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The film follows Maximus (Russell Crowe) a respected Roman general who is loyal to the aged emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris). However, Marcus Aurelius dies, killed by his son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) when he found he wouldn’t be his successor. Commodus then betrays Maximus and makes the order to have him killed, but Maximus escapes home to protect his family only to find they have been murdered. All Maximus wants to do now is avenge his family’s death. He is taken prisoner by slave traders and is bought to be trained as a gladiator by Proximo (Oliver Reed).
His potential is spotted and Maximus fights his way to the top and becomes the best know gladiator at he Colosseum in Rome and eventually meets up with the double-crossing Caesar again.
The intended effects of the opening are to set up the era and tone of the film and start to develop the audience’s understanding of the main character.
The opening has to engage the audience and make them interested and empathetic with the main character. It also helps you to establish contrasts with the rest of the film. Scott does this is in a number of different ways.
The film opens with a sepia coloured Universal logo which creates the impression of an older film so you know it’s not set in modern times and this is continued when a few short paragraphs scroll up the screen to enable you to put the film into context. You learn that if the Romans win the final battle in Germainia their empire will be secure.
Starting with paragraphs of writing is common in great epic films (e.g. Spartacus and Star Wars) so this technique gives you an expectation of the sort of film it will be – a Roman epic with a spectacular fight and battle scenes. The text appears against a smoky, background and the string music is eerie and sounds slightly threatening creating an unsettling sense of expectation.
The film then moves into the dream scene which is very important as it has got to capture your interest and make you intrigued in what is about to happen. The first image is a close up of a man’s hand gently brushing across the tops of corn in a field, you see a thick leather protector round his wrist and this immediately tells you he is a solider giving you an idea of the character before you’ve seen him. Touching the corn suggests sensuality and gentleness. He is also wearing a wedding ring so you know he is a married man. You can start to feel like you know him even though he hasn’t said anything yet. The scene is mainly golden colours and focus is quite hazy to give a dream like effect – the golden colours let you know that it’s seen as a good/nice place. The music is soft and gentle and you can hear a child’s laughter in the background, this tells you that he is a family man someone who cares for other people and is also cared about – someone who the audience can start to identify with and care about too. Maximus is the main character in the film and the way he is portrayed is very important to the film because if you don’t begin to empathise with his character early in the film the whole film won’t work as you won’t care about what happens to him.
Next it cuts to Maximus’s face as he raises his head and opens his eyes. There is an immediate and effective contrast to the dream, the colours are blues and greys and the camera is more focused giving a sharper image. These darker, more depressing colours let you know that this place is not a ‘happy’ place to be and that the colours reflect his feelings about where he is now. Maximus looks grim, although he smiles briefly when he spots a robin, successfully suggesting an affinity with nature and a softer side to his character, that he is not a brutal man. Within the first few minutes of the film you start to have a good understanding of what kind of person he is.
As he walks among the soldiers, his high status is clear from his clothing and self assurance. You know he is brace because when the range of the catapults is said to be dangerous to the cavalry he immediately replies that ‘the range is acceptable’ you later find he is part of the cavalry so he might have put himself in danger. This speech also shows his status by the way once he has made his decision clear the other soldier immediately defers, so you know Maximus is the more senior. He has an elevated status but the soldiers respect and like him this is conveyed when he walks through the ranks with a tracking to show the ripple effect he has of them knelling when passing through.
As Maximus walks among the soldiers, he takes the time to speak to them showing he cares about them as individuals and wants to reassure them. This shows the type of leader he is and is important as it shows him to be caring and honourable rather than someone driven by ego and ambition like Commodus. His elevated status is important as one of the themes of the film is to follow his fall from high status to low status to a different kind of high status. The difference is at the start he has power and position from his rank but later he regains his status but due to the popularity and respect he gains from the general citizens, which in turn puts him in a position of power although he is still held captive.
You can see he is superstitious when before he mounts his horse he picks up some dirt and rubs it on his hands (this is repeated throughout the film before he fights). This shows him to be a normal man with weaknesses and not divine or immortal, he’s like everyone else and his elevated stated doesn’t change that. You need to know this to understand he is in danger. He is also shown to have more ability to empathise with the enemy than others as when Quintus says “people should when they’re conquered” he replies “Would you, Quintus? Would I?” he can understand why they would continue to fight rather that just submit, this suggests emotional depth and makes him a more interesting and sympathetic character. It also reflects his struggle throughout the film against the Romans who turn on him and he doesn’t just give up. All this is an important contrast with the Maximus we see when the battle starts and he becomes brutal almost as if he can separate his emotions. You know this because when mounting his expression changes and he tells them “at my command unleash hell” although this could also mean the dog that follows him or both.
Maximus’s character is set up well using a variety of cinematic techniques examples of this include camera angles. Maximus is always filmed from lower down to make him look bigger and more important to the shot, when Maximus is speaking to the cavalry with words of encouragement, longer edits are used to help you focus on what he’s saying i.e. “What we do now echoes in eternity”. There has been very little dialogue so far, he has been made intriguing and you want to know more. You learn he is a farmer and that he wishes to win the battle so that he can go home, he has no aspirations for a more powerful position, he is an ordinary man with ordinary dreams. You understand that he is a man of honour who does his duty to Rome to the best of his ability; it is his sense of honour that motivates him not ambition. He tells his men they do not need to fear death if they fight bravely and talks about the Elysian Fields where Romans believed the blessed went after death. This makes you recall the earlier dream in the cornfield and so that you wonder if he was dreaming of heaven or home or if they are the same to him.
The battle is very important to the film as it is the first major action scene and shows you what to expect about the quality. The battle scene uses many good techniques; one of the first things you notice is the contrast between the two armies. The Roman army speaks good English so you can identify with them, as they sound like us and is ordered in legions and has gaps for people to walk through, while the Germanic army is disordered and the men speak in a rural dialect and seem barbaric. This is backed up by the fact that to start the battle they chuck the head of a decapitated Roman solider at the Romans.
At the start of the battle a panoramic panning shot is used successfully to show you the vastness and grandeur of the Roman army, this is one of the opening scenes most impressive effects. Quick edits are then used in the battle scene to convey the franticness of the battlefield and the way it is filmed all close up mixed with the use of surround sound makes you feel like you are there in the battle. The tempo of the music has also been speed up to give the same effect as before of franticness. This choppy style, gives a dreamlike quality to the incredible brutality and carnage of the battle. But when Maximus falls off his horse the music stops completely almost as if your are holding your breathe in suspense with concern for him.
In conclusion the intended effects of the film’s opening is to make the audience care about Maximus which it does very successfully by giving depth to his character. The opening also contains fantastic battle scenes, although the tone reflects the horror of war. The battle establishes the film as visually spectacular with high quality CGI so that you want to see more. If this didn’t happen the whole film wouldn’t work because you would have lost interest in it at the start.
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