this can be stodgy but I didn’t find that with ‘Gladiator’
YA: How do you mean?
FS: If this had been made in the 1950s I think the angle of saving the empire would have been emphasised, but whilst Maximus is loyal to Marcus Aurelius’ (Richard Harris) vision for the future, you know it is his personal revenge that is really driving him
YA: Yeah, Commodus rips his life apart by destroying his career, his father figure, and his family. Even after that he’s still jealous of Maximus because everything Commodus gained from Marcus Aurelius’ death disappears when Maximus returns. He loses the respect and love of the people and even his sister
FS: He’s desperate to control everything but at every turn Maximus scuppers him almost by accident. Even when Maximus heeds Proximo’s (Oliver Reed) advice on how to survive as a gladiator by entertaining the crowd, he’s only doing it because of his desire to get revenge on Commodus. He’s doing what he needs to do. It’s a clever way for the story to unfold
YA: I was a bit worried you wouldn’t like the film
FS: I like it very much. I will say I enjoyed it more the first time I watched it. This time around I was left with a feeling of it not being as good as I’d remembered
YA: See, the more I watch the more I like
YA: Go on…
FS: The cinematography was the main one. It was quite muggy. The battle scenes were dank and blurry and that wasn’t helped by the needless slow-motion
YA: Hmmm. I don’t mind the slo-mo stuff
FS: I think it’s unnecessary and very few directors know how to use it effectively. Scott also added that blurry effect which didn’t help. It looked like a 1980s music video
YA: Many directors have their own way of doing things
YA: My buddy Hans Zimmer
FS: It sounded quite eastern for a film based in Europe. Don’t get me wrong – I can’t claim to know what Roman’s listened to in their own homes, but I didn’t like it
YA: I think Zimmer is incredible
FS: I just don’t get his reputation
YA: People love the ‘Gladiator’ soundtrack. It was Oscar-winning
FS: That’s hardly a guarantee of quality. The best thing I can say about it is that for the most part I didn’t notice it
YA: During the arena scenes it really helped with the pace of the fights. It often changed very well to the tone of how things happened. I don’t understand why you don’t like the score. I’m finding it hard to wrap my head around it
FS: Let’s talk about Ridley Scott
YA: Not sure what we can add from the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ conversation
FS: Let’s be fair to him – ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ was a mess and he didn’t control his actors, possibly because he got a bit arrogant after ‘Gladiator’s success. This shows more what he’s capable of. I like him. I just wish he could show some consistency. If he did, he’d be another Spielberg
YA: See, I like ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ for more personal reasons
FS: You’d have to. ‘Gladiator’ is everything that is not. Well written, well acted by the lead, no over acting by the supporting cast
YA: So you like the supporting cast too?
FS: The two leads dominate the story so much that the supporting cast is fairly incidental, but no-one sticks out as a poor performer. Oliver Reed, someone who famously frittered away his talent, is an asset to the movie. Richard Harris is very good in the few scenes he has, as is Derek Jacobi. Of the younger players, I liked Connie Nielsen and Djimon Honsou
YA: I like Honsou. There was a point when I thought he was going to become a big star but his career didn’t pick up
FS: I think it’s still quite difficult to be a big star if you are black. Look at the roles he gets – slaves and poor Africans. They are hardly the types of roles associated with someone like Denzel Washington
YA: I agree
FS: It’s amazing to think that in the fifty years since Sidney Poitier won his Oscar things haven’t moved on that much
YA: Tell me what you thought of the costumes and sets
FS: As mentioned earlier, the cinematography wasn’t very good and it’s a great shame as it’s obvious no expense was spared on the sets, props and costumes. The staggering array of weapons, armour and helmets was a plus point, as was the contrast of the dusty, hot arena to the cool luxury of the Roman palace
YA: I don’t think the cinematography is as bad as you make out. Not for the entirety of the movie
FS: There was a grey mist over a lot of it. Not in the arena scenes, to be fair. Those fight scenes in the arena are my favourite thing about the whole film
FS: I’ll give you one more opportunity to tell me what is so great about ‘Gladiator’
YA: It reminds me so much of classic films of old that I grew up watching like ‘Ben-Hur‘ and ‘The Ten Commandments’. It manages to cram a lot in, from war to romance to the politics of Rome. The fundamental story is of revenge and it’s told beautifully. It’s very intricate.
FS: Anything else?
YA: The sets and costumes are lavish. Maximus falls from favour and is turned into the underdog. The antagonist is perfect. Everyone delivers here, for me. Some might say ‘Ben-Hur’ or ‘Spartacus‘ is better, and they are fantastic, but I like most technologies and I think Scott uses technology well. He manages to blend the gold of the old with the gloss of the new
FS: Nicely put
FS: We are at your second-favourite movie and you have been getting some good scores for your top ten. ‘Gladiator’ is the sort of film I find very entertaining without understanding exactly why it’s held in the very high regard that it is. Part of me thinks the lack of anything similar for the 30 years or so before it has probably helped it. It borrows from many of the classic epics – ‘Ben-Hur’, ‘Spartacus’ and ‘The Fall of the Roman Empire’ in particular – but doesn’t feel derivative as it employs a modern outlook in its story telling and use of new film-making techniques.
FS: The plus points are the two leads, and Phoenix in particular, the writing, and the marvelous action scenes. It lacks a little emotional punch for me, which means it misses out on the very top scores. The film is driven by Maximus’ desire for revenge yet the scenes that require Crowe to step out of his mean and moody persona and into a softer mood don’t really convince
FS: The score is tricky. I’ve seen this film before and loved it, but this second viewing has dulled my enthusiasm. It’s very good but there is something lacking – emotional involvement to go with the grand scope and brilliantly staged set-pieces. It’s not up there with your top choices, but it’s a definite 8/10
FS: The memory was better than the reality.
FS: You should have picked ‘Spartacus’
Next time: Fred’s number two, ‘Paths of Glory’