Cubby Broccoli Theatre – Widescreen Weekend – National Science & Media Museum, Bradford, UK. 12th October 2019.
Thank you, Bex, and to everyone here at the National Science and Media Museum who have asked me back for a third year to introduce to you some widescreen classics. Thank you also to all of you for coming out this afternoon, whether you’re here for the entire Widescreen Weekend, this all-film Celluloid Saturday or just this screening of a magnum opus from acknowledged visionary and widescreen master Sir Ridley Scott.
It’s no surprise to find myself introducing Gladiator in 2019, after running the 35mm trailer at last year’s Cineramacana. That was connected to a screening of this very same print that I hosted over in Pictureville last November. The double-whammy of delegate enthusiasm, and Sir Christopher Frayling’s “sword and sandals” strand this year not only suggested, but arguably demanded the inclusion of the definitive historical epic emergent from the tail end of the 20th Century.
Sir Ridley (then just “Ridley”) mounted a high-profile production for Universal and the recently established Dreamworks SKG that drew a lot of curiosity for being of a throwback genre in the age of The Matrix. By the 16th of March in the year 2000, when the film previewed to houses sold-out well in advance at both the Empire Leicester Square (now Cineworld) and the UGC Trocadero (now Picturehouse Central), Gladiator and its star-making lead performance, from brooding New Zealander-turned-Australian Russelius Iralius Crowisimus, were already poised for cinematic immortality. Winning the Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Actor, this epic start to the 21st century blockbuster took a worldwide gross of over 460 million dollars and made Russell Crowe a pin-up with the best chest til Dan Craig came along. Four more collaborations between Scott and Crowe have followed: A Good Year, American Gangster, Body of Lies and an earthy reboot of Robin Hood which, being born and raised four miles from Nottingham Castle, I have absolutely no opinion on whatsoever.
In 2003 Ridley Scott was knighted for “services to the film industry”. After burying a bitter feud with his younger brother Tony – who I shall talk about again later in relation to Quentin Tarantino – the two headed a consortium that purchased and regenerated Shepperton Studios. While Tony shared a BAFTA Award with Ridley in 1995 for their efforts to rejuvenate British film production, he did not receive a knighthood. The brothers’ aesthetic sensibility and art school background are famous in themselves, and between them they have directed some of the most recognisable and influential commercials and motion pictures of the last 50 years. Sir Ridley was named the tenth most influential person in British culture in 2005, but such accolades were not always so. While Tony, who passed away in 2012 – an event I continue to mourn – enjoyed the commercial success of Top Gun, The Last Boy Scout, Crimson Tide and Enemy of the State along with cult failures like The Hunger and True Romance (and failure failures like Revenge and Days of Thunder), as at the dawn of the new millennium Sir Ridley had only had two significant commercial hits.
In their “summer round-up” 1991 an enthusiastic Empire writer declared a “shockingly good road movie” was on its way. It was directed, “who would have thunk it?” the writer asked, by Ridley Scott. Thelma & Louise, which screened at last year’s Widescreen Weekend as well as in a separate Celluloid Sorceress show here in the Cubby Broccoli in February 2018, continues to enthrall and divide audiences. As much a landmark of female representation onscreen as Alien and Blade Runner were landmarks in visual effects and production design, Thelma & Louise was the film set to relaunch Scott’s chequered career, but was followed by the poorly-received 1492: Conquest of Paradise, the practically forgotten White Squall, and the ridiculed G.I. Jane.
When Gladiator started filming in February 1999 the Roman military camps and Germanic battlegrounds of 180 AD Vindobona (now the Austrian city of Vienna) were played by the woods near Farnham in Surrey. Sir Ridley had taken advantage of a site scheduled for clearing by the forestry commission and needed land he could scorch with the fires that light the later part of the opening sequence. Environmentalists were up in arms and the press had a field day. Tabloids such as the Daily Mail went to the nearest available rent-a-historian who would claim that the trees could in no way ever been seen as Germanic by a sophisticated film audience and that the practical war machines in use on set were of Vietnam-era technology and military strategy. What could this sword-and-sandals nonsense be from the fallen artist who brought us Demi Moore screaming “Suck my dick!”? And who wants to see this kind of film in the year 2000 anyway?
