On the Moral Dilemma of Gladiator Movies

“Joey, do you like movies about gladiators?”

I finally saw The Hunger Games a couple of nights ago. Pretty good for a modern Hollywood blockbuster.

It’s a gladiator movie, of course. Sure it’s all dressed up in science fiction hardware and leftwing economic attitudes. The story involves a television spectacle where 24 mostly unwilling teenagers are placed in a forest filled with hidden TV cameras and forced to fight to the death. Only one will come out alive. In other words, gladiatorial combat.

But gladiatorial combat produces some interesting problems for a commercial filmmaker. You’ve got an action movie, and that requires a hero–a good guy–who has to kill a lot of bad guys. But how can you have good guys and bad guys when everybody is a victim? image

The Hunger Games gets around this pretty well, but it’s not entirely honest. The heroine, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), only kills in self-defense or to defend someone else. This is admirable, of course, but in a kill-or-die situation, it’s not a survivable strategy.

There real villains, of course, are the ones running the government and the game, and the movie makes that clear. But there’s another set of villains within the gladiators. Four of the competitors comes from wealthy districts, and have all sorts of advantages. They’ve been trained in combat, and they have far better supplies. They team up together, act arrogantly, and are very enthusiastic about slaughtering their less-advantaged adversaries. They’re quite happy with their situation.

Which is kind of ridiculous. At best, three of the four will die. One assumes that they, like the poorer contestants, had no choice about entering the game. The Hunger Games slides into emotional dishonesty to give us people whose deaths we can cheer.

But The Hunger Games feels extremely honest compared to the 2000 Best Picture Oscar winner, Gladiator. I haven’t seen it since it was first in theaters, but I remember being quite shocked at its refusal to treat gladiatorial combat as anything bad.

This movie’s hero, Maximus (Russell Crowe), is a Roman general turned by bad luck and an angry emperor into a slave and then a gladiator. When he fights in the arena, his adversaries are characterless bad guys, existing simply so we can cheer their deaths. Gladiatorial combat here isn’t a horrible exploitation of human life, but a valorous way for our hero to reek vengeance, mostly on people forced to fight him, and prove his manly worth. image

In this strange version of human exploitation for the greater good, Maximus ends up leading a team of gladiators–his friends and comrades. Yet somehow, the evil emperor (Joaquin Phoenix), who is trying desperately to destroy our hero, never thinks to put him in the ring with one of his friends. Of course not. To do so would call into question the inherent virtue of forcing slaves to fight to the death.

When Gladiator won its much underserved Best Picture Oscar, one of the producers thanked the studio heads who supported it. “In those early days when it looked like all roads might lead…to ruin, you were gladiators.”

What the hell did that mean? Is he suggesting that the people who financed his movie was forced to do so against their will? Of course not. In his mind, gladiator had become something to aspire to–a pseudonym for hero.

The greatest gladiator movie, of course, was Spartacus (the original, not the TV show). Here the gladiators are unquestionably victims. They’re heroes too, but not for what they do in the arena. In rising up against their oppressors, and fighting the true villains who turn others into gladiators, they become heroes.

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Spartacus has only one scene of gladiatorial combat. But that scene says more about that evil than The Hunger Games and Gladiator combined. Check it out.