In Ancient Rome, General Maximus Decimus Meridius (Russell Crowe) is named heir to the ailing Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris), who wishes that Rome be restored to a republic with the Senate ruling as the representative of the people. The Emperor's son, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), is not a happy camper: he murders his father, declares himself to be the new Emperor, and orders that Maximus be killed when the general refuses to pledge loyalty to him. Maximus escapes his fate, but unfortunately for him, his wife and young son do not. Maximus swears to avengetheir deaths and join them soon after; wandering around the countryside, he is soon found and brought into slavery. Maximus is trained as a gladiator by his captors, and he successfully wins the crowd's approval in his first few performances; this allows Maximus to travel to Rome and compete in gladiatorial battles arranged by Commodus. Maximus soon wins Rome's approval — to the point where he begins to become more popular amongst the people than Commodus — and begins to plan his revenge...Gladiator, released in 2000, is known for reviving the epic movie genre, great action sequences, and all-around general badassery; it was also a huge hit for Ridley Scott. Though Scott didn't win the Oscar for Best Director, the film itself took home many others — including the all-important Best Picture — and earned Russell Crowe his first Oscar.This film is not to be confused with the proto-superheroic 1930 book Gladiator, the TV gameshow Gladiators, or the general trope Gladiator Games. Gladiator follows the same period of history and takes similar liberties with its plot as the 1964 film The Fall Of The Roman Empire.
The movie has examples of:
Action Film, Quiet Drama Scene: Many examples, especially between Maximus and, variously, Marcus Aurelius, Proximo, Juba, and Lucilla. Arguably it is the skillful use and execution of these scenes that allows this to transcend being a great action movie and become an epic masterpiece.
Alone With Prisoner Ploy: When Lucilla arrives at Maximus' cell, she tells him "rich matrons pay well to be pleasured by the bravest champions". He has been chained up in preparation for her visit. In fact she's there to tell him there is a growing conspiracy against Commodus, and to ask him to meet a politician who's involved.
Commodus deciding to fight a gladiator in the arena looks like a plot device to let Maximus get his revenge. The historical Commodus did actually fight in gladiator contests, although it isn't how he died.
The writers planned to have a scene with popular gladiators endorsing products, which happened historically, but it was decided that audiences would think it was unrealistic.
Ambition Is Evil: Commodus tells his father, Emperor Marcus Aurelius, that while he doesn't have the traditional virtues of Wisdom, Justice, Temperance and Fortitude, he does have Courage ("Perhaps not on the battlefield, but there are many kinds of courage..." — and in truth, he's actually a pretty good fighter, he just never saw real battle), and Ambition, which drives him to excel. He then murders his father and assumes the Imperial throne for himself. This is especially Anvilicious, considering that Marcus Aurelius was going to hand power over to General Maximus specifically because Maximus didn't want to rule.
Annoying Arrows: Averted. The barbarians that got hit with arrows in the opening battle tended to stay down, as they should have. Played straight with the barbarian's arrows against the Romans, since all the arrows were stopped by the Roman testudo formation.
At one point, Rome is described as being founded as a Republic, and numerous characters refer to plans to turn it back into a republic for the people. Rome was actually founded as a kingdom, only becoming a republic later on. Word of God is that Roman history was not re-written for the film, but that these statements were incorrect within the film itself, reflecting how the characters themselves preferred to see history.
The real life Commodus was not incestous towards his sister at allnote indeed according to the (notoriously unreliable) Augustan History, Lucilla was the only one of his sisters that he didn't climb into bed with, and her exile and execution was purely for trying to plot his assassination.
Lucilla was executed by Commodus (she tried to assassinate him) in 182 AD, predeceasing him by a full decade.
Marcus Aurelius was eager to have Commodus take over, Commodus was strangled in his bath after a 13-year rule, and power did not transfer to the Senate after his death.
In-universe, Scipio Africanus and his citizen-levy legions would have had an apoplectic fit if they saw later generations characterise them as the chariot riding, archery using, "home team" gladiators for the sake of historical gloss on a, to them, vulgar execution (Republican era gladiator fights of Scipio's era were generally not to the death). If anything, the fit-out of Maximus's men was far closer to Roman Republican legions than the "home team."
