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Having seen and reviewed Titus (check out my Archives), I was floored at how close this story was to that. All it lacked was the complicated sub-plots and the emotional intensity. Basically, Gladiator is Titus for those who love action more than Shakespeare. It's good to see a version of this story where people can enjoy bloody sword fights without heavy emotional investment, where good and bad are nicely segregated, like oil and water, and clash only to make a tasty salad dressing.
This is not to say that Gladiator wasn't emotionally intense: Russell Crowe gets to see the remains of his slaughtered family (off-camera except for a foot), and destroyed home and vineyard. But in Julie Taymor's Titus, adapted from Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus, we see the hero's daughter mutilated and left alive to haunt the rest of the movie like a gruesome, vengeful, tongue-less ghost. And that's just one horrific element. We see pure evil, cannibalism, insanity, banishment and one of the bloodiest revenges in screen history. That's Titus. In Gladiator, we get more heart-warming moments: Crowe makes friends even in slavery. He shows his true leadership and his good heart even as he is betrayed. And many women will swoon over his rugged good looks, whereas Anthony Hopkins (as Titus Andronicus) is a great actor, but homely by comparison.
Crowe's character (we'll call him Crowe to avoid confusion) is offered the throne by Caesar only to have it taken from him by an evil backstabbing character, whose name I can't remember. For now, let's call him "Mr. Mean." (That's close enough for show biz.) Titus Andronicus, in the Shakespeare play, is also offered the throne, but turns it town for retirement. This puts the flaky Saturnine in line for the throne, and he garners it with a little bit of double-(you)-dealing. Saturnine falls under the spell of the Goth Queen Tamura, creating a big problem for Titus since he had murdered Tamura's first born son in the prior war. When she becomes the empress, she begins to exact a sly and wrenching vengeance upon him aided by her black-hearted man-genie Aron. Whereas Crowe drops suddenly from hero to zero, Titus writhes in the slow stripping of his power, watches his sons get slain one by one, gets shut out by the once-sympathetic senate, and, at last, is banished. (Pronounce the last word with three syllables, Ban-I-shed.) You can see that Titus is much more complicated. Crowe simplifies it all, and even eschews old-timey language to deliver the story of a hero, fallen, who pulls himself back up to glory.
Not only does Crowe deliver a period piece in easy-to-get modern language, he also throws in tons of fight scenes. And tigers! It's very exciting for what it is. The length of the epic is filled out by its share of expensive war extravaganzas, trials, tribulations, and, of course, gladiating. And there are sad moments too-I mean, the dude's family is killed! In a way, that's a very convenient death for the script because it means that Crowe can act without any conscience, without any scruples. As long as his family is alive, he must behave a certain way, the hope of being reunited with them burning in his breast and spurring him on to be a good man who does not kill in cold blood. But, dagnabbit, we want to see some fighting! So it is the storywriter as much as the evil minions of Mr. Mean who kill Crowe's family. And now Crowe can deliver on the blood!
At last, and after more excitement than more two-and-a-half-hour movies dish out, Mr. Mean gets his inevitable due, and we can cheer for joy. Don't think much about the tale: the main thing is that we are introduced to characters with the same charisma (and depth) as pro wrestlers. We get to watch them fight, and we see a grand spectacle at the end.
Incidentally, I always find it funny how so many war movies spend such huge budgets on glorious war scenes in order to deliver the message that war is hell. A paradox...
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