Vital Signs

We, Who Are Always About to Die

Produced by DreamWorks
Directed by Ridley Scott
Screenplay by David H. Franzoni and John Logan
Released by MCA/Universal Pictures

Produced by New Line Cinema
Directed by Gregory Hoblit
Screenplay by Toby Emmerich
Released by New Line Cinema

Despite its flagrant historical inaccuracies and its preference for spectacle over drama, Ridley Scott's Gladiator is a triumph of popular entertainment. Before the film devolves into a simpleminded revenge story, it manages—almost in spite of itself—to invest its hero with a genuine tragic dimension. He is a man courageous enough to face the world's treacheries in the full knowledge that they will inevitably defeat him—at least in this life. Impressively played by Russell Crowe, this kind of hero makes one proud to be human.

The film begins with an enormous close-up of a man's hand, palm down, skimming across the tops of budded stalks in a seemingly endless wheat field. The scene is drenched in the golden pastoral haze of a languorous, late-afternoon sun. Then the man stops to look at a robin nesting in his path. The camera cuts to his face for the first time, as a smile breaks forth from his weathered features, and then cuts to the same man now standing in the blue-gray light of a wintry dawn on the Danube River, his...

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