Gladiator: Opening Scene Analysis

The opening scene of a film is crucial for introducing the setting, the lead characters, and laying the foundation of the plot. This is evidenced by the opening scene of Ridley Scott’s 2000 film, Gladiator.

The film begins with non-diegetic frames of text reading: “In the winter of 180 A.D., Emperor Marcus Aurelius’ twelve year campaign against the Barbarian Tribes in Germania was drawing to an end. Just one final stronghold stands in the way of Roman victory and the promise of peace throughout the empire.” The text is written in a rich golden font, and is superimposed over a background of reddish smoke, a representation of the twelve years of war that have been going on, and the destruction that has been left in its wake. The text also lets the viewer know that the opening scene of the film is going to be one of battle between the Romans and Germania.

The text transitions to a close-up shot of a hand, the fingertips and palms grazing a field of wheat as the man walks along. It is a handheld shot, with the cameraman walking slowly at the pace of the character, who is later revealed to be Maximus, bobbing side to side to indicate the relaxed saunter of the man walking through the field. We hear the soft brushing of the wheat against his clothes coupled with the soft vocals and strings of the soundtrack. This short clip of the rugged hand so tenderly and gently grazing the wheat primes the audience before they are introduced to the binary opposition that exists in Maximus’ personality: the fearsome warrior versus the simple farmer and family-man.

The film then cuts to a close-up of Maximus, eyes downward with a removed expression on his face. This indicates that the opening shot was a memory or a daydream within his mind, and as he looks upward towards reality, the audience is also brought into Maximus’ present: the moments before his final battle with the barbarian horde of Germanic tribesmen. In this close-up, there are a few indications as to what Maximus’ character is like. He is clad in armor so we know he is a warrior, he wears a thick and heavy pelt on his wide shoulders so we know he is strong—more than just an infantryman, and his face is somber, clearly longing to be in that field of wheat, rather than his current location. We are able to infer that he is weary of battle, but also focused in anticipation, as this is the final battle of the war, and once it is done he should be able to go to the wheat-field of his daydream.

The close-up of is face is coupled with howling wind and the same soft vocals, which carry over from the preceding shot; the light is bleak. Germania is a hostile, unpleasant place, and Maximus begins to walk away from his meditative spot, but then hesitates and turns back to look at something. The movie cuts to a long shot of a colorful orange bird, offset from the center of the frame. The bird is looking directly at the camera, then flies away, and switches back to a close-up shot of Maximus from a slightly low angle, as he watches the bird soar away. He looks up at the bird, back at where it was perched, and cracks a slight smile—both out of jealousy that the bird can fly away, but also out of identification with the bird, as once the battle is finished, Maximus can fly away as well. His smile fades back to stoicism, the music picks up into a more warlike beat, and he walks out of the close-up shot white it transitions to the establishing shot. The establishing shot features Maximus walking alone through a burned-down forest of carnage, and the word “Germania” fades into the shot. Maximus’ army then emerges, following his path, while the camera pans to follow them and reveals the magnitude of the Roman forces.

A low angle shot looking upward from the ground as Roman horses gallop past is cut to next. Shooting from this low angle makes the horses and horsemen appear larger, more intimidating, and is a tribute to their power. The gloomy sky of Maximus’ solo meditative scene has given way to a brighter backdrop to signify the good that is Maximus’ army, yet the air is still smoky to remind the audience that they are indeed in the midst of war. From this shot of the horses, it cuts to an even lower angle long shot of a small group of men holding flags atop a hill, on which it slowly zooms in. This is followed by a medium shot which reveals that Marcus Aurelius is on horseback among the men: he is shot at the same low angle to express his power. There are men between him and the camera, revealing that he is protected, and he is dressed in a regal blue cloak with gold ornamentation. He is undoubtedly a man of importance, and if the audience is not aware that he is the emperor, this shot makes them realize he is some sort of royalty. His white beard is the brightest object in the shot, indicating his age and great wisdom. Furthermore, the sky behind him is the brightest that the sky has been in any shot so far, which shows that he represents the ultimate good in this film, as he is the visionary behind the greatness of Rome.

