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Gladiator and The Patriot Glorify Violence

From the LA Times, 7/25/00:

These Heroes Have Taken a Hypocritical Oath

The protagonists of 'The Patriot' and 'Gladiator' talk about loving peace, but when push comes to shove, their violence is what we are told to love.

By DEBORAH HORNBLOW, Hartford Courant

Set the Patriot and the Gladiator side by side and they could be twins.

Blood-sporting brothers.

Although the costumes don't match and the periods and places are different, Mel Gibson's mythical Revolutionary War fighter Benjamin Martin and Russell Crowe's sword-and-sandal-wearing gladiator Maximus are essentially the same guy: an ingeniously crafted, richly hypocritical mix of sentimentality and savagery.

Cue the conflicted assassin, the natural-born killer who's in touch with his inner Gandhi. Open the Fight Club.

In both films—action-packed, well-crafted and seductive as they are—audiences are being bonded to a pretender, a faux man made of equal parts New Age dude, domesticated dad and caveman—the last bit being the finally triumphant, alpha-male compulsion of pure mano-a-mano, killing combat.

Both Maximus and Martin are distinguished by their alleged distaste for violence.

They hate it.

They really do.

They also happen to be bloody good at it.

Fueled by vengeance, and, when it's convenient, a nascent patriotism, both men are killing machines. Terminators who wave the flag.

Minus the for-Caesar or for-country part of the formula, we have seen the likes of Maximus and Martin before. Consider Clint Eastwood's rogue cop Harry Callahan in "Dirty Harry" and its sequels, Charles Bronson's businessman-turned-vigilante Paul Kersey in the "Death Wish" series and even mild-mannered Harrison Ford's Jack Ryan, whose family is threatened by Irish terrorists in "Patriot Games." But when those guys murdered and maimed and sought revenge, they took a certain honest satisfaction in the job. There were no flinches, no scene-stopping pauses for close-ups of inner turmoil, no wincing regrets. They never pretended to hate the job so that audiences could like it.

What "Gladiator" and "The Patriot" illustrate is how far politically correct thinking has invaded our culture and our psyches. Both films constitute a kind of theater for the brainwashed.

"The Patriot" and "Gladiator" do their utmost to say that violence is abhorrent and then go to extreme pains to justify it. In a tradition that is no stranger to Hollywood, both films seduce the audience into excusing—and cheering—acts of reprehensible brutality. Audiences are presented with infinitely sympathetic protagonists who are so torn up about violence that they must be excused for resorting to it. They must be forgiven. Justified. Validated. It is, after all, the sensitive man's imperative.

In the trailer for "The Patriot," a narrator intones lines like: "They threatened his family. . . . They destroyed his home. . . . They killed his child."

Well, what's a man to do?

The too obvious answers are shoot, kill, maim and destroy. Get even.

Oh, yeah. And wave the flag at the end so the purpose assumes loftier ideals.

"The Patriot" and "Gladiator" arouse the audiences' sympathies for their protagonists—both of whom are farmers and fathers. Such soulful guys would sooner till their fields and raise their children than fight. But they have no choice. Right? The violence comes to them. They both suffer the loss of an innocent child. Both must kill or be killed. And both do it for their country. In the end, we are asked to believe that it isn't revenge at all. Gibson's Martin is fighting for his country.

Crowe's Maximus pledges his life for Rome. Both sacrifice a great deal for visions of an ideal society, and for a civility and a harmony they mean to be their legacy.

But about that hatchet. . . .

Without having timed the sequences with a stopwatch, it's fair to say that more than two-thirds of "Gladiator" is made up of sanguineous fight scenes. Imagine a film that loathes violence so completely it devotes more than half of its screen time to it. Audiences are reduced to the level of the Roman "mob" whose mentality and behavior is derided by the film's higher-minded characters. Cheering wildly from the Colosseum's tiers (or the cushy cineplex stadium seats), the hordes treat one man's pain or death as entertainment. It's World Wrestling Federation with cooler costumes and grimmer outcomes.

"The Patriot" tries a bit harder in the dialogue and character development departments, but the film's most elaborate scenes involve military campaigns and brutal conflict.

