Wednesday, July 01, 2015

834. Gladiator/300/Immortals

I've talked about Gladiator here in the past.  I've talked about Immortals, too.  I love both of them.  I don't think I've talked about 300, but rest assured I love it, too.

What fascinates me is that all three exist, and because of that, people are free to compare them.  Inevitably, there are in fact unfavorable comparisons, which seem to enter the picture only when talking about Immortals, the newest of the three and the one to impact pop culture least spectacularly, even though it was a hit at the box office.

I decided to talk about them in relation to three common utterances:

  • Gladiator - "On my command, unleash hell."
  • 300 - "Spartans, ready your breakfast and eat hearty, for tonight we dine in hell!"
  • Immortals - "Witness hell."
Each time, the speaker is also the embodiment of the movie itself, and each time, it is completely different, and so this is a good way to compare and contrast the experiences.

In Gladiator, the speaker is Maximus, the main character portrayed by Russell Crowe in arguably what remains his most famous and significant role.  He says his version in the least threatening way possible, which is odd because he's leading his Roman legion into battle, but also completely indicative of the modest man he is, how he represents the whole point of the movie, the man who defies the mad emperor because he's not obsessed with power, despite every opportunity to seize it.

In 300, the speaker is Leonidas, the main character portrayed by Gerard Butler in the role that made his career and often considered the version of Crowe's Maximus you might expect simply on a visual level.  It is the most ridiculously masculine part ever committed to film, every bit the match for the stylized visuals that propelled 300 to great popular acclaim.  To call Leonidas brash would be an understatement.

In Immortals, the speaker is Hyperion, the character portrayed by Mickey Rourke.  What's interesting, and perhaps key to understanding the whole movie, whether in relation to Gladiator or 300, is that his is very much the part embodied by Leonidas and Maximus, but played to its logical conclusion.  This is the brute who is the villain, at last, the lunatic who immediately cuts the throat of the hero's mother after uttering his variation on the hell dialogue.

It's a logical progression all the way.  Gladiator was released in 2000, won the Oscar for Best Picture, and because it basically contradicted every expectation, is still a puzzle for critics.  300 was released in 2007 and was a surprise hit at the box office, but unlike Sin City or Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, other highly stylized movies, has managed to not only gain but retain a favorable reputation, in part because it was the movie Gladiator was expected to be: the modern historical epic in all its glory.  Immortals was released in 2011, and was immediately compared to 300, marketed in relation to it, and otherwise not at all taken seriously, perhaps because it, too, was highly stylized, propelled almost completely by its visuals rather than in conjunction with an actor like Butler, going for the gusto.  It stars Henry Cavill in his one major role prior to Man of Steel, but Rourke makes a bigger impact, because he's the one playing the part that everyone expects from a movie like this.

By this time, Rourke had already completed his comeback, and everyone was kind of over it.  It was Sin City that helped revive interest in his career, but The Wrestler that pushed Rourke as far as he was ever going to go (only to lose the Oscar for Best Actor to Sean Penn).  By the time Immortals was released, he'd already appeared in Iron Man 2, which is generally considered to be one of the worse Avengers films (though not by me).  Crowe's career was made by Gladiator, just as Butler's was by 300.  Immortals didn't have that opportunity, for Rourke or Cavill; by the time it was released everyone knew the latter had been cast as Superman.

But whether or not Immortals is well-regarded is beside the point, whatever it did or did not do for its actors.  Creatively it made definite choices, as did its predecessors.  Taken as a whole, there's ample room for analysis, which reflects favorably on all of them.  Rourke's line is the shortest of the three, which is completely symbolic of the film around it, which is much more interested in making a point of how chaotic the idea of incorporating the larger myths that tended to surround this material when it was originally developed, in ancient days.  John Hurt is one of two actors portraying Zeus in the movie, along with Luke Evans.  The trick is that Hurt is not generally understood to be Zeus, because he interacts with Cavill's Theseus in the guise of an old man, our hero none the wiser.  Cavill as the hero, although he looks and acts like the hero, begins from a position of weakness, of powerlessness, and as such that's another reason why he can't be compared to Maximus or Leonidas.  He does eventually stand in front of an army and give an inspiring speech, and like the other heroes dies at the end of his story, but what Immortals understands so well, and what is so difficult for the audience to understand, is that this is a man caught up, well, in hell.

And thus we circle back to that other thing that unites these movies, those utterances that are as equally united in character as they are different in tone and execution, but speaking to each other just as much as the movies do in relation to each other, why Immortals can't be thought of without 300 and 300 without Gladiator.  A vicious little circle.

I think it's a mistake to consider similar things as needing to be considered together.  These are films with vastly different objectives artistically.  Gladiator is a lament, 300 a spectacle, Immortals a meditation.  We are meant to reflect on the heroism embodied by their lead characters, but again, the kind of heroism differs.  Leonidas is in fact a king, something Maximus steadfastly refuses to be, and Theseus is rejected by the army, initially, because he is the logical extension of Maximus, a modest man who only wants to fight for his home.  That's what they're all doing, and being pushed to something greater, being pushed all the way to sacrifice.  But the journeys are different.  And each fascinating in their own way.

When I consider these movies, I don't really see them in relation to each other.  I became interested in them for different reasons, like them for different reasons, and in fact like them to varying degrees, not because one or the other pails in comparison, but because of their own merits.  In their own ways, they each embody the art of film-making remarkably, though, and that's something I admire equally in all three.


Pat Dilloway said...

I've seen all of those but Gladiator is the only one I like, at least until the end where Rome supposedly becomes a republic again, which was as historically accurate as 300. Have you ever read Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield? That was a really awesome book on the 300 Spartans that would have been a much better movie.

Michael Abayomi said...

I am still yet to see Immortals, but I also loved Gladiator and 300. Perhaps I'd give it a chance someday, if only because you've highlighted some of its merits in relation to the other two.

Tony Laplume said...

Pat, as far as historic war-type writers, I'd probably end up reading Bernard Cornwell first.

Michael, good to hear.


Gladiator is my favorite, but I love the style that Snyder and Larry Fong do in their movies together. Watchmen and suckerpunch inpatiular are visualy great.

Tony Laplume said...

Thank you for being able to appreciate Sucker Punch.

Pat Dilloway said...

You should read Cornwell. He's awesome. I loved his Arthurian books. I have some of his Saxon ones on my Kindle to read at some point.

Spacerguy said...

Commodus was cold, he thought he could rig the games by playing dirty tricks. I enjoyed watching the grand finale.

Tony Laplume said...

A true conniving villain.

The Armchair Squid said...

Gladiator is the only one of the three I've seen.

Tony Laplume said...

It remains the most revered of them, even if people soon enough started to dispute its Oscar worthiness.

Maurice Mitchell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Maurice Mitchell said...

I had a long-winded rant about your comment on our Fantastic Four reviews, but never mind. It's all good. You are entitled to your opinion. Again, sorry about your Mom and I wish you all success in your endeavors.


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