While Lisa Marie watches Ben-Hur on TCM I decided to revisit one of my favorite films to start of the new millenium. This was a film that helped resurrect sword and sandals epic that had burnt out during the late 60’s. From the late 50’s and throughout most of the 1960’s we had such classic epics as Spartacus, Quo Vadis and Ben-Hur. Then we have the Italian-produced peplum films which ranged from memorable to awful.
In 2000, Ridley Scott released the film that would finally win Russell Crowe an Oscar for Best Actor (one he should’ve won for The Insider in the previous year). Gladiator was a return to the old-school epic-scale filmmaking that we hadn’t seen in decades and audiences ate it all up as it won in the box-office and charmed critics.
I wasn’t sure about Gladiator leading up to it’s release, but I was always up for some hacking and slashing in my entertainment. What changed my mind from just being interested to buying fully into the film was when I first saw it and the opening scene which I dub the Battle of Germania. This opening sequence appealed to my sense of adventure as a viewer and also as a student of history (especially military history). While the scene itself wasn’t as accurate as I would’ve liked it got enough of how the Roman Legions fought as an army correct that I was able to forgive Sir Ridley for some dramatic flourishes that wasn’t historically accurate.
In this scene we see the Legions form up in square ranks with their recognizable scutum (Roman shield) into their typical shield wall formation. There are also the auxiliries acting as long-range support such as archers, catapults and ballista (though the last two were rarely, if ever used outside of sieges). Then there were the Roman cavalry led by Maximus himself (a unit seen less as an elite formation as we see later in the Medieval era). Scott was able to combine all these elements and create a scene that probably was as close as we’d get to seeing how war was waged between the Roman Empire and the so-called barbarian hordes of Germania.
I think this scene would’ve been perfect if the Roman Legion formations remained cohesive and just meat-grinded their enemy in front instead of breaking apart and turning the fight into a free-for-all. Other than that misstep this scene was what I loved about Gladiator.