Gladiator: Critical film essay

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27 February 2016

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Ridley Scott’s Gladiator is the critically acclaimed 2000 film starring Russell Crowe which won forty-eight awards, including a BAFTA for best film. Gladiator depicts the tale of Maximus Decimus Meridius and his struggle against the might of the Roman Empire and the vicious gladiatorial arenas. Throughout Scott’s masterpiece are a wide range of filmic techniques in the visual and auditory channels that collaborate in enunciating the overall narrative. The opening sequence is a prime example that uses Mise-en-scene, lighting, costume and film speed to enunciate the key scene. The opening scene begins with some historical information that introduces the audience into the scene and sets up the narrative. Scott informs his audience on the vast scale of the Roman Empire, “One quarter of the world’s population lived and died under the Caesars.” The emphasis is on “and died” in order to set the scene for the incoming battle. The Universal and DreamWorks logos are in a sepia colour. This colour informs the audience that the film is set in the past due to it being used for old photographs and ink. The historical information is accompanied by calming, serene music which leads to the first view of the protagonist.

Scott has made use of coloured lighting, incorporating gold (which is representative of the wealth the Roman Empire had) in many scenes throughout the film. The colour gold is an interesting choice because it represents peace and riches which could also be a reference to the Roman afterlife Elysium. Scott has used Mise-en-scene in the first shot of the protagonist, brushing his hand in the corn field. Although the audience are only presented with an extreme close up shot of his hand; they learn about his character through Scott’s control of what appears in the frame. The audience sees a wedding ring on his hand and so learn that he is a family man. The critic John Gibbs also comments on Mise-en scene, “the contents of the frame and the way they are organised.” During the close-up of the protagonist’s hand, the audience can hear a diegetic sound of the wheat blowing. A non-diegetic sound of children playing and soothing music can also be heard which again tells the audience he is a family man with something to loose. The consonant tone of music and golden cornfields set up an idyllic scene of calmness which instantly contrasts when the frame cuts to a harsh, cold and dark Germanic battlefield. The camera uses a medium close up of Maximus’s face which reveals the emotions of a tired soldier. Maximus catches a glimpse of a red robin which symbolises his near return home to the summer and his family. The robin’s red breast could also be a signifier of the forthcoming bloodshed. When Maximus moves on to greet his army a long shot is used which displays him walking alone.

The theme of isolation comes into play which also recurs throughout the film. As the battle scene draws near, a high angle long shot is used to display the mighty Roman army. Costume is used a great deal in Gladiator and adds to the films authentic feel. A medium close up shot is used for the first time on Emperor Marcus Aurelius which shows him wearing rich clothing and surrounded by knights. This scene only lasts a few seconds but the audience discover he is a man of importance through costume. Moreover, Scott wanted Maximus to appear as a strong character that holds high authority as an important character. This is achieved through costume as Maximus’s armour is bigger than all other characters and has different insignias weaved into it. The costume for the barbarian army is rather contrasting to that of the Roman Empire. The barbarians are dressed in rugged cloth which suggests they are not nearly as advanced or wealthy as the Roams who wear steel armour. A Critical Introduction to Film highlights the importance of costume, “Costume provides information about time and place, but, more importantly, they express social milieu and personal style.” At 04:41 the barbarian leader steps forward from his army and lunges the head of the Roman messenger into the swampy ground and disrespects the Roman army.

This is a casual chain of events that help drive the plot forward, “Film narration moves forward by a succession of events linked in a casual chain.” It is evident that the Roman army will fight now and Maximus kneels down to run dirt through his hands which is a recurring motif. The motif shows the spiritual side of Maximus, he asks the gods to fight beside him. As Maximus kneels down the audience are given a Point of View shot through Maximus staring into a dog’s eyes. The dog symbolises the brute force of Maximus and suggests he is a wild character. As Gladiator mounts his horse the music quickens and a non-diegetic drum beat begins to enunciate the battle scene. The music increases pace as the battle almost begins which heightens audience’s tension and excitement. As the battle begins a wave of Roman arrows are dispersed and computer generated imagery showcases a variety of special effects. A long range establishing shot on a high angle displays the destruction that the Roman Empire is unleashing.

As Gladiator rides with his cavalry there is an array of fast cutting shots that last a few seconds each. The fast paced shots give the audience a battle like feel with exaggerated sound effects of swords clashing and explosions. Maximus demonstrates his leadership role by shouting commands like, “Stay with me” and “Hold the line” . After the establishing shots of the battle Scott includes scenes that are more subjective to Gladiator. The gory battle follows Maximus as he enters a slow-motion phase that displays his disorientated point of view of the battle and a montage of his men fighting. Furthermore, the dog also engages in battle which suggests he is strong and independent like Gladiator. Ridley Scott’s Gladiator incorporates brilliant techniques that contribute in enunciating the opening sequence.

These techniques are things such as the use of costume which generates an authentic feel and camera speed which demonstrates a terrifying battle. A strong use of Mise-en-scene shows how the narrative develops through camera lighting and casual chains in the plot.

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