Martin's commitment to pacifism is quickly strained when the war comes to his front door. Director Roland Emmerich is especially good at creating the sickening feeling that develops when war literally comes home.

In short order, one of Martin's children is killed before his eyes and the rest are threatened. In the first—but far from the last—scene of murderous violence, Emmerich's camera moves in close to study Gibson's face as Martin contends with a rush of conflicting emotion: grief, rage, his commitment to pacifism (inspired by his idealized dead wife), blood-boiling violence. The audience watches as Martin first subdues his impulses toward revenge but is finally overwhelmed. In a matter of minutes, the pacifist becomes his former self. Somewhere in this transformation, we are to understand that Martin is fighting for a new nation called America, not for vengeance, but the plot line more closely resembles a revenge play.

It is telling that, in the film's most ethically challenging scene, Martin, the man who worried about the atrocities his children might witness in the event of war, gives them the ugliest display they will be subject to in the course of the film.

In the end, both films put audiences in the awkward—and for some, untenable—position of applauding barbarism. We root for the killer because, well, what would you do if war came to your frontyard?

But what both films—and many films before them—insist upon is the justification of mad cycles of vengeance. The most dangerous aspect of these films is that they give violence a nobility.

Watching the battle scenes in both "The Patriot" and "Gladiator," in which columns of men—young and old—line up against columns of the "enemy" men, one is struck by nothing so much as their similarity to one another. One longs for a scene such as the one in Jean Renoir's great antiwar classic "Grand Illusion" in which two "enemies" recognize their sameness, or "All Quiet on the Western Front," in which a soldier spends the night in a foxhole with his dead enemy.

Or, perhaps, the quiet heroism of Gary Cooper in 1952's "High Noon," where he stands up to the bad guys on the eve of his retirement as town sheriff and the day after he marries Grace Kelly, a Quaker. He is not supported by the town and throws his tin badge into the dirt on his way out of town.

Best of all would be movies with no violence. Movies that put volleys of dialogue (remember dialogue?) in place of volleys of bullets or cannonballs.

In one of the best scenes in "The Patriot," Martin meets Tom Wilkinson's Gen. Cornwallis. It is a meeting of equals, two men who have more in common and more natural sympathy than they are allowed to explore. They exchange a rash of words and ideas. They act according to a code of behavior that distinguishes them both as civilized, honorable men.

What a shame it never seems to last.

Copyright 2000 Los Angeles Times. All Rights Reserved

Comment:  You can apply the same thinking to almost every superhero comic. Your typical superhero doesn't do anything to solve the real problems of the economy, education, or the environment. Instead, he flies or swings around looking for petty criminals, sure about the justness of his cause. He exists as a paean to short-term, reactive solutions rather than long-term, proactive ones—solutions that inevitably require "reluctant" violence.

If superheroes really cared about improving the world, they'd probably hang up their uniforms and apply their strength and intelligence to building infrastructure, spreading literacy, or cleaning up the air and water. Then adults might take superheroes seriously and comics might do better. Hmm...we can't have that, can we?

Addendum:  Perhaps because it's so typically American, Gladiator won the Oscar for best picture of 2000. Here's a fitting comment on the Oscar competition. From an editorial in the LA Times, 3/23/01:

Competition makes entertainment, as long as you're sitting outside the splatter zone. Eighteen hundred years ago it was leopards versus tigers, lions versus Christians, gladiators versus gladiators. In the 1860s, Easterners took picnic lunches to watch the Battle of Manassas. Tonight, it's "Gladiator" versus everyone else.

It is, however, instructive to remember on this Oscar night just who was responsible for ending the ceaseless gore and meaningless murders that went unrated as entertainment in that older Coliseum, which also needs renovation. It was, in historical fact, another wave of bearded barbarians from the north. They finally conquered Rome and its civilization. The hairy newcomers were appalled at the gore and blood spilled for mere entertainment. As an early reform, the barbarians banned gladiator contests.

Barbarism, like fame, it seems, lies in the eye of the beholder.

Related links
Fun 4th of July facts
Violence in America
America's cultural mindset

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Original text and pictures © copyright 2007 by Robert Schmidt.

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