The purpose of this series is to consider how film can be used to communicate the Biblical theme of ‘Transformation in the Wilderness’. In each edition we explore a film-hero's journey in key scenes and match them to their closest Bible character. By comparing the film hero’s journey to their Biblical counterparts, we will see the lesson being taught. This time round we will be looking at the award-winning epic by Ridley Scott, Gladiator.
The film follows the story of Maximus Decimus Meridius, a Roman General who is betrayed, sold into slavery and who later becomes a gladiator. We will use the art of film theory to analyse key scenes in his ‘wilderness transformation’. In addition, we will see how Maximus’ wilderness story is a type or a picture of Samson in The Bible. I will be exploring some truly remarkable parallels between the two stories, both of which are motivated by revenge. Maximus and Samson are men of great strength. Ultimately, the main difference we’ll see is that Maximus uses his strength to take vengeance for himself and those closest to him, while Samson uses his to take vengeance for God.
THE SET UP
The Emperor of Rome, Marcus Aurelius has just been murdered by his deranged son, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix). The Roman General, Maximus (Russell Crowe) has his suspicions aroused which is signified by his refusal to pledge allegiance to him, walking away from Commodus’ open invitation. For his transgression, Maximus is sentenced to death, along with his family. Miraculously, he is able to elude his Roman captors (his former brothers in arms) and races on horseback in a desperate attempt to save his wife and child from their fate.
Tragically, he arrives too late and discovers their bodies crucified in front of his burning home. This marks the turning point in the narrative and the beginning of our protagonists ‘Transformation in the Wilderness.’
1. He loses everything and is sold into slavery
Costume and lighting are used to communicate that Maximus has literally lost everything. We see him unconscious after seeing his dead wife and son. There is a dark attached shadow on his face which symbolises the shadow of death. His clothes are worn and tattered and he's lying in the dirt. This shows that his entire life has literally been reduced to dust and ashes.
In the following scene, Maximus has been enslaved. During an address by slave owner, Proximo (Oliver Reed), Maximus is lined up with other slaves and stripped down to the undergarments. This symbolises they have had everything stripped away.
...His entire life has literally been reduced to dust and ashes.
2. He is broken down
In the training scene with Hagen (Ralf Moeller), the men have their sword fighting skills put to the test. The acting in this scene is significant. Maximus is called out and handed a wooden sword. He gets up, only to throw the sword to the ground in contempt.
Hagen then deals two punishing blows to Maximus before Proximo tells him to relent. Maximus’ disillusioned facial expression never changes which shows he is a man with nothing to lose.
3. He forsakes his idols
The following scene with Juba (Djimon Hounsou) in the dark cell room marks the beginning of Maximus transformation in the wilderness. This is communicated through lighting, props and acting. Maximus is sitting in cast shadow with a single ray of light shining on his face. We see him cutting into his old Roman Tattoo with a sharp object. Juba observes his mark which bears the insignia (SPQR) and asks him, “Is that a sign of your gods?” Maximus smiles and nods in acknowledgement.
We see a nice keylight reflected in his eyes which is used to show a glimmer of renewed hope in his character. He is starting to let go of what he was before and beginning to embrace the life of a Gladiator. Much like the way God strips man of his idols during times of testing in the wilderness.
4. Blood leads him out of the wilderness
In a key scene, we see Maximus taken to his first Gladiatorial arena for battle. Animal guts and blood hang from the ceiling in the market place as he walks through. This symbolises a sort of baptism for his character. A rites of passage that awakens his inner fury.
Blood and the colour red is a recurring pattern in this sequence. Red has connotations of danger and rage while life is in the blood. For Maximus, both become an outward manifestation for his characters thirst for vengeance. This is the motivation for his character to move forwards.
5. He emerges from the wilderness as a new man
At the end of the sequence, we see the camera track down over a wooden cage with Maximus and the other slaves inside. Maximus is sharpening his blade in anticipation for a battle. The decor of the cage combined with the prop of the sword symbolises that Maximus’ character is like a caged animal waiting to be unleashed. But more significantly, his character has changed. His life force is revenge, his family’s demise a memory that drives him forward towards Commodus and the gladiator ring.
This is reinforced when he steps out of a dark corridor into the light of the arena. Here we see a great Biblical theme, namely, stepping out of darkness into the light of a new life. He now has brand new armour with a look of determination on his face. Rose petals fall down over him as if he is receiving a hero’s welcome. He then eliminates all his enemies in brutal fashion showing he has emerged as a new man.
WHY MAXIMUS AND SAMSON?
There are a number of truly incredible similarities between Maximus and his Biblical parallel, Samson. Both men are driven into the wilderness after having their families murdered (Judges 15:6b). Maximus emerges and single handedly slaughters an army of Gladiators, in the same way Samson slaughters the army of the Philistines (Judges 15:8, Judges 15:15-16). The thing that keeps Maximus alive on his journey is the favour of the Roman people, but for Samson it is the favour of God (Judges 14:6, 15:18-20)
Ultimately, these are both tales of revenge. It is the only motivating factor for both characters on their journeys. Maximus is driven by his thirst to kill Commodus, and Samson by his hate for the Philistines (Judges 15:7). They must then be tested and face various obstacles before they can be transformed. Interestingly, they both have to die in order for this transformation to be fully realised.
THE FATE OF ALL HEROES
At the end of Gladiator, Maximus succeeds in exacting his revenge for the death of his wife and son. But not before Commodus deals a lethal and ironic stab wound in his back, which ultimately kills him. Remarkably, we see a close parallel in the book of Judges where Samson has his eyes gouged out by the Philistines. He then kills them all in their temple by pushing the pillars down, but he also dies in the process. So both Maximus and Samson are critically wounded by their enemies before a final conflict which must end their lives.
Ultimately, these are both tales of revenge. It is the only motivating factor for both characters on their journeys.
There are some slight differences, however. This brings us on to the lesson taught. In the end, Maximus takes revenge for himself, his family and the murdered emperor Marcus Aurelius. Killing Commodus frees the Roman Empire from an evil dictator and he is honored as the hero by the people. Conversely, when Samson takes vengeance on the Philistines he is honored by God. Their destruction was actually part of a divine plan. We know this because scripture tells us it was God who raised Samson up for this purpose (Judges 14:4).
So we have a very clear picture painted here for us here. The world's idea of revenge vs The Bible’s. The world says that if someone wrongs you irrevocably, then you must do everything within your own power to destroy them. The Bible says that only God has the right to judge and take vengeance through his power. Even though Samson destroyed the Philistines, it was ultimately by God’s hand. So was Samson greater than Maximus? Yes. Why? Because God is greater.
Adam Brennan is a Digital Producer at Premier