I Scoff at “Gladiator”

December 1, 2008 at 11:34 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 11 Comments

The first thing to know about history and Hollywood is that if you know anything about history, you have to make a conscious decision to enjoy historical films as fantasy or science fiction, not history.  This is why I personally really enjoyed 300 and A Knight’s TaleGladiator, too, is a highly entertaining film.  Blockbusters!  What can you say?  You’ve got a great story and drama and battles and special effects and music and costumes and… and… and… Might I suggest a line item in the budget for a staff historian?

If you want to screw up a historical film as much as possible, you’ve got a lot of ground to cover, so set your alarm extra early.  You have to make sure that people are the wrong ages for a given time period.  You have to get names wrong.  You have to include modern items, attitudes, and language.  You should also make sure to have as many anachronisms as possible, and these alone can involve an enormous spectrum of mistakes:  Technology, politics, crops and animals, clothing… For clothing alone, you have the opportunity to include not just ridiculous cuts and styles, but fabrics and even colors!  You can then go on to invent things wholesale and just stick them in wherever you feel like it.  Screwing up history is easy and fun.

I’m going to focus more on the tangible here.  Honestly, other people covered a lot of the errors in Gladiator back when it came out, such as the fact that there was no contemporary suspicion of murder in the death of Marcus Aurelius, and Commodus was killed in a wrestling match, not a sword fight.  Not to ruin anything, but Marcus Aurelius also made Commodus a caesar when he was only 5, and augustus at age 16, so his place in the succession had always been secure, meaning the whole Maximus/Commodus thing had no juice in the first place.  Or that “Maximus Decimus Meridius” would not have been referred to by his first name, and that his middle name (or nomen) is in the wrong format.  Or howlers like “Rome was founded as a Republic” when it was actually a monarchy, or “There’s always been a Senate” when there was at least some period of time before Romulus installed it that there was indeed not a Senate.  Blah blah blah.

The thing about Gladiator is that some of it appears to have been very well researched.  It’s confusing.  It’s good to know, though, that not everything in the movie was so incorrect as to suggest pure cynicism, laziness, or habitual drug use.  (Oops, was that my out-loud voice?)

Rocket Scientist and I finally sat down to watch this, erm, epic on Thanksgiving morning, notepads in hand.  It took us about half an hour to make it through the first battle scene, because we had to keep pausing and backtracking.  This was partly due to stunned disbelief and partly due to outright laughter.  Some of the cavalry (or “calvary” the only time it was pronounced in the film) were using stirrups, not used in Europe prior to the 6th century AD.  The archers were wearing medieval hauberks (to be distinguished from the lorica hamata) and leg armor (wrong) and Norman helmets.  Some of the chain mail was of a larger gauge than the arrows, making it not only historically inaccurate but also totally non-functional.  A couple of the Romans wore cravats, perfect for the 18th century but not documentable before early 16th century Croatia.  A dramatic scene featured a German Shepherd dog, possibly a mixed breed, but still showing enough identifiable German Shepherd features that we shouldn’t be seeing it in a movie set before 1899, the year the breed emerged.

Let’s pull back a moment and talk about historical documentation.  I’ll make an example of my brother, who became peeved when he found out we were reviewing Gladiator for historical accuracy.  He wanted me to admit that we couldn’t prove the Romans didn’t have these things we claimed were anachronisms.  Well, sure – 20th century Romans!  It’s a truism that there is no such thing as negative proof.  For instance, is it possible to prove that intelligent life does not exist on alien planets?  Since we can’t ever really prove the nonexistence of something, we also can’t logically use this as an argument when attempting to document something.  I can’t prove the emperor Nero didn’t have an iPod – maybe he invented them but they all fell into the ocean and we had to reinvent them later – so I have to rely instead of providing evidence that things definitely did exist in particular times and places.

The way we document things historically is with sources.  A primary source is something that comes from the time and place under discussion, for instance an artifact (like a jar or a shoe), a painting, or a scroll.  A secondary source is something that discusses the primary source; for instance, an article from an archaeological journal with a map and a list of finds from a dig site, or even a contemporary written account of an event.  A tertiary source would be, for example, a wretchedly inaccurate novel or film, which the public then swallows whole as actual fact.  There’s more to historical documentation than proving that something existed in the second century CE, or that it was found in Rome.  The item needs to be shown in the appropriate context as well.  Would that person have used that thing at that time in precisely that way?

Example:  The catapult or ballista.  Okay, say you’ve actually proved that the Romans used such a device to throw ceramic pots of hot oil in battle.  Can you explain how such pots would shatter against a tree, rather than breaking the tree in half, and yet not shatter from the force of the battle engine itself?  My man Rocket Scientist, not only an engineer but a professional designer of military weapons, as well as a student of ancient and medieval military history, had a good hard laugh at this and had to rewind it to laugh at it again.  We also had some laughs at the battle formations and the layout of the Roman camps, for instace at the braziers placed a good 20 feet away from the tents with no people huddled near them.

What bothered me most was, perhaps, the costume of the Vandal warriors.  Come on.  Even Tollund Man had more sophisticated clothing than this, and he came from 400 BC.  The idea of snarling barbarians clad in little more than hides and furs dates way, way, WAY before the second century.  You’d be absolutely amazed at how early people were weaving fabrics in relatively complex patterns like plaids.

Now, back to our scoffing.  Okay, Lucilla’s hair and jewelry were really good.  I’ll grant you artistic license when her cosmetics and brow shaping look completely modern.  But her gowns!  The iridescent fabrics simply were not available to Romans – or medieval folk, or Victorian folk, for that matter.  I could bore you for hours about available dyestuffs, but let’s just say that the sage-green with carnation pink ribbon ensemble wouldn’t even have passed for pre-Raphaelite.  I’m not even gonna go there about the actual cut and style of any of her gowns.  I’ll just say that a toga or chiton is pretty much universally flattering and hope some Hollywood costumer stumbles across this revolutionary idea.

There are elements of Gladiator (other than Lucilla’s clothing) that suggest practical joking on the part of the props department.  For instance, there’s a passing glance at a row of helmets set out for the gladiators that includes a very fine replica of the Sutton Hoo helm, something so famous that it’s iconic, though unfortunately it dates to the early 7th century.  Right next to it is an excellent example of a Viking helmet of a style that appears in many places in the film, but nowhere in history outside of the 8th to 11th centuries.  These things are funny, maybe even funnier than the Norman helmets, but they’re not as funny as the non-historical helmets.  Meridius’s helmet, widely replicated by fantasy costumers, was just plain silly, though not as silly as the battle scenes in which he fights without wearing one.  But the other helmets, like the warthog and the lion head, were outright laughable.  The molded face mask with the sort of swooping gutter on the right-hand side would not have been technologically possible at that time.  We weren’t sure how it was put on, either.  Not to say that these things weren’t cool-looking and all.

All in all, I’d have to say that my favorite scene was right before Meridius is enslaved, when he is going to be executed by his guards and asks to die a soldier’s death.  You remember this?  He grabs the sword out of the hands of the guard standing behind him, then uses it to kill everybody and get away.  The sword cleanly slices through part of a helmet and a guard’s face.  So, um, how was Meridius able to grab the blade without cutting his hands?

The best thing I can say about Gladiator from the perspective of a historical costuming buff is that at least the 20th century anachronisms were accidental.  (Various sites exist to point out the accidental wristwatches, sunglasses, and tire tracks that can be seen in historical films).  Otherwise, there is something from nearly every one of 18 centuries for your viewing pleasure – a truly impressive feat and something not even accomplished by such films as Time Bandits, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, or The Time Machine.

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