Germania was never conquered by Rome. Not for want of trying, either.
Marcus Aurelius did win wars in southern Germania. The opening battle is at Vindobona, present day Vienna, which became a Roman colony. The dialogue is a little misleading and makes it sound like all of Germania has been conquered instead of just one tribe.
Awesome McCoolname: Maximus Decimus Meridius is an example of an Awesome McCoolname with actual justification due to the Roman system of cognomina, or titles/official nicknames. His given name is Decimus (at one point his family name is given as Aelius), Maximus was a common cognomen used by many other Real Life renowned Roman commanders, and Meridius probably refers either to past conquests in the South or his Spanish heritage (technically the names are in the wrong order, and should be Decimus Aelius Maximus Meridius). In English, he would possibly be Decimus the Great, Conqueror of the South.
Badass Boast / Rousing Speech / Verbal Business Card: "My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius, commander of the Armies of the North, General of the Felix Legions,note the plural is historically inaccurate loyal servant to the true emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife. And I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next."
The Big Guy: Hagen, the German whom Proximo uses to test new fighters. He's a class three as despite his physical prowess (Maximus aside, he's pretty much the last person you want to fight in the arena), he's actually a perfectly friendly, candid guy. He'd probably be an outright Gentle Giant except that he's, well, a gladiator.
Maximus' names for the two horses on his breastplate translate to "Silver" and "Trigger".
"You have a great name" ("Maximus" literally translates to "very great")
Black and White Morality: Maximus is a brave, noble veteran who initially wants to make Rome a republic again and later wishes to avenge the murder of his wife and son. Commodus is an insane, patricidal megalomaniac with a Caligula complex.
Book Ends: In the beginning, Maximus imagines himself strolling through his farm's fields, and in the end, he sees himself strolling through the fields of Elysium, reuniting with his family.
Bread and Circuses: Commodus' policy, with a literal example shown inside the Colosseum. Deconstructed in the extended version; it's discussed that Commodus is selling off Rome's grain stores to pay for the games, which will result in starvation in the near future.
Bring My Brown Pants: The scribe wets himself as he and the other gladiators are about to enter a fight in the Zucchabar arena. With good cause, as in a deleted scene he emphatically points out that he's got zero combat experience and is very aware he'll die soon.
Brother-Sister Incest: Evil Emperor Commodus lusts after his sister Lucilla and makes an aborted attempt to seduce her, while she is appropriately horrified. When he catches her supporting Maximus' cause, he declares that he's going to impregnate her to bear a new dynasty of his progeny; he's more The Caligula than even the historical Caligula (or at least the possibly biased accounts of the guy). That and threatening her son make a good Kick the Dog moment.
Bittersweet Ending: Of the "mostly good" kind. Most of the gladiator school is wiped out and the survivors are imprisoned, but they are eventually released. Maximus defeats Commodus in a duel, ensures Rome will become a republic, and dies of his wounds. However, he is seen reunited with his family in Elysium. This is mirrored just afterwards, when Juba returns to an empty Colosseum to bury Maximus' figurines, and says "I will see you again. But not yet. Not yet."
Cain and Abel: Commodus as the Cain, Maximus as the Abel. They're not related by blood, but Marcus Aurelius considered Maximus the son he should have had instead of the ambitious Commodus and nominates him as regent. Commodus also considers Maximus his non-blood brother, as both try to win Aurelius' favor and Lucilla's love. However, Commodus resorts to murdering his father and arranging to rape his sister, while setting up Maximus' death several times. Discussed near the end:
Commodus: That makes us brothers, doesn't it? Then smile for me, brother! [stabs Maximus throught the chest]
The Caligula: The Roman emperor Commodus. Commodus wasn't as bad in real life as he was in either this film or The Fall of the Roman Empire, but he still wasn't the sort of monarch you'd take home to mother - he thought he was the reincarnation of Hercules, fought as a gladiator in the arena, and is best-known for ending the "Five Good Emperors". He also ordered one of his slaves to be burned alive for making his bath too cold. Yikes. He'd spent most of his reign just doing whatever he fancied, and having a grand old time — it wasn't until there were several attempts on his life (one involving his sister) that he really kicked into gear and became a tyrannical dictator.
