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Thoughts on Gladiator on a Snowy, December Afternoon

My family had fifteen or so large trees — including a few, hundred-foot pines — cut down around our home a month ago. We’ve been cleaning up the ample mess since, pecking away at it, doing a lot of brush burning. Today, my oldest son came home early from work and he and I were outside tending to a pile of smoldering limbs and other, assorted arboreal debris. It was seasonally cold and a busy breeze was at work; a half-inch of snow blanketed most of the ground. The combination of guttering flames and damp wood made the air predictably smokey. Languid snowflakes were falling; not enough to collect much, but swirling around us.

“This reminds me of the beginning of Gladiator,” my twenty-seven year old said.

Thereby demonstrating I’ve had at least some influence on him …

I’m told the magisterial opening scene of that, my favorite, movie was filmed to mesmerically atmospheric effect on a wintry day in a then-recently harvested stand of timber called Bourne Wood, in Farnham, Surrey, England. Thus, the widespread wreckage of felled trees you can spy if, through the wheeling snowflakes, you watch that sequence closely.

Much, I’d say, like my backyard on this chilly, snowy, early-winter’s day here in New Hampshire.

If we had a short month of weather like this, and then it began immediately warming up, I’d welcome the winter. I’ll admit, it’s a nice change, certainly splendid for Christmas time — although by late January it will already be getting old.

Anyway, 2000’s Gladiator, directed by Ridley Scott and starring Russel Crowe in the title role, addresses some of my favorite themes: loyalty (contrasted joltingly with villainous disloyalty), devotion to duty, male friendship, love of family. As the film’s tag line arrestingly puts it: “The general who became a slave. The slave who became a gladiator. The gladiator who defied an emperor.”

And, although as a Christian I don’t buy into the flick’s implied “everyone-automatically-goes-to-heaven” theology, the strikingly “spiritual” representation of its heroic main figure stayed with me. He carries with him, throughout, an eternal perspective (“What we do in life, echoes in eternity!”). His dogged anticipation of an inevitable, after-life reunion with his slain family helps him surmount a near fatal brush with despair. It’s all so beautifully, so compellingly rendered I was numb for a good while following my initial viewing.

This motion picture is chiefly why Russel Crowe, to this day, remains my favorite actor. Flatly put, he’s just very, very cool in this movie — and turns in an exceptionally effecting performance as an intensely honorable (“Strength and Honor”) but broken man who, nonetheless, doesn’t permit the most nightmarish circumstances to pummel him into curling up and dying.

In my book, it’s not merely Gladiator‘s explosive, hypnotically-choreographed, and admittedly very violent, battle scenes which set it apart. For instance, a brief rooftop exchange between Crowe’s “Maximus” and “Juba” (Djimon Hounsou) — his African rescuer and fellow gladiator, who becomes his close companion — in which the latter dissuades the former from giving up on living, remains one of my favorite cinematic moments of all time. It’s a restrained, bittersweet portrait — one, I suspect, routinely skated over by many a casual viewer of Gladiator — poignantly evoking the sacred obligation of treasuring life (ironic, I admit, for a flick that revolves around armed combat); and potently modelling the truth of Proverbs 27:9: “Ointment and perfume delight the heart, And the sweetness of a man’s friend gives delight by hearty counsel.” So much so that, here I am writing about it some thirteen years after this film’s release.

By the way, Gladiator‘s unforgettable, sometimes haunting, soundtrack is among the most stirring I’ve heard. One Hans Zimmer/Lisa Gerrard, other-worldly melody, coupled with the movie’s closing moments? Wow — I remember gasping aloud in the theater. I know it’s corny to say so, but it’s definitely goose-bump time.

Yup, quite unexpectedly, this all got kindled inside me while standing with my oldest son in my backyard earlier today. It’s surprising what a bout of outside work, attended by a perceptively nostalgic observation, can inspire.

Which further reminds me why great cinema, despite the way it’s so grievously misused anymore, is a force that must be reckoned with by those who want to shape the culture.

Image: Courtesy of: Screen Shot, Gladiator,

Steve Pauwels

Steve Pauwels is pastor of Church of the King, Londonderry, NH and host of Striker Radio with Steve Pauwels on the Red State Talk Radio Network. He's also husband to the lovely Maureen and proud father of three fine sons: Mike, Sam and Jake.

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