Produced by DreamWorks
Directed by Ridley Scott
Screenplay by David H. Franzoni and John Logan
Released by MCA/Universal Pictures

Produced by New Line Cinema
Directed by Gregory Hoblit
Screenplay by Toby Emmerich
Released by New Line Cinema

Despite its flagrant historical inaccuracies and its preference for spectacle over drama, Ridley Scott’s Gladiator is a triumph of popular entertainment. Before the film devolves into a simpleminded revenge story, it manages—almost in spite of itself—to invest its hero with a genuine tragic dimension. He is a man courageous enough to face the world’s treacheries in the full knowledge that they will inevitably defeat him—at least in this life. Impressively played by Russell Crowe, this kind of hero makes one proud to be human.

The film begins with an enormous close-up of a man’s hand, palm down, skimming across the tops of budded stalks in a seemingly endless wheat field. The scene is drenched in the golden pastoral haze of a languorous, late-afternoon sun. Then the man stops to look at a robin nesting in his path. The camera cuts to his face for the first time, as a smile breaks forth from his weathered features, and then cuts to the same man now standing in the blue-gray light of a wintry dawn on the Danube River, his face grimly reflective, even rueful. He stoops to pick up some dirt, rubbing it between his palms. We know he’s preparing for a major task, but only when the camera pulls back to reveal another field, this one populated by seemingly endless legions of Roman soldiers, do we get a glimmer of what this might be.

With this simple montage, Scott introduces us to Crowe as Maximus, the general who is about to lead Rome’s army against the Quadi, a particularly irksome Germanic tribe threatening to breach the empire’s northern boundary in A.D. 180, during the reign of Marcus Aurelius. Nothing has been said, but Maximus’ character is revealed to us in his hands. Again and again, we will see him measuring the height of wheat under his outstretched fingers, rubbing dirt into his palms, hefting weapons for their weight and balance, managing horses with ease and grace. The same hands that slaughter enemies are shown clasped in prayer at his homemade altar when he calls upon his ancestors for guidance. “I will try to honor you with the dignity you taught me,” he says, before taking up figurines of his wife and son in his battle-scarred fingers and kissing them. This is an extraordinarily capable man who longs for peace but is ready to shoulder his wartime duty. The masculine honor with which Crowe invests all these gestures is powerfully affecting.

Although he seems a simple, straightforward fellow, Maximus sees things as a whole. As the battle begins, his lieutenant surveys the clamoring Germanic hordes with evident disgust. “People should know when they’re conquered,” he sniffs. Maximus asks with quiet reproach, “Would you, Quintus? Would I?” The battle that ensues is feverish and short, filled with men hacking away at one another in a tumult of rage. Through it all, Maximus keeps his head, wading into the fray with controlled ferocity. Once the foe lies vanquished, he is more concerned with the welfare of his men than with any personal glory he may have won.

Maximus understands his place, and he equally understands and respects his enemy. Subduing them is his job. That’s all. He has no hankering for spoils or political power. He is genuinely appalled when Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris, playing the sickly 59-year-old emperor with touching fragility) chooses to reward his virtue by making him heir to the throne. Maximus protests that he wants to go home to his wife and son. It’s been “two years, two hundred and sixty-four days and this morning” since he last saw them, he explains. More poignant are his thoughts, which we hear in voiceover: “I live only to hold them again, for all else is only dust and air.” This phrase will echo through the film as a refrain accompanying the visual motif of his hand skimming the wheat. His ambitions are the simplest and, hence, the noblest.

With his devotion to his family, his commitment to honor, his contempt for worldly success, his constant awareness of mortality, Maximus is the living embodiment of the philosophy of disinterested idealism to be found in The Meditations of the historical Marcus. It’s dramatically fitting that the film’s dying emperor would choose such a man to be his heir. Of course, as they used to say in Brooklyn, it’s also baloney. The real Marcus Aurelius has been a puzzle to historians precisely because he put aside his notions of stoic honor and chose his unworthy son, Commodus, to succeed him. Obviously, this story wasn’t the out Scott wanted to tell; he wanted some thing more rousing. In the film. Commodus (played with suitably warped petulance by Joaquin Phoenix) goes into a pouting, sibilant rage upon learning o his father’s plan, killing him rather than letting the imperial purple pass to an unsophisticated general. The patricide is followed by orders to execute Maximus and kill his family. In another film, this would have set the stage for a crude revenge drama, with some splashily heroic bloodletting. Fortunately, by sheer fore of thespian will, Crowe disrupts what otherwise might have been an all-too-familiar narrative arc. The formidable inwardness of his acting makes us feel his character’s heartbreak and brooding anger every step of the way.

When Maximus, badly wounded, escapes his would-be executioners, he falls into the hands of Proximo, a former Gladiator. This impresario of the arena buys and trains slaves to butcher or be butchered for the enjoyment of the mob. Oliver Reed, who died before the film was finished, gives Proximo the ruthless, frightening cynicism one would expect of such a flesh peddler. It is further testimony to the strength of Maximus’ character that he is able to draw forth the vestigial humanity residing in this monster.

Although Maximus is visibly disgusted by the spectacles in which he must participate, he proves invincible in the arena. In one scene, he dispatches five opponents in a row and then turns to the cheering crowd, demanding, “Are you not entertained? Is not this why you’re here?” He then hurls his sword into the Roman equivalent of the box seats. He feels no elation in his bloody deeds. His opponents meant to kill him, and he did what was necessary. For the audience that applauds his murders, he feels nothing but contempt.