Call to Agriculture: "Maximus the Farmer!" This was Truth in Television for a lot of Roman statesmen and generals. Farming was considered one of the most laudable and noble occupations for a Roman man to undertake.
"Are you not entertained!? ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED!?"
Cincinnatus: Maximus. After long years of slogging through the north, conquering for Rome, he just wanted to go home to his family and farm, even when he realized he was being offered total power in Rome, and that, Aurelius said, was why it had to be him to steward the Empire until it could be a Republic again.
Composite Character: Maximus, compared to real life. There was a general, Pertinax, who was a friend of Marcus Aurelius and succeeded Commodus, and there was a gladiator, Narcissus, who assassinated Commodus (actually his own master at arms; he murdered him at home, in his bath).
Conspicuous CG: Not in the movie per se, but this was the reason there are tigers in the movie as opposed to rhinoceros in the script. They couldn't find any trained rhinoceros (if such thing exist), so they tried to use CGI ones, but the result wasn't up to par, so they opted for tigers instead. The rough tests of the CGI rhinos can be seen on the DVD.
Crippling the Competition: Commodus restrains and stabs Maximus just prior to their final, climactic arena duel in order to gain the upper hand during the fight.
Dark Is Not Evil/Light Is Not Good: For the final battle, Maximus is wearing black armor, and Commodus wears white. Interestingly, ancient Rome had rather different associations for these colors. Black was the color of joy and festivity, which probably explains why Commodus, the dissolute playboy emperor, is usually seen wearing it. White, though, was associated with the elderly, authority figuresnote the English word for "someone running for office", candidate, comes from the Latin word for white. Roman office-seekers wore white togas to the elections... and the dead.
Dark Is Evil: In one scene Commodus's robe is totally black.
Dashing Hispanic: Rather than Spanish, he is technically Hispanic (as in someone from the ancient Roman province of Hispania, which is now Spain), and he is played by an Australian actor speaking The Queen's Latin, but Maximus Decimus Meridius is pretty Badass.
Died Happily Ever After: At the end, there's a few brief shots of Maximus in a field, walking towards his family in Elysium.
Maximus:[to his soldiers] If you find yourself alone, riding in the green fields with the sun on your face, do not be troubled. For you are in Elysium, and you're already dead!
The Dog Bites Back: The Praetorian Guard repay Commodus' repeated dog-kicking by sheathing their swords in the final confrontation, basically saying "fuck this guy, let him sleep in the bed he made!" This makes even more sense with a deleted scene where Commodus executes two praetorians as scapegoats when Maximus turns up alive. The Praetorian commander vehemently protests the execution, but is forced to personally give the execution order himself.
Doomed Moral Victor: Maximus becomes a darling of the public, kills the emperor in a duel and dies afterwards. He was already mortally wounded by the Emperor just before they entered the arena. It was meant to be more of a fancy execution than a duel, in order to discredit the hero and bolster the strength of the Emperor. The evil Emperor still loses.
The Evil Prince: Commodus, though he had something of an excuse: his father, rather than passing on emperorship to him, as had become commonplace (at least in the world of the movie: in Imperial Rome, it was relatively common for an Emperor to choose an adoptive heir as opposed to a blood one; look at Julius, Augustus and Marcus Aurelius himself), was going to give it to Maximus, who in turn was going to use it to put power back into the hands of the Senate and restore the Republic.
Evil Virtues: Commodus believed his virtues were just as good as the ones of a traditional ruler.
Fake Shemp: An infamous example. Oliver Reed died before filming all his scenes as Proximo, so they used shadows, CGI, and creative re-editing of already-shot scenes, along with some stock footage, to finish filming and rewrote several important scenes that would have been otherwise unfilmable.
