As part of Cinemark’s Oscars-of-years-past series, I went to see Gladiator in the theater yesterday for the first time since 2000. Those few of us in the theater were crying in the final pan-back over Rome’s sunset. It made me feel good about people.
If that film were made today, I thought, even as few years later as it is, there would be differences. Everyone would be younger, for starters. In 2000 the baby boomers themselves were mothers and fathers and no longer sprightly young things; they (and their wallets) responded to a tale about people they could relate to. Nowadays, everyone would be younger and even thinner. And there would be more sexual violence.
Think of how tame the movie is compared to what we’re used to now. Obviously the threat of violence from Commodus is real and present, and its sexual nature is undeniable toward the end (“You will give me an heir!”), but the most we ever see him actually trying to do is kiss his sister. Kiss her! We live in the age where Jaime and Cersei Lannister can go at it against their teenage sun’s funeral bier, with the corpse still lying on it. Kissing is nothing to us. In this, Gladiator felt, for the first time in the many times I’ve watched it since 2000, restrained.
There might also, not to be too pessimistic, be fewer Shakespearean monologues on the nature of humanity. We don’t seem to embrace those anymore. Again, not to be regurgitating the same tired old line the media keeps unreeling any time young people are involved, but when we see characters reflecting on the nature of mankind these days, it is short and incisive. One-liners. Certainly not whole conversations. When Oliver Reed, in the last scene he ever filmed, speaks of the crowds at the games, the thrum of their voices and the way it gets into you and stays forever–and then later, when he says it was his ability to inspire this love of the crowd that kept him alive, not his prowess with the sword–he takes his time. He builds it up. You may say that there are fewer actors of that age and stature, to whom we would grant that much time for speeches, left today, and that’s true. But still. I don’t think the film would give the Proximo scenes as much time, if filmed today, as it did in 2000. We were willing to listen then in a way we’re not quite able to, now. Or at least, we are told this about ourselves by people who purport to know.
The critique of the masses who want only bread and circuses might be different, too, I think. Before Maximus reveals himself, before he forms the plan to go to Rome and kill the emperor–and thus, before we can claim to be rooting only for a good man getting revenge on an evil one–the film spends a lot of time zoomed in on the jeering crowd. The swell of the music and the grandness of the scenes pull us into the critique, ranking us among those crying out for blood and death. Since, after all, aren’t we too sitting there, enjoying the show? Arterial spray and all? Maybe our spittle isn’t flying out to land on the combatants, but we are still sitting safe in our seats, being entertained. We are complicit in this spectacle.
I don’t know that that critique would be made in the same way today. In 2000, reality TV was a still-new and still-scary phenomenon for practitioners of traditional narratives. “Who are these untrained idiots being untrained and idiotic on TV?” was the line. “Who wants to watch them?” I don’t think the scenes in Gladiator are calling us to task for watching real people trying to survive on an island, or date or lose weight or any of the things reality shows sought to show us, but certainly the timing invited the comparisons. Nowadays, though, after two wars and the extensive coverage that attended them, the critique might be sharper and more biting. Personal stories might be minimized in favor of broader themes of manipulation, excess power and the administrative distance from violence increasing the likelihood of that violence continuing unchecked. I’ll grant you that that’s a little harder to do in an age when violence meant actual people gripping actual weapons and hacking other actual people to death, but the effort would be made, I think.
Not that it is necessary, or would make a better film. It would just date it as being from the 2010s, versus, well, pre-9/11. That’s another thing–there would have been more nationalism, more beating to death the themes of freedom and home and country, instead of holding up, as a wish and a hope and a dream, a very personal version of home, of safety and of love. What of the corrupted heart of my country? the film asks. I do not care for it; I have not even been there. When Maximus fights for his home it is only in words that he does so; he makes no mention of trying to keep his wife and boy and estate safe. That, in 2000, and for the ghost of a year longer, is a given. He fights because it is his job, as a provider, and as a loyal servant of a man he respects. There is no actual threat to his land, except from within.
That would have changed, if they made it today.