One Great Scene: GLADIATOR
In this series of articles, we’re going to do a deep-dive on one knockout scene from a great movie. Today’s movie is GLADIATOR. The scene is when Russell Crowe’s Maximus reveals himself to Joaquin Phoenix’s Commodus (here’s a link to the scene as a refresher: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lKn-Agk-yAI).
The scene starts with Maximus stashing an arrowhead in his hand. Commodus confronts Maximus in the Colosseum. Commodus praises Maximus and asks him his name. Maximus says his name is Gladiator and turns his back on Commodus.
Commodus, offended, addresses Maximus as “slave” and demands he take off his helmet and tell him his name. Maximus removes his helmet and tells Commodus his name. It’s arguably one of the high points of the entire movie. Here’s the dialogue:
“My name is Maximus Decimus Meridias, commander of the armies of the north, general of the Felix legions, 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 reason the speech is so powerful is because we as the audience understand everything it represents. Maximus was a respected general. Marcus Aurelius respected him more than his own son. Marcus was the “true” emperor, until Joaquin’s Commodus killed him. Maximus’ wife and son were horribly murdered. The whole movie has been building to this, to the reckoning guaranteed by Commodus’ treachery. We, as the audience, are completely on Maximus’ side.
By putting Maximus through hell, the script has generated a need for catharsis. The audience must have the catharsis of some resolution to the injustice created by Commodus. Commodus has Roman soldiers with him, but the crowd wants Maximus to live. Commodus can’t simply kill Maximus or he will lose the crowd.
Commodus allows Maximus to live and retreats out of the arena. The crowd, whom Maximus has killed many people for, has saved his life. He has become the titular gladiator and “defeated’ the emperor in a standoff. The scene is only a few minutes long, but it’s packed with clever construction.
The arrowhead, for example, amounts to nothing in the sequence. Maximus doesn’t use it in the scene. But it functions as an unexploded bomb, narratively. It adds suspense. Similarly, Commodus has young Lucius with him, and holds him in front of him at the start of the scene, essentially using him as a human shield. Again, it ultimately doesn’t really mean anything, Lucius moves aside as the confrontation escalates, but it adds suspense.
Both in the micro details of the individual scene’s execution and in where it falls in the overarching narrative, this scene has tremendous power. Commodus’s imperial authority is a sham, and Maximus calling him on it in the most public possible literal arena is deeply emotionally satisfying.
Do you think this a great scene? Let us know in the comments below.