Flynning: This is almost lampshaded; in the gladiator training camp scene, the instructor tells the student, "this is how you fight", and starts showing him the "Pirate Halves" move. Justified - gladiators were essentially entertainers, as well as fighters. Maximus, a former professional soldier, was actually told off for being too efficient as he naturally went straight for the killing move.
Foreshadowing: Quintus comments early on that "People should know when they're conquered". When Commodus kills Marcus Aurelius, Quintus quickly realises there is no point resisting, chooses pragmatism before honour and betrays Maximus
Freudian Excuse: Commodus explains, prior to killing his dad, that all he wanted was a little love and a warm hug...and what he would have done to get it.
Foil: Noble, humble, wise Maximus and insanely ambitious Commodus. Maximus' bosses also count: Noble Emperor Marcus Aurelius and ex-slave-turned-fight-promoter Proximo.
Game-Breaking Injury: Double subversion. Maximus is stabbed before his battle with Commodus, but manages to defeat Commodus and give a last order before dying.
Genre Blind: Old Marcus Aurelius, of all people. Telling your immoral son you're naming another as your heir with no witnesses around or record of your decision.... yeah....
Give Me a Sword: Both ways; Maximus gets one without asking while Commodus is left to fend for himself.
Good Republic, Evil Empire: The good guys are hoping to turn the Roman Empire back into a Republic by giving more power to the Senate. The bad guy wants to get rid of the Senate altogether. Historically speaking, no one planned to make Rome a republic again, especially since the last five emperors had been both good and competent guys. And in fact it took 300 years for the Roman Empire to openly acknowledge that the Republic had ended an a monarchy had formed. Nor was there ever any serious prospect of abolishing the Senate; while centuries later its power would be diminished to the point of being purely ceremonial, the Roman Senate actually outlasted the (Western) Roman Empire and the Byzantine Empire (Eastern Roman Empire) had its own Senate last until the 1400s.
Go Ye Heroes, Go and Die: The pit manager to the small army of gladiators representing the "Barbarian Horde" before entering the Coliseum. Subverted in that they live and Maximus earns the admiration of the crowd.
Grim Up North: Germania is a cold, harsh place filled with violent barbarians.
Groupie Brigade: When Maximus and the other gladiators are lead into the Colosseum, they're mobbed by a group of scantily-clad women with obvious admiration and intentions towards them, one of them even grabs Maximus and whispers "I want you" in his ear until a guard pulls her off.
A Handful for an Eye: At the beginning of the one on one duel against Tigris surrounded by tigers. The opponent kicks dirt/gravel/dust into Maximus's face.
Heroes Love Dogs: As pointed out in this Cracked article, the German peasants at the start of the movie are a Ragtag Bunch of Misfits fighting against the all-powerful invading Romans in an attempt to protect their own land. Problem is, the movie wants you to root for the Romans, because that's the side Maximus is on. Solution? Give them a dog.
Historical Hero Upgrade: Lucilla. The real life Lucilla was involved in a conspiracy to assassinate Commodus and replace him with herself and her husband. She failed and was executed.
Flaming arrows are used in the opening battle, although it appears that they are used mainly for their psychological effect
Any Roman legion breaking ranks during a battle as shown in the film would have been decimated; Roman soldiers were taught to fight as part of a shield-wall and given very little individual combat training. In a loose melee as depicted in the battle, the barbarians would have had the upper hand.
Inadequate Inheritor: The emperor favored Maximus over Commodus because he considered his son too corrupt for the job, wanting instead a humble reformer to take the helm. Pity one of his son's "virtues" was Ambition.
Jerkass Has a Point: When justifying the murder of his father, Commodus states to his sister that "If father had had his way, the Empire would have torn itself apart." A glance at Roman history shows that this very well could (and probably would) have been the case, resulting in civil war, at the very least between those wanting an Emperor and those wanting a Republic, if not even more fragmented than that.
Kingpin in His Gym: Commodus is shown practicing his swordsmanship against multiple opponents, showing that wealth and power have not made him soft. This holds true to the real Commodus, who was supposedly very good in the Colosseum... although he tended to fight men with training weapons while using real ones himself.