Crowe plays these Gladiatorial scenes with none of the now conventional, muscle-bound Schwarzenegger posturing. He is stocky and doesn’t have the striated body of today’s gym-trimmed performers. His movements, however, display an economy of effort noticeable in the best athletes. He conveys perfectly the uncanny strength that’s possible when muscle, mind, and spirit work in harmony.

The die is cast when Proximo takes Maximus to Rome to compete in the games Commodus is holding. Here, mid Scott’s marvelously computer-generated eternal city, with its temples, Senate, and Colosseum, the inevitable showdown will take place. It is the film’s conceit that Commodus revived gladiatorial spectacles his father had banned. Actually, the games were standard fare under both men.) He does so in order to pander to the degenerate tastes of the mob. Like a modern politician, he seeks to win their loving approval, thereby consolidating his power. His strategy stumbles, however, once Maximus shows up and proves his mettle in the arena. The crowd instantly switches its allegiance to the former general. To his chagrin, Commodus realizes he has inadvertently empowered his old enemy. The principled Maximus, on the other hand, at first remains unimpressed by his sudden popularity. When Commodus’ sister, Lucilla (Connie Nielsen) tells him of his growing influence, he scornfully retorts, “I only have power to amuse the mob.” Knowing better, she replies, “That is power.” Had Lucilla actually said this, her renown for prescience would certainly still resonate among today’s poll-taking, demographically sophisticated political scientists, and her image would surely grace every televised report from the New York Times-CBS survey bureau.

In the last 20 minutes, the film’s melodrama almost descends to bathos. But by this time, I was so taken with Maximus and his mission that I stopped asking questions and went with it. Afterward, however, I couldn’t help wondering why Scott didn’t take a small portion of his $103 million budget and hire writers with enough wit to tell the story and respect history at the same time. The film’s scrambling of facts is distracting. Along with the discrepancies already mentioned, there is the completely gratuitous decision to make Commodus behave like his distant imperial predecessor, Caligula. Commodus makes eyes at his sister and demands they marry, as Caligula did with his sister, Drusilla. If this fiction is meant to demonstrate how perversely distant Commodus is from the decency Maximus exemplifies, the behavior of the historical Commodus needs no embellishment. While there’s no indication he harbored any untoward interest in his sister, he kept a harem of 300 women and as many boys to satisfy his whims. Perhaps Scott judged such gender-neutral promiscuity no longer sufficiently offensive to contemporary tastes.

This movie carries an “R” rating. It’s for violence only. Except for a few eye-rolling innuendos Commodus practices on his entirely unresponsive sister, the film is positively chaste when it comes to sexual matters. As for violence, there’s far less than reported. Several reviewers in the more refined press have squealed about lopped limbs and cracked skulls. They’re simply not on the screen. Such images reside nowhere but in the overheated imaginations of our would-be moral guardians, the very same critics who sing praises for such muck as American Beauty and American Psycho. Most of the violence in Gladiator is the product of camera work and film editing. Scott has shot the battles closely with mobile and hand-held cameras and edited his footage with a pace that D.W. Griffith and Sergei Eisenstein would have appreciated. This makes the arena scenes seem unnervingly wild, but it’s all suggestion. As the carnage supposedly takes place, we often don’t see much more than a blur of motion. Scott relies more on the resources of his medium and less on the special-effects department, which easily could have provided him with facsimiles of butchered bodies. When a Gladiator swings his sword at the hand of a man to whom he’s chained, we first see his weapon rise, then the hand in extreme close-up, followed by the sword’s downward are, after which the camera darts away. Although some swear they’ve seen it, there is no shot of a severed hand twitching bloodily in the sand. The only cutting here was done in the editing room.

I mention this because I think this is one R-rated film that older children, say 15 and up, might view with profit. It’s not often they get to see such a hero in films today, a religious family man who submits with enormous courage and stoic understanding to the duties and limitations life imposes upon us.

The rating this film really needs is “I” for inaccurate: Parents strongly cautioned to provide a corrective history lesson after the show.

Unlike Gladiator, Gregory Hoblit’s Frequency transcends mortal limitations—at least temporarily, which is only fitting for its time-travel premise.

At the sentimental heart of this film is a fairly typical, if seldom discussed, wish-fulfillment fantasy: the desire to reach back in time and prevent the catastrophes that have already befallen us. Who wouldn’t want to encourage a long-dead parent to quit smoking before succumbing to lung cancer or, in the case of this film, warn your fireman dad to avoid making a fatal mistake fighting a conflagration 30 years ago? I suspect it’s guilt that keeps us mum about these fantasies. Through some solipsistic alchemy, we translate our current knowledge into something we should have realized and acted on in the past. Irrationally, we feel responsible for events that were beyond our control.

Frequency charms us by suspending this guilt. It indulges our fantasies of ex post facto rescues vicariously by giving John Sullivan his chance to save his father, Frank, when he finds he can talk to him across time with a ham radio. Hokey? No question. But Dennis Quaid as Frank and James Caviezel as John make the hokum work. As father and son gradually discovering one another across the decades, they are achingly credible.

Nostalgia, however, soon takes a back seat to adventure. By saving his father from death, John sets in motion a new and more disastrous sequence of events. Soon, father and son are working together feverishly to stop a serial killer from murdering one or more of their family. Their detective work, carried out simultaneously in two time periods, is a marvel of intricate plotting that had me thoroughly baffled at points. Fortunately, my 11-year-old, Liam, was on hand to explain matters to me after the show.

Suffice it to say that this four-dimensional puzzle is great fun, and its pieces actually fit together. However, I wouldn’t have minded if they hadn’t. The film’s real strength resides in the encounter of father and son across time and mortality. The experience grants them an awareness of life’s uncertainties. Were we able to sustain such recognition in our own lives, it would undoubtedly render our relations with those closest to us immeasurably fuller.