analyzing russell crowe in ‘Gladiator’

The general who became a slave. The slave who became a gladiator. The gladiator who defied an emperor. (I know Commodus says this line, which sucks, but it’s still a really good quote.)

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I’ve made no secret of my love for ‘Gladiator’ (2000).  It’s a near-perfect film and Russell Crowe always blows me away with his portrayal of Maximus.  So when someone on Quora slammed his performance, saying that he never changes expression, only has three or so lines, and should never have won an Oscar for the role…I knew I had to write a rebuttal.

(Also, I said I’d write about Maximus for the Blizzard of Oz Blogathon.  So yusss)


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One of my favorite parts of ‘Gladiator’ is the first half hour (before everything goes to pieces).  Maximus is a brilliant general, though a war-weary one who can’t wait to return home to his wife, son, and farm.  Yet he will stay for his emperor…and for Rome.  By watching how his men respect and trust him, you can tell that Maximus is a great leader.  Their loyalty to him (and his to them) is really awesome and part of me wishes that they could have come to his aid later in the movie (the way he’d planned).

Maximus is first and foremost a loyal soldier of and to the Roman Empire and in the  opening scenes of the film, Russell Crowe projects authority and respect for Marcus Aurelius (and the emperor’s family).


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With the murder of Marcus Aurelius, Maximus’s life becomes forfeit.  Sure, he could have taken Commodus’s hand and sworn allegiance to the new emperor, but with Commudus’s changeable moods and paranoia it would have only been a matter of time before he had Maximus killed.  So Maximus’s family is killed and he himself is captured by slave traders.

Maximus’s brand, the one proving him to be a former soldier of Rome, is what convinces Proximo (a guy who owns gladiators…idk what his official title is?) to buy him.  When put up against a seasoned gladiator (to see if he’ll be slated for a quick death or become a gladiator himself), Maximus refuses to fight.  I think a big part of that is because Marcus Aurelius was against gladiatorial fights and Maximus still considers himself loyal to the former emperor.

Russell Crowe portrays Maximus with a variety of emotions in this section of the film: furious over the death of the emperor (though he hides it pretty well), absolutely heartbroken over the gruesome deaths of his wife and son, indifferent as to whether he lives or dies while in the slave market, and quietly defiant once purchased by Proximo.


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This section of the film is the longest.  Obviously.  Even though Maximus refuses to fight for a place in the rankings, Proximo labels him a good fighter and throws him into the arena.  Once inside, Maximus’s survival instincts take over and he kills.  And kills.  And kills.  He hates the mobs who scream his name with bloodlust.  But he kills and, because of his military training, he’s very good at it.

When Commodus is made emperor, he hosts a spectacle of killing games so Proximo packs up his gladiator troupe (including Maximus, of course) and heads to Rome…and to the Colosseum.  Over the course of a few battles in the arena he gains the gaze of Rome.  The battles are AMAZING, in that they highlight Maximus’s ability to lead and gain the loyalty of just about anyone; all the gore isn’t amazing, though, so please don’t think I’m a weirdo who likes seeing lots of blood and hacked off limbs.

Anyway, he gets everyone’s attention.  Including Commodus’s, who quickly finds out his true identity and fumes because he can’t figure out a way to kill Maximus while making himself look good.  Maximus also catches the eye of a senator and with the help of Commodus’s sister, Lucilla, they concoct a plan to remove Commodus from power.

Only it goes horribly, horribly wrong and Maximus is dragged into the arena one last time.  This time, he goes up against Commodus (who wounded him, almost fatally, before the match).

I-I can’t say enough good things about Russell Crowe’s acting.  He’s furious and saddened about the position he’s been put in – killing other human beings.  He desperately misses his family.  He forges new loyalties and friendships with fellow gladiators. (That scene where the one guy tastes his food???  MY HEART.)  And there’s an undercurrent of melencholy in each of his scenes; it hits me so hard. (“My wife…and my son…are already waiting for me.”  WAAAAAAAA.)


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Okay, okay, I get that Maximus wasn’t a real person.  I get it.  But in the world of the movie, he becomes a legend.  He kills Commodus.  He frees the prisoners.  He single-handedly saves Rome, okay??? (Melodramatic?  Yes.  But I wouldn’t have it any other way.)  And then, finally, he goes to be with his family in one of the most uplifting/sob-worthy movie endings ever.