It seems natural that such a confident artist as Scott would have a long-established method and be more interested in the opinions of the Roman history expert in his cast than that of those hired by the studio or the newspapers. Female presences in Gladiator are limited to Maximus’ wife (played, incidentally, by Giannina Facio, who married Ridley Scott in 2015) and multi-lingual Danish actress Connie Nielsen, majestic and Cleopatran as Lucilla, daughter of Richard Harris’ Marcus Aurelius and sister of Joaquin Phoenix’ Commodus around whose bizarre real exploits David Franzoni’s original script was based. In his director’s commentary Scott speaks of Nielsen’s expertise on matters of Roman history and has a deliciously cavalier attitude towards “the historians,” as he calls them, meeting every criticism with “Yeah, well, how do you know? Were you there?”
Working outwards from the principle of “what would you need to survive this climate?” and “what would you need to fight this battle?” Scott, production designer Arthur Max and their team drew upon military strategy, armoury and weaponry across history, building outwards from necessity in the same way the Los Angeles of Blade Runner was the Los Angeles of the 1940s with a lot of stuff on top. This fabricated authenticity serves Gladiator well, as does Scott’s command of the classical narrative, as keen as his command of the classical art that inspires many of the set designs. Look out for one particular set, built on location, that has been redressed and filmed from different angles to appear as six or seven different rooms within the tented compound of the new, false Caesar as well as the underbelly of the Coliseum.
Cynics also conjectured about the film’s integration of new-fangled CGI into Scott’s recreation of ancient Rome. A part of the Coliseum was built but everything above about 12 feet is computer generated. John Mathieson’s striking images hold up exceptionally well, and it’s exciting to have the opportunity to stand Gladiator in the Widescreen Weekend arena next to its ancestors Barrabas and Ben-Hur. Mathieson, Scott and the camera department’s bravura work includes many complex dolly shots, particularly those on the battlefield, where different frame rates and shutter speeds also introduce visual elements that expand on Spielberg’s technique for Saving Private Ryan’s epic opening. For all the successes, though, in the mixing and adapting of techniques, from cloned crowds at the Coliseums to 3,000 real Maltese tribesman on location to the authenticity of using real tigers, anyone who remembers the original 2-disc DVD release will remember the Easter Egg containing 2 seconds failed test footage of a CGI rhino that Maximus was meant to fight at one stage in script development.
Gladiator is, of course, dedicated to Oliver Reed, a true legend of British cinema. Having been friends with Reed for many years Scott hit upon him as having the ideal mix of warrior and rascal for his role as Proximo. Reed died three weeks before shooting was to be completed. Adopting an organic script process that had taken Franzoni’s original and added John Logan’s second act in pre-production, Scott brought William Nicholson onboard to fill out scenes and rewrite dialogue on set as necessary. Changes were made and the subtle and believable use of computer technology that completed Proximo’s story stands alongside the excellent work done for The Crow and The Fast & The Furious 7, which both lost their stars tragically during production. No one in this production was replaced by Christopher Plummer.
I mention Christopher Plummer, not just to get a cheap laugh or because he stars in The Sound of Music, screening on 70mm later this evening. I mention Plummer because he also played the role of Commodus, in Anthony Mann’s The Fall of the Roman Empire which screened in 70mm at Widescreen Weekend 2006. Before I hand you over to the team up in the projection booth, that beating heart of a film-on-film show, it’s interesting to revisit Gladiator while theatres around the globe are reaping the massive box office of Joker. Phoenix’s quite astonishing physical and emotional performance is hailed as transcendent of interpretations by Cesar Romero, Jack Nicholson, the Oscar winning Heath Ledger and, you know, I should mention Leto, really (and Hamill for the Hamill fans). As great as Joaquin is as Batman’s nemesis the seeds of his raw ability to play complex, tormented, not entirely likeable yet strangely sympathetic characters can be found right here. Ridley Scott was for a long time considered a visualist who couldn’t talk to actors. Here we have a magnificent example of Phoenix under really tight, inventive direction. More on actors’ directors later on when I’m back here with the defining American movie of the 1990s, Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. But now, he is Maximus Decimus Meridius, and this is Gladiator.