The film Gladiator is famous for Russell Crowe’s Academy award-winning performance as well as its camerawork and cinematography. Director Ridley Scott employs significant formalism in the movie to convey Maximus’ message. Camera angles, such as low-angle or high-angle shots, are frequently used to depict power in various scenes. These types of angles are noticeable throughout the film. Furthermore, color symbolism plays a significant role in Gladiator’s cinematography.
Director Ridley Scott utilizes various types of shots to enhance his camerawork. According to author Louis Giannetti in the text “Understanding Movies,” shots are categorized based on the amount of human figure present in the frame (Giannetti, 2011, pg. 9). In chapter 9, at the 5-minute mark of the film Gladiator, a conspicuous display of formalism can be observed. This particular scene begins by showcasing a barren desert landscape devoid of any signs of life, illuminated by scant light. Subsequently, Maximus’ face is briefly shown in a close-up shot, creating an ethereal or afterlife-like visual effect.
The shot quickly transitions to a white wall with a closed wooden door. The shot evokes sadness due to the drastic change in color from the bright reds of the desert to the calm serenity of the blues. The sound of a child’s mystical laughter can be heard as Maximus’ hand once again touches the grain field, with the gentle wind blowing, creating a sense of freedom. Then we are brought back to the harsh rock, where he touches it in the same motion, but this time his eyes open in a close-up shot. It is as if he is completely consumed by the anguish of losing his family, transported to another world entirely.
The scene depicts a world with a flag being blown by the wind, a wild and free white horse, rapidly moving clouds and sky. Suddenly, a jackal growls and bites, snapping the protagonist out of this dreamlike state. The focus shifts to his wife and son once again, causing his voice to spiral out of control as if he is losing them all over again. The once free horse is now tamed and broken. Finally, the small figures of his wife and child appear, becoming something for him to hold onto in this new world. Above them, a transparent image of Maxiums is shown, chained with his hands held above him.
In chapter 25, 03:11 (Chapter 27, 00:28), the same shot of Maximus is shown. Maximus is dying. The scene cuts back to the white wall that symbolizes his thoughts about his family and home. Maximus is by a wooden door, gesturing to open it. However, he is interrupted by Quintus and pulled back into reality. As a general and servant of Roma, Maximus delivers his final speech. The camera zooms in on Maximus’ face, revealing his life slowly fading away. He appears caught between two worlds, accompanied by alternating music and the sound of a woman singing, joined by a child’s laughter.
Maximus collapses onto the floor in a strategically positioned long shot, capturing numerous details in the background, and Lucilla rushes to his side. Eventually, Lucilla instructs him to go to his family, which transitions into an otherworldly shot of him hovering above the ground, symbolizing the liminal space between this life and the next. Subsequently, Maximus is depicted in an extreme long shot alongside his family, with his son eagerly running towards him. This significant scene solidifies Maximus’ journey as his visions culminate in this moment. (Chapter 6, 0:44) Meanwhile, Marcus Aurelius confronts his son Commodus regarding his unwillingness to ascend to the throne of Roma.
In this sequence, the camera angle gradually increases as Marcus Aurelius and Commodus switch positions. Commodus is consistently shown from a low angle, emphasizing his dominance. (Chapter 21, 07:07) Commodus engages in a conversation with a senator about losing popularity to Maximus. The dark room setting and use of angles create a menacing portrayal of Commodus, who appears powerful and intimidating as he discusses his enemies coming to him. (Chapter 25, 00:13) The scene commences with a close-up shot of Commodus speaking in a threatening tone about his sisters’ betrayal.
The use of low-key lighting in the scene helps to establish the tone as a character approaches another and discusses the punishment he plans for her. The woman appears devastated, and the camera angle from above accentuates her state. As the conversation continues, the camera shoots Commodus from a low angle to emphasize his power over her (Chapter 3, 0:52). According to Louis Giannetti, in his book Understanding Movie, color is often a subconscious element in film (Giannetti, 2011, pg. 22). The scene features a dark carriage with dull colors, except for his sister’s fur, creating a somber atmosphere that differs from low-key lighting. Commodus discusses his father’s death while getting closer to his sister, with half of his face illuminated and the other half in shadow, creating uncertainty about his character (Chapter 4, 2:17). In this scene, Commodus and Maximus talk about their futures, with Maximus making it clear that he will not follow Commodus or anyone else. The lighting partially covers their faces with shadows (half covering and half shadowed).
The contrasting shadows on their faces depict them as opposites, adding to the intensity of the scene and conveying aggression and anger between the two men. The warm tones of red and yellow dominate the atmosphere in this chapter (5, 3:40), further heightening the tension. However, as the setting shifts to the war in the forest, the color palette shifts to cool tones, even during scenes of death and destruction. In contrast, within the tent where Maximus and Marcus Aurelius converse, there is a vibrant and bright color scheme.
The man discusses Maximus’ home, his child, his wife, and their land. The scene becomes relaxed and warm, enhanced by the bright colors that emphasize the setting. These vibrant colors convey a cheerful atmosphere rather than a somber one. According to Louis Giannetti in the book “Understanding Movies,” directors often desaturate bright colors, especially in serious or gloomy subject matters (Giannetti 2011, pg. 24). In Chapter 11 at 00:13, Maximus is depicted walking under a red-stained rope that covers his face and head with a red hue.
The director of the movie uses the color red to depict a change in Maximus’ nature and being (Chapter 1, 4:28). In Gladiator, there is a headless rider on a white stallion which represents the loss of purity. It serves as a call to war, setting up the battle and allowing the audience to see the barren, ravished lands in the background (Chapter 1, 5:01). Additionally, there is a long shot view of the barbarian army, juxtaposed with a plush green tree line. The Romans, depicted in gray tones, suggest a cold temperature (Chapter 1, 5:01).
The director introduced two distinct ways of presenting the barbarians, possibly symbolizing the ongoing battle between life and death, with the conquered eventually becoming the conquerors. This concept foreshadows Maximus’ own personal struggle for survival and freedom later in the film. The memorable line, “People should know when they are conquered,” signifies the overall theme of the movie and prompts the rhetorical question, “Would you Quintus? Would I?”. At 01:04 in Chapter 9, there is a visually striking extreme long shot capturing a vast desert landscape and a caravan believed to include Maximus. The vibrant colors in the shot, featuring reds and yellows, evoke a sense of aggression and intensity.
The purpose of including this shot was to highlight the stark contrast between the current scene and the previous extreme long shot in the war scene. I believe that a regular long shot would have been more effective in providing greater detail and comparison. (Chapter 14, 03:28) This particular shot is a medium shot, and I appreciate it because it showcases the bustling activity and the intricacies of the individuals present. It was a wise decision by the director to surround such an intense conversation between Proximo and Cassius with such chaotic details. (Chapter 15, 06:38) During the battle of Carthage scene, there are several close-up shots of Commodus, which portray his character as grotesque but thoroughly enjoying the spectacle of violence below. At an early stage, he demonstrates his thirst for action as long as he remains in control. This film showcases various instances of formalism and cinematography. Ultimately, it is the director’s responsibility to convey the message while it is up to the viewer to interpret it.
Giannetti, L. Understanding Movies. 12. New York: Allyn & Bacon, 2011. 1-546. Print.