Tyranny was a common aspect of many ancient civilizations; it’s oppressive and cruel attributes gave power and satisfaction to those who exercised it but caused destruction and death to those on the receiving end. However, in times of hardship and pain, there’s often someone who stands tall in spite of the odds to fight for the oppressed and free them.
For this episode of Movie Fights, I’ll be pitting two historical epics against each other; films whose lead characters are shining examples of bravery and resilience in the face of oppression. Yes, one character might be more historically accurate than the other nonetheless, I’ll be focusing on more important things. Without wasting much time, let’s dive in; it’s Mel Gibson’s Braveheart versus Ridley Scott’s Gladiator.
ROUND 1; ACTING AND CHARACTER PERFORMANCES
The two films are centered around two distinct characters; General Maximus of the Roman Empire and William Wallace of Scotland. Played by Russell Crowe and Mel Gibson respectively, these two characters have almost similar attributes as far as their development and motivations are concerned. On one hand we have Maximus; a mighty Roman general, loyal to Rome and it’s cause, whose wife and child are killed brutally by a Greedy Emperor in Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) and he is set on a path of vengeance.
On the other hand we have William Wallace; a Scottish commoner whose wife, father and brother are killed by King Edward Longshank’s soldiers and that event sends him on a revenge mission as well.
That said, the bigger picture is not just about them and their loss but their resolve to emancipate their people from bad leadership. Crowe and Gibson both do a good job in channelling their characters’ frustrations and motivations through their acting and as a viewer, I felt connected to their pain and thus wanted them to win eventually.
Where the two movies start drifting apart as far as this round is concerned is the supporting characters and their performances. Perhaps it’s unfair that one film is more star-studded than the other but, you know, it is what it is. Joaquin Phoenix is fantastic as the Roman Emperor; the actor perfectly presents the multi-faceted aspects of the tyrant both physically and emotionally and I was drawn to that. Connie Nielsen, Oliver Reed, Djimon Hounsou are great supporting characters as well. In Braveheart, the other characters weren’t as exciting and I extensively felt like Mel Gibson carried a big chunk of the film if not the whole of it.
This round goes to…. Gladiator!
ROUND 2; FILM TECHNIQUES
The lifeblood (no pun intended) of these two films’ stories is war and battle; the price that has to be paid for freedom to be realised. Having watched ‘Gladiator’ and ‘Braveheart’ once more, especially for the first time since I started doing movie reviews, I have found new appreciation in both Gibson’s and Scott’s direction.
They both have a good understanding of visual storytelling and how important it is for the audience to be sold on the events as they unfold. For example, the Colosseum is as much a character as other characters in ‘Gladiator’; the way its majestic appearance and electric atmosphere is portrayed is quite exceptional both in cinematography and production design. As a viewer, you are taken back to those ancient times and you feel part of the audience in the gladiatorial battles.
‘Braveheart’, though not as good in the production design and cinematography department as compared to Gladiator, has a few aspects working well in its favour. The use of visual and practical effects in this film is something to behold; especially in the fight sequences between William Wallace’s men and the English soldiers. There’s a lot of gore in those scenes with blood splurting everywhere as the warriors plough through each other with their weapons. The artists involved in digitally compositing those sequences did a very good job because the final product is real-looking.
I loved the mood music and film scores in both films; Braveheart’s mood music perfectly complemented the Scottish setting (the bagpipe tunes) as well as the emotional scenes (the death of William Wallace). The film score for Gladiator speaks for itself; I mean, this is Hans Zimmer at his best.
Admittedly, I find it hard to pick a winner for this round but all things considered, I’d go for Mel Gibson’s film because it went the extra length in presenting its visual and audio-visual aspects, even with a lesser budget.
This round goes to… Braveheart!
ROUND 3; STORY.
How befitting is it that this particular round is the tie breaker in this contest? Well, I don’t know about you but I think it is, I believe it is. Going back to what I mentioned in the opening statement, the historical accuracy of the events in these films don’t matter in this contest, but their stories do.
The story of Maximus and his quest for freedom and justice moves me a lot. He’s just a dutiful Army General who is punished for being the best he can be both in battle as well as off it. Emperor Aurelius sees him as the son he wished he had and is even willing to pass down the leadership of Rome to him as opposed to his son, Commodus.
However, Maximus’ desire is to see his family again; unfortunately Commodus takes that desire away by brutally killing them towards the end of the 1st Act. From then on, we follow Maximus on a riveting and heartfelt journey that sees him fight in gladiatorial battles, kill his enemy, liberate a bunch of slave fighters and eventually join his family in the afterlife. The story, from beginning, middle and end is moving. Each Act had a clear starting and ending point and each served its purpose. The themes of resilience and vengeance hit home. What more would you want in a story?
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Well, how about a story that delivers on the mentioned and much more? A film about a simple but vengeful commoner who is hellbent on liberating an entire nation from an English dictatorship. All this despite his army being outmatched in almost every way and him being betrayed at a crucial moment in battle. I have a few issues with the story though. The pacing of the narrative is slow in the 1st Act and there’s a huge portion of Wallace’s character development that we miss out on (something that Gladiator is also guilty of with Maximus’ story).
Taking into account the composition of the two stories and the effect it had on me personally, I’d say there’s an obvious winner.
This round goes to… Braveheart!
The two films are very enjoyable, watchable and palpable but there had to be one winner, and it’s Braveheart. Do you agree with my pick? Do you think I have left out anything in this contest which might have swayed the final verdict the other way? Please use the comment section below to give feedback on my piece. I appreciate the fact that you have taken your time to read this far into my article and as always, God bless!
(Imagery courtesy of Icon Productions and Universal Pictures)