The Gladiator, directed by Ridley Scott is the modern cinematic example of a classic formulaic tragedy. Its main character Maximus is the picture of an archetypal tragic hero. Following the main plot points of a Greek Tragedy, the film portrays Maximus’ original state of power and prestige and then his sudden fall from fortune. His hamartia (fatal flaw) is the cause of this fall and exhibits itself in his inability to set aside his rigid morality in order to save his own life. This leads to the murder of his family and the loss of his title and power. This is followed by the rise and then by a moment of catharsis where the hero’s suffering is met with a satisfying end. Maximus sits comfortably alongside a number of historical fictional, Greek heroes that originally figure headed the genre. There is a clear emphasis on the archetype and the formulaic build of a tragedy that was laid out by the philosopher Aristotle. This makes the piece a heavily character-driven film that works within genre conventions. Scott employs a wide range of cinematic techniques in order to create a masterful piece of tragic drama that accurately conveys the conventions of the genre itself as it was in ancient times, as well as adding newer aspects to make it more impactful to a modern audience. Two scenes that, when compared are excellent representations of the fall of the tragic hero, are the first where Maximus is rallying his troops before a major battle which he is confident they will win and one that occurs after his family has been murdered and he has been wounded and collected by slavers and taken across the desert. Each scene’s composition is crafted in order to portray this dramatic shift in fortunes.
The first scene in the film is the set up of Maximus’ role as the tragic hero. It is an essential moment in time for his character and the moment where the audience is shown his initial good fortune and high social status. A key component to this is the symbolism used within it in order to begin ideas and motifs which are carried throughout the film. One of these symbols is the imagery of animals and nature. The opening shot of the film is of Maximus’ hand with his wedding band running through golden wheat, this is later known to be his memories of home and family. After a close-up shot a Maximus’ worried face, the director cuts to a shot of a European Robin perched on a twig. A close-up shot shows Maximus’ face clearing as he watches the Robin and he even smiles slightly as it flies away. The Robin has been known as a spirit animal for thousands of years, it is also seen as a symbol of divine sacrifice. The director draws focus to it as there are connections between the Robin and Maximus’ family later on. It is foreshadowing their fate if they had not died Maximus would not have risen to free Rome from Commodus thus making their deaths divine sacrifices. The director focusses on Maximus’ reaction to the bird using close-ups because it illustrates the fact that he is emotional and comforted by his family. They calm him and bring out the gentleness in his personality, even on the brink of battle and the audience can see this in his face. The close up shot immediately after the bird has flown away is also purposeful as it shows Maximus being lifted from his revelry and woken to reality. The following cut is a pan and then a long shot of a wasteland battlefield where trees have been burnt to stumps and the air is grey with smoke. This represents the idea that later in the film, when his family is taken from him, Maximus is forced to face the reality that is a burning Roman Empire. Also in this scene is multiple shots of a dog, it is filmed alongside the men who Maximus is riding past as he rallies them. This dog runs alongside Maximus and breaks away from his chains to follow him. Dogs represent loyalty, brotherhood and pack mentality. The director uses a wide shot of the scene to show relationships between the men, the dog and Maximus. Scott is Maximus is a good leader and is looked up to by his men, the dog is a symbol for these men and its loyalty is a metaphor for theirs. The dog breaking away from his chains in order to follow Maximus is a representation of the later events in the film where Maximus’ old troops are willing to betray their emperor in order to save him. The dog follows him keenly into battle, the mid shot of them running at the same pace shows their equality, but Maximus slightly ahead showing that he is still a brave and courageous leader. He is also raised on his steed above his men at the start of the scene. Horses represent freedom and power in many cultures and therefore are symbolic of his position as general. The director’s focus on them helps to influence the audience’s view of Maximus as a good leader and heroic figure. For him to fulfil his role as a tragic hero he must first be seen as a hero by the audience so that they later feel pity and fear for him when his fate is reversed.
In the scene involving the slavers collecting Maximus’ wounded and seemingly limp form from next to his families grave, we are seeing Maximus at his lowest. The shot taken from the ground angle of him lying down helps to highlight this moment of defeat. This is his fall as a tragic hero. His character’s literal and metaphorical rock bottom has been reached and it is a turning point in the plot. The following scene is somewhat of a revelation and rebirth. The symbolism, largely nature-based, helps to enhance this idea. An initial horizontal long shot of a sun rising which has been sped up is cut quickly to a moment of blackout and then to a close up of Maximus’ face as he moves across the rocks. Again a metaphor for rock bottom. He has risen and has now returned to the dust and earth. The next shots in the sequence are the same shot from the first scene of his hand running through the wheat fields, the diegetic sound of a child’s laughter echoes, again the director shows that he remembering his family. This is followed by a long shot of a wild, white horse. White horses represent freedom as well as salvation. They are also symbols of death in Christianity. This idea is highlighted in the next line of dialogue spoken which is “Don’t die”. This series of images is overridden by what sounds like an angelic song. This makes the clips into somewhat of a montage. Ridley Scott uses strong imagery that is edited in succession to show the audience Maximus’ moment of recognition as a tragic hero. It is a religious moment for him and the directors choice of imagery and diegetic sounds manipulates the audience to see it as such. Another symbolistic element in the scene is the maggots in Maximus’ wound. A close-up shot of the gash is shown with the creatures crawling inside of it. The image is grotesque and the audience is repulsed by it and so, as a close up of his face shows, is Maximus. However, in reality, they are there to clean the wound, they are his salvation. This is a metaphor for his situation and the slavers who have captured him. They seem to be his enemy or suppressors but in fact, what they will offer him will eventually redeem him as a tragic hero and bring him Katharsis from his suffering. The director puts imagery to this complex moment of a tragic heroes life in order to show the audience his peripeteia and how this impacts his character. The audience is forced to see the hero from the previous scene who was surrounded by loyal dogs, beloved Robins and noble steeds to now be surrounded by maggots, feral monkeys and wild mountain lions. This shows his fall as a character.