From here, we are brought back down to the battlefield, where a handheld shot tracks Maximus as he walks up a small hill, and follows him as he walks by a line of his men—all of whom kneel and bow their heads as he walks by. This is followed by a close-up tracking shot of each of the men’s faces as they watch their general walk by in awe and reverence. Next, we are brought to a close-up shot tracking shot of Maximus’ face as he walks commandingly through his troops, with a slight smile acknowledging them, and then we cut to a POV shot from Maximus’ perspective, which continues moving forward with a handheld to mimic his walking, while also panning from left to right, showing the breadth of his forces. There are a couple more variations of this pattern—alternating between close-ups of Maximus’ face as he walks, and POV shots from his perspective. All of these shots work together to characterize Maximus as a fair and well-liked general, a leader who respects and loves his men.

At last, Maximus becomes part of the backdrop, yet still the focus of a long shot that tracks him as he walks through soldiers preparing for battle, loading catapults, and holding spears. Another long shot then shows Quintus, and Maximus walking through the crowd towards him. The two men meet, and begin a dialogue about the coming battle and their men. Maximus says to Quintus, “lean and hungry,” referring to his men, which are able to be included in the shot as it is a very long shot taken from a relatively high angle. The men are bustling around, while Quintus and Maximus stand noble, calm, and still. They are the keepers of order in the chaos of war. The scene then cuts to a medium shot of the two men, allowing for a more intimate view of their faces as the conversation also grows more intimate, Maximus asking, “how long has he been gone?” The viewer wonders, who is “he,” and where has he gone? As the audience becomes more invested in the conversation, the shots become closer and closer.

There is a series of shots for the remainder of the conversation, falling between medium shots and close-ups. As the conversation thickens, Quintus moves and looks past Maximus to give orders while Maximus remains still and calm; the shots move with Quintus and with each line. Quintus shouts “Soldier, I ordered you to move those catapults forward, they’re out of range.” The shot for this line is a closeup of Quintus’ face, with Maximus’ profile and shoulder included. It briefly cuts to a long shot of a soldier, looking back. The scene cuts back to the same angle while Maximus then replies with “range is good,” turning his head to the camera, but not looking directly at it. As he turns his head back forward, it cuts to a closeup facing him directly, while Quintus can be seen moving again in the background. A new angle is taken, with Maximus’ profile included as before, but the focus is again on Quintus again. He says, “The danger to the cavalry—” and is interrupted by Maximus’ “it is acceptable, agreed?” with a few seconds pause on Maximus to indicate his self-assuredness. This sequence shows Quintus succumbing to the stress and unrest of war, while Maximus is the only one who remains unfazed. The cut then goes back to the same angle as before, where Quintus was the focus, and shows his reaction of submission. All these cuts between shots are quite rapid, this is done to reflect the fast pace of battle preparation, as Maximus walks throughout his forces to make sure that all is ready for war.

The conversation with Quintus is broken by a distant yell heard offscreen, and the shot cuts back to a closeup of Maximus as he turns to view the source of the noise. Interjected is a long shot from a high angle of a white horse galloping towards the Roman forces. This could arguably be a POV shot from the view of a soldier, or even of Maximus, but it is unclear. The scene cuts back to Maximus, the same closeup, for his delivery of the line “they say no,” as in the Germanic tribes don’t want to surrender. Now we are taken to a long shot of the horse galloping, revealing that the rider is headless. Several shots then track the movement of the horse, a long tracking shot of the horse galloping through a field of debris, a high angle shot of the horse approaching the men, and then a close-up shot tracking the horse as he gallops through the ranks, until he is stopped by an infantryman. In all of these shots the white horse pops out against the black, dark blue, and brown background, indicating that the horse, like Marcus Aurelius’ beard, is pure and good. However, as each shot gets closer, the final closeup reveals that the white coat of the horse is drenched red with the blood of its rider. The purity of the horse has been desecrated by the barbarism of the Germanic tribes. The shot is from a low angle, showing the smokey whiteness of the sky coupled with the whiteness of the horse. From here, we cut to a darker shot, a long shot of a Germanic tribesmen emerging from the forest. He is only in the right third of the frame, and is hard to see in his dark clothing. The other two thirds of the frame are almost complete blackness, the details are indiscernible. This sets up