Know When to Fold 'Em: Discussed in the opening scene, regarding the Germans (who were, it's worth mentioning, ultimately never conquered by the Romans);
Quintus: A people should know when they're conquered.
Murder By Inaction: After Maximus disarms Commodus in the arena, Commodus immediately starts demanding one of the surrounding Praetorian Guard to give him a sword. If he hadn't recently and publicly dishonored his own royal guards, they might have.
"Is Rome worth one good man's life? We believed it once. Make us believe it again."
"Three weeks from now, I will be harvesting my crops. Imagine where you will be, and it will be so. Hold the line! Stay with me! If you find yourself alone, riding in the green fields with the sun on your face, do not be troubled. For you are in Elysium, and you're already dead! Brothers; what we do in life, echoes in eternity."
Scarpia Ultimatum: Roman Emperor Commodus performs one of these against his own sister Lucilla near the end. He tries to come on to her earlier in the film, but when she is exposed for conspiring against him with his political enemies Maximus and Senator Gracchus, he decides to give her a "merciful" fate. She has to become his consort, and Commodus takes away her son and threatens to kill the boy if she refuses or takes her own life to spite him. His demand even includes Lucilla having to carry his child so he can establish an eternal dynasty of "pure-blooded" Emperors.
Tampering with Food and Drink: Shortly after Maximus is discovered to still be alive by Commodus, he is served some gruel the next day by the gladiator's cook. Juba shakes his head in disapproval, as if anticipating Maximus being poisoned. Hagen then takes a spoonful of the food, eats it, then begins choking on it. It then becomes subverted as he starts laughing, revealing that the food is safe to eat.
That Makes Me Feel Angry: "It vexes me. I'm terribly vexed." It makes sense when you consider how melodramatic Commodus was.
Theme Music Power-Up: Maximus has a driving, forceful orchestral battle theme only heard twice, once on the German battlefield and once in the Colosseum. In both moments he is leading armies to victory like a true front-line general.
Thousand Year Reign: That is how long Commodus wants his incestuous line to last, when he thinks he's won completely.
Maximus throws his sword and kills a Praetorian Guard from about twenty meters away in order to escape execution. Being the smart guy he is, he kept a backup sword to deal with the remaining Praetorian.
Subverted later when he throws a sword into a crowd of people during the "Are you not entertained?!" scene and injures... a coffee table.
Together in Death: Maximus is shown walking to his family after his last fight in the arena.
We All Die Someday: Maximus tells Commodus that a late friend once told him "Death smiles at us all. All we can do is smile back." Commodus wonders whether the friend did the same thing at his own death. Maximus replies that Commodus should know, since that friend was Marcus Aurelius, Commodus' father.
"Well Done, Son" Guy: Emperor Marcus Aurelius is one of these to Commodus. If you've read this page you'll know how well that turns out.
Why Won't You Die?: Commodus asks Maximus this after Maximus makes it through a match which was blatantly set against him.
Commodus: What am I going to do with you? You simply won't... die. Are we so different, you and I? You take life when you have to... as I do.
Maximus: I have only one more life to take. Then it is done.
Maximus: Are you not entertained?! Is this not why you are here?!
Proximo later discusses the same topic when instructing Maximus:
Proximo: Thrust this into another man's flesh, and they will applaud and love you for that. You may even begin to love them for that.
You Can Barely Stand: Commodus stabs Maximus before facing him in the arena. Maximus, a seasoned general mind you, proves to be able to defeat the reasonably skilled but nonetheless inferior Commodus, but dies from bleeding afterwards.
You Know Who Said That: Emperor Commodus and Maximus have a final 'brotherly' moment before their duel in the arena. Commodus mocks Maximus' lack of fear for his own death, and Maximus tells his enemy that someone once told him "Death smiles at us all. All we can do is smile back". Commodus wonders whether the friend did so at his own death, and Maximus replies that out of anyone, Commodus should know. The man was Marcus Aurelius, the father he murdered.
You Shall Not Pass: The other gladiators try to do this as Maximus attempts to flee. Hagen dies during the battle.