And Russell Crowe nails every moment of it.  In this part of the film and all the ones proceeding it.  Just…incredible.

He totally and completely deserved his Oscar.

*’Now We Are Free’ starts playing*

Now we are free. I will see you again.  But not yet…not yet!

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I’m going to need a moment, ‘kay?


16 thoughts on “analyzing russell crowe in ‘Gladiator’

  1. Gladiator is still a great movie after 19 years. Russel Crow shows a lot of subtlety within his emotion, the way you’d expect a well trained general to. The amount of gore is appropriate to show how brutal Gladiatorial combat was, while still managing to get a PG13 rating. A lot of movies that earned the Best Picture award over the years didn’t truly deserve it. For example, Citizen Kane lost the Best Picture award to How Green Was My Valley, which while it may be good, nobody remembers it. Gladiator did deserve the Best Picture award.


    1. That’s a great point – that he doesn’t show a ton of emotion because he’s a well-trained soldier. I do think the gore is realistic; I do find myself cringing at particularly bloody moments though. 😛

      And YES it totally deserved Best Picture.


      1. The gore is realistic, but the movie knows when to move the camera away to avoid a hard R rating. And it does help emphasize the whole point of the movie – that Gladiatorial combat was awful.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Ahhhhh! *dies of excessive feels*
    Gladiator – oh what can I say? I am absolutely in love with this film. I felt the same way about the gore, but the storyline and ending is totally worth it! Maximus is one of my favorite film characters of all time. I’ve been deciding whether or not I should write an analysis post on the symbolism in the film. And “Now We Are Free” makes me cry every time the movie ends. Oh, the feels when he dies and goes to his wife and son! Hits me so hard!
    Great post 🙂
    Emily 🙂


    1. *dies with you*

      It’s so epic I can forgive the gore (I do fast-forward a couple of the earlier gladiatorial battles because I feel like they’re a bit more gratuitous than the later ones.) And YES to that post about symbolism. I didn’t mention it in my post, but the last time I rewatched the film I really noticed that there are certain shots where Commodus’s face almost looks like a skull (because he’s so white/dark circles around his eyes/the director didn’t put his face fully in focus) and that was so cool/chilling.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. YES, I thought maybe I was the only one who noticed Commodus’s face looking like a skull! The makeup around his eyes definitely gives that effect. I think I’ll start working on that post – it would be such a cool project and would give me an excuse to watch Gladiator again XD


  3. Yeah, clearly those detractors just don’t understand nuanced performances. Crowe is one of those actors that I love BECAUSE he can convey so much emotion with just his eyes, or with a simple gesture. He has no need for scenery chewing or flashy theatricals.

    Been years and years since I saw this. Should watch it again.


    1. Right? When I rewatched this movie for the blogathon (and after I read the negative comment) I purposely watched Crowe closely and, man, he blew me away with the subtleties of his acting.

      And then review it on your blog! 😉


  4. Very fun movie! Perfect for an all-day double bill with Spartacus on a lazy Sunday afternoon!
    Mr. Crowe is wonderful, of course, but a young Joaquin Phoenix nearly steals the whole movie out from under all the other great actors!


    1. Joaquin Phoenix is such a good/creepy villain in this movie. Definitely stands out, even in a film with so many other amazing performances.


  5. GAAAAAH, this is such a good movie! I would say “I don’t understand why anyone would say it’s boring and/or doesn’t like Russell Crowe’s performance,” except one of my sisters says these exact things and leaves me a confused puddle every time, haha.

    Apparently, they’re planning a sequel that’ll revolve around Lucius??? I’ll be really interested to see how that turns out!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve heard about the sequel – I really hope it’s well done and not just trying to live off the hype of the first one. Had no idea it involves Lucius, though! I liked him. He would probably become emperor after Commodus’s death.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Thankfully, my sister (the one who’s seen it – my other sister is still too young) loves the film/Maximus almost as much as I do. But, yeah, I don’t understand how people can’t get the genius of this film! 😛

      I hadn’t heard of that sequel! I just can’t see there being a ‘Gladiator’ sequel without Maximus, but we shall see…


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