The year is circa 180 C.E., and Rome is still expanding. General Maximus (Russell Crowe) is securing Germania in the name of the Roman Empire, and Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) himself is here to cheer on his legions. The aging emperor is feeling his last days upon him, and has decided to give the rule of Rome over to his most trusted friend and general. Maximus wants nothing more than to go back to his farm in Spain and retire from military life. He wants to spend the rest of his days with his wife and son, but Fate, and some scheming nobles from Rome are going to change his plans drastically. Emperor Marcus has has his children to join him at this battlefield in these “barbaric” lands. Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) and Lucilla (Connie Neilsen) have come to Germania by their father’s bidding. Commodus and Lucilla, though related through blood, cannot be any more different than night and day. Commodus is a bit too ambitious, greedy, and not able to see what might become his soon, that being the rule of Rome. As Marcus Aurelius says, “Commodus is not a moral man.” Lucilla would most likely been named Caesar but for the fact that she cannot be heir due to her sex. She is strong, for her family and for Rome, and wants to see the corruption in the forum ended, and the Republic put back where to how it was before the line of scheming and murdering intrigues took over what was supposed to be the highest office in the land.
While Maximus goes to clean and rest, Marcus tells Commodus that he will name Maximus his successor, and that he cannot trust Commodus to do the job. Commodus takes matters into his own hands and suffocates Marcus. The emperor was aged and frail, and everyone knew his death was lingering closely. Commodus has to fix things in his favour to secure the throne of Rome for himself, and in doing this, Marcus never gets to make his wishes known. Commodus tells everyone that the emperor has passed, and that he is now the new Caesar. Only one person knew of Marcus’ true wishes, and he now needs to take him out of the picture. Commodus sends his Praetorian guards to execute Maximus. Maximus gets the best of them, and makes his escape, and makes a beeline from Germania to Spain to save his family, as fast as two horses can carry him. He just can’t seem to get there fast enough. Commodus has resources in places Maximus cannot get to fast enough, but there are some things that even Commodus cannot control. The true fate of Maximus is one of them.
This movie is epic in scope and in length, recalling those days in the 1950s when historical epics were a staple in the theaters at a Saturday afternoon matinee, although the times have changed, and there is more blood and historical accuracy in such films these days. The telling of a just man that has what everyone wants withing his grasp, only to lose it due to treachery, and to bring revenge and rightful rule to a corrupt government system ruled by a man who knows he should not be there is a tale for the ages. No matter what the setting, it is a classic subject that can be retold in so many ways, but will never grow tired.
The spectacle that was the city of Rome is no longer built on backlots, but with models and some computer graphic work, but it still never ceases to amaze us. The scenes in the out areas like Germania, Spain and the desert town of Zuccabar are given just as much detail as the capitol. The art design team really knew their stuff. The actors seemed to be made for the parts, but Phoenix’s role really hadn’t changed all that much from the whiny little brat he played in Space Camp, seventeen years before this movie came out. This performance was about the only weak part of the movie. Maximus’ fellow gladiators were a fun bunch, and they were ready to defend him to the last. More history could have been told about Maximus and Lucilla’s past, but it just seemed to come up in passing. Lucilla was far too much in fear to losing her son to Commodus’ greedy ways, even though she knew that helping Maximus bring back the true Republic of Rome was the best thing for the nation.
It is clear to see why this movie won the Oscar for 2003. It had been a very long time since we had seen a Roman epic of this scale. I only hope we don’t have to wait four more decades to see another.
I give this film a Musing review of