Enkomputiligis Don HARLOW


by David H. Franzoni

reviewed by Don Harlow

In the year 180 A.D., it says here, Rome ruled a quarter of the world and, under the aging Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris), was looking to bring even more of the world under its sway, most notably parts of Germania. The film begins with an epic and bloody battle in which the Emperor's most trusted general, Maximus (Russell Crowe), carves up the German army after roasting it in Greek fire (shades of Vietnam and napalm! there is nothing new under the sun...). The Emperor, who feels his own mortality, is prepared to turn the Empire over to Maximus in the faith that Maximus will somehow help a superannuated Senate restore a republic which disappeared more than two centuries earlier; Maximus, who only wants to go back to Spain and spend the rest of his life with his wife and young son, is less than enthusiastic. Unfortunately, the Emperor's son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) appears on the scene and, discovering that his father is about to bypass him, helps the old man to a premature grave. He then orders Maximus to be taken out and executed, and his wife and child to be eliminated in a particularly gruesome manner. Naturally, Maximus escapes, though the wife and child are not so lucky.

Taken up as a slave by Proximo (the late Oliver Reed [1]), and trained as a gladiator in what would appear to be Morocco, Maximus eventually ends up back in Rome when the new Emperor decides to throw a series of games to make the plebes happy again, Marcus Aurelius having closed down the Colosseum five years earlier. After a particularly gruesome replay of a fight between gold-bedecked Roman charioteers and recruits from Hannibal's Punic army, in which the result is not the one intended by the master of the games, Commodus discovers Maximus's presence, but is unable to get rid of the former general because the crowd has come to love him -- which fact makes Commodus even angrier, since nobody loves _him_ (I'm not kidding!). The rest of the movie involves Maximus's plotting with a senator named Gracchus (Derek Jacobi, who was once an emperor himself [2]) and Commodus's disenchanted sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen) so that he can bring Commodus to justice, or more likely to vengeance. None of the plotting comes to much of anything, but ultimately Commodus -- who has apparently never read a psychology textbook, or tried to "know thyself" -- commits suicide, or the moral equivalent thereof.

The film has a lot of pluses, though I suspect -- without peeking at Caesar and Christ -- that it is less than historically accurate. There are some powerful presentations by a few of the actors, most notably Crowe himself; and Phoenix puts himself forward as a sufficiently slimy and untrustworthy Commodus -- one can almost understand why H. P. Lovecraft occasionally selected that particular emperor as a representation of human evil in a few of his stories. As another reviewer said, the digitized late-second-century Rome of the film puts James Cameron's Titanic to shame. And whether the ending is a happy one or not is a question that different viewers will almost certainly answer in different ways.

(Note that a somewhat different telling of the story of this period in Roman history is available in Fall of the Roman Empire, a 1964 film starring Alec Guiness as Marcus Aurelius, Sophia Loren as Lucilla, and Chrisopher Plummer as Commodus. Stephen Boyd plays a different general. I don't remember that movie as being this good, though I believe that it was somewhat longer.)

Worth seeing.


(1) Like Bela Lugosi in the somewhat less memorable Plan 9 from Outer Space, Reed died during filming; but today we have CGI to solve such problems, and, so I understand, Proximo appears quite naturally in some parts of the movie that were filmed after his death.
(1) Claudius, in the 12-part BBC serial presentation of Robert Graves' I, Claudius (including Claudius the God). Note that the Internet Movie Database dates this in 1976; but this would appear to be the date of its American release -- we saw it in England in 1971.

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