Costumes are an extremely important aspect of this film. The ever-changing garb of Maximus is representative of his journey as a tragic hero. In the first scene, a close-up shows Maximus is dressed in armour, this represents his prestige at the time. Armour, especially the adorned kind he wears is indicative of a certain place within society. Being a general means he has the power of his status, the strength and respect of his men, victories under his belt and the trust of an emperor. It is a metaphorical protection as well as a physical one. He also has furs. Animal imagery, as aforementioned, is an important aspect of both scenes being examined. In this scene, he is accompanied by his loyal dog also representing his men. His fur skin cloke, possibly a wolf’s, is a physical show of this protection and relationship. In addition, there is the emblem of a wold or dog embossed on the front of his breastplate which further draws links between the dog and the position of general. A close-up and late a series of mid shots show the tunics Maximus and his men wear under their armour are a dark red or crimson. This was common of Roman-era military uniforms, the colour was associated with war due to the mythological idea that it was the colour of the Roman war god, Mars. In order to have this stand out in the scene, the general tone and lighting are grey and sombre, making the red of Maximus’ more relevant and notable. The colour has also been known to be a symbol of determination, strength, power, with connotations of fire and blood as well as with passion, love and desire. This shows the audience the duality of Maximus as not only a strong and successful leader but also as a passionate man of the people who possesses an emotive influence on those around him. This is a powerful theme in this scene and in the film as a whole. The audience must be able to view Maximus as passionate and influential as well as a courageous leader. The director has used costume in order to emphasize these heroic character traits.
Costume in the other scene is also extremely telling, in the scene where he is being taken away by the slavers. A close-up shot shows Maximus is dressed in a raggedy tunic. It is grey and extremely worn, covering very little of him. He comes to be wearing this when he is taken prisoner by the evil son of the assassinated emperor, Commodus. This removal of his previous clothing represents being stripped of his status by the sudden turn of events. He has his armour and thereby his power, his men and his place in society, taken away from him. This is his sudden turn of fortune; he has been reduced to nothing but a slave, and this is represented in his costume. Unlike his armour the tunic is thin and leaves much of his skin bare, leaving him vulnerable and unprotected. He only gains this protection back when he builds himself up as a gladiator later on in the film, where costume once again reflects his rise as a hero. Where before there was red in his costume, it is now grey. Grey is a colour connotes with nothing, it has no strong or passionate emotions attached to it other than defeat or sadness. As opposed to the last scene where Maximus was dressed in colours that were in contrast with the grey lighting and camera filter, this time Maximus’ is grey in contrast to the warm, yellow-orange filter of the desert. This represents that at this moment, Maximus has somewhat given up. However, a last physical remnant of his former bravery and power is in his wound. It is red, just as his uniform was and it represents his latest attempt at survival. It is the last remains of his spirit as a general and is a metaphor for his will to live. This means the audience see him still as a hero, but now as one who is fighting for his chance to rise from his sudden fall.
In conclusion, Ridley Scott was very aware of the genre of tragedy and how his film played into it. He crafted elements within the piece to highlight changes and events in Maximus’ life which were essential parts of his journey as a tragic hero. Symbolism and imagery of certain animals were important tools in providing a metaphorical portrait of Maximus as a hero. The different animals and how they were emphasized in relation to him were effective methods of manipulating the audience into seeing him in a certain way. Differing connotations between the symbols used the two scenes were placed in order to create the defining moment of peripetia in Maximus’ journey as a tragic hero. The animal symbolism also acts as a tool for foreshadowing and for flashback motifs. The images are as meaningful to Maximus as a character as well as the audience. Followed through both scenes and throughout the film itself the symbolism of animals demonstrates the different points in Maximus’ fate. The role of costume is also important and portrays a lot to the audience about where Maximus is as a character. It’s colour, cut and fabric illustrate his position in society and his place in the continuum of his life as a tragic hero. The two aspects combine are key tools that the director uses for showing the audience Maximus’ character. This helps develop character and make him a pitiable as well as an admirable figure for the audience to invest in throughout the piece. This is essential for an effective tragedy to be executed.