The film Gladiator provokes a flood of emotion which many people cannot handle. The audience is left feeling sad, angry, happy and wanting more. This catharsis of emotions is what Aristotle wanted from a tragedy and exactly what Ridley Scott achieved which is why Gladiator is such a good film. A tragedy, as defined by Aristotle, is an imitation of an action that causes a feeling of catharsis for the viewer. The main protagonist in a tragedy is a tragic hero. In the film Gladiator, Maximus is an example of an Aristotle tragic hero. A tragic hero possesses five specific characteristics; hamartia, peripeteia, anagnorisis, hubris, and nemesis. The conventions of a tragedy as set by Aristotle are strongly established during this film. Scott effectively uses visual language techniques to leave the audience feeling emotionally exhausted. Character development and the establishment of a tragic hero in an Aristotelian based tragedy is what encapsulates the audience but at what point do we hate Ridley Scott for leaving Maximus, the tragic hero in Gladiator, facing his undeserved fate.
At the beginning of the film, during the opening scene, Maximus is developed as a good man with what he is wearing and what he says. Maximus wears a large fur coat representing his leadership and power that he holds over his army and his army respects him by bowing their heads for him and obeying his orders. Maximus leads his men to victory and his comrades follow all of his direction. Wearing this important costume and having his army show respect towards him helps the audience develop him as a good man. This character development at the beginning of the film shows the characteristic of hubris, which is the protagonist’s excessive pride. It sets up the series of events that follow during the film because it is Maximus’s pride that eventually leads him to his final fate. Maximus also develops the specific characteristic of peripeteia and nemesis during the film. Peripeteia is a reversal of fortune of the character and nemesis is the characters fate is greater than deserved. Scott effectively develops Maximus as a tragic hero during the film specifically in two scenes: the opening scene and the slave collection scene. During these two scenes, Ridley Scott uses the techniques of dialogue and symbolism, specifically animals, to portray Maximus’s journey as a character to the audience. The dialogue used during the film shows his initial leadership and enhances his downfall and his reversal of fortune. Animals are used to also show this reversal of fortune as Maximus was once respected by animals he finds himself beneath them on the natural chain of being later on in the film. The traditional conventions of a tragedy are upheld through the use of these language features.
The first scene in the Gladiator that portrays the tragic hero character with the use of techniques is the opening scene. Ridley Scott purposefully minimizes the use of dialogue in this scene in order to portray the importance of each individual line said. As the tragic hero, Maximus speaks the majority of the lines in this scene. The authority Maximus has over his comrades is developed this way. He speaks with confidence and addresses everyone as a leader. As Maximus rides into the forest to address his men he sits up on his high horse and faces his army. He gives a pre-battle speech and at the conclusion, he says “Brothers! What we do in life, echoes an eternity”. This line of dialogue shows the connection Maximus has with his army as he addresses them as “brother”, by saying this they see Maximus as an equal and are honored to fight with him. This line also shows Maximum’s excessive pride as it is obvious that he takes pride in everything he does during his lifetime so he is viewed in a positive way once he has passed. As the creator of the film, Ridley Scott makes deliberate choices with dialogue for specific reasons and it has an impact on the audience’s perception of the film. The audience perceives Gladiator as a film based around a good man fighting for justice. Not only does Ridley Scott use dialogue to portray Maximus as a tragic hero but also the motif of animals. In the opening scene, we see a bird sitting on the battlefield looking up at Maximus who looks back. This bird represents Maximus’s potential freedom. The bird that he is faced with has the ability to fly away and avoid the horror of war but Maximus can’t. He stays and fights for his country because of his excessive pride. It would be easy for him to turn around on his horse and return to his family who he misses deeply, but instead, he leads his men into battle as their leader because that is his duty and he does not want to disappoint anyone. Another animal that the audience is faced with during the opening scene is the German Shepherd dog. This dog represents Maximus’s connection with the natural world and the protection he is given from animals. This dog refuses to leave his side throughout the battle and it shows that not only do his fellow men respect him but animals also have respect for Maximus. This connection that Maximus has is enhanced with the symbolism of him touching a handful of dirt before he begins a fight. By feeling the dirt before the battle he feels grounded and respects the natural forces that he might be faced with. The use of these two motifs simultaneously throughout not only the opening scene but many that follow enhances the idea of Maximus having a deep connection with the environment around him. The decisions Scott makes in this opening scene helps the audience form a connection with the tragic hero and become more emotionally invested in the tragedy.
The opening scene and the slave collection scene work coherently to portray Maximus’s reversal of fortune he faces as a tragic hero. We first see Maximus in this scene laying down on a cart surrounded by slaves and animals. Maximus lays parallel to the ground, his head skimming the dirt. Above him sits animals growling at him. This scene shows the break of the natural chain of being as Maximus lays beneath wild animals. As a previously respected leader, animals obeyed Maximus and offered him their protection. Now as Maximus lays on this cart animals stand above him trying to eat him. Naturally this would not happen, humans commonly stand above animals, being beneath them makes you less than they are. This reversal of fortune is also portrayed through dialogue. A slave who is caring for Maximus utters “don’t die, they’ll feed you to the lions, they are worth more than we are”. By saying this the idea of Maximus losing his authority is cemented for the audience. We see Maximus lose his power as he rides through the desert threatened by wild animals. This situation that Maximus is faced with makes the audience feel sympathetic towards him, not only has he lost his family but all of his power and authority which once made him a respected man. Although we, the audience, have these feelings for Maximus we are still able to see his strength and will to fight for the justice of his family as he reaches down to the rocks and feels the dirt in his hands. This common trait that he displays allows us to still have hope for him. By touching the dirt we see that he is ready to fight as he does this every time before facing a battle. Although he is worth no more than animals he will not let anyone defeat him. Ridley Scott convincingly uses the opening scene and slave collection scene together to portray this tragic hero trait of a reversal of fortune. Scott not only causes the audience to react emotionally to this scene, but he also makes them consider their own place in the chain of being. Where we stand alongside others makes us who we are and any small change in our lives can change this drastically. For Maximus his reversal of fortune was extreme but he was still able to fight for justice and withhold his pride as a tragic hero.
The techniques of dialogue and animal motifs combine to uphold the genre of tragedy in the opening scene and the slave collection scene individually and together. The genre of a tragedy is from Greek theatre and combines the story of human suffering with a sense of audience fulfillment. A tragedy traditionally portrays the protagonist fall from high authority. In Gladiator Maximus is the protagonist who faces this fall from authority. Scott effectively conveys Maximus’s suffering and falls from authority as a once respect leader who finds his family dead and himself as a slave fighting for his life every day. As the audience, we are fulfilled by the suffering that Maximus endures as we see him continue to fight after losing everything. Scott constantly fills us with hope and uses dialogue and the animal motif to leave us hoping Maximus regains his authority which he finally does not, eventually facing his fate, but dying with pride.