Author Vic James, who has written one of the very best books we've ever read in Gilded Cage. We asked Vic to give us a breakdown of her very favourite scenes from Gladiator.
“My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius, commander of the Armies of the North, general of the Felix legions, loyal servant to the true emperor Marcus Aurelius. Father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife. And I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next.”
Sure, the CGI tigers are naff. Derek Jacobi’s scenes as Senator Gracchus are when I always nip out to the loo. And that theme song spawned dozens of unforgivably bad imitations. But there is no limit to the number of times I will sob my way through Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000) in which Russell Crowe’s Roman general exacts revenge against the man who betrayed him and killed his family.
For my birthday a couple of years ago I hired a screening theatre and made all my friends watch it with me. I’m actually tearing up right now re-reading some favourite scenes on WikiQuotes. Lost cause over here.
Choosing only one scene is almost impossible. Third place goes to the moment Joaquin Phoenix’s Commodus is told by his philosopher-emperor father Marcus Aurelius that he will never rule Rome. “You wrote to me once, listing the four chief virtues: wisdom, justice, fortitude and temperance. As I read the list, I knew I had none of them,” Commodus says, before murdering his father with tears in his eyes. It’s a monstrous act, and yet disturbingly understandable.
Second place is Commodus’s rivetingly nasty bedtime story for his nephew about how ‘busy little bees’ conspired against an emperor, until one confessed her treachery – after being threatened with seeing the one she loved most killed. The story is told, of course, for the benefit of the boy’s mother, Commodus’s sister Lucilla. Connie Nielson is astonishing, vulnerable yet fiercely intelligent, in a role that could so easily have been merely a romantic foil to Maximus and (yuk!) her brother.
And that’s what makes Gladiator so phenomenally good. You care deeply about all the characters. Even supporting roles like Oliver Reed’s Proximo and Djimon Hunsou’s Juba get deep backstory and killer lines of dialogue.
My favourite scene, though, is when Maximus reveals his identity to Commodus in the arena. It makes my heart clench every time. Because the hero’s big reveal isn’t the end of the twists and turns of this classic revenge drama. It’s where everything just gets started.
What will Commodus do, now that he knows the man who was supposed to govern Rome in his place still lives? Whose side will Lucilla pick? And will Maximus be able to exact his revenge – and realise a dream of a better Rome – without compromising his honour?
This scene ratchets the emotional and dramatic tension up to a 10, and then (those Gracchus moments aside) keeps it there all the way to a finale that has me bawling like a baby Every. Single. Time.
Gladiator is all that I love most in a story, and inevitably my Dark Gifts trilogy (beginning with Gilded Cage) shares some of those themes: dark and despicable characters who nonetheless demand sympathy; intelligent, determined women navigating a world that’s stacked against them; ‘heroes’ who have to work out if they can act both purely and with purpose.
Which is just as well, because by the time Gilded Cage hits bookshops I will have read and re-read it as many times as I’ve watched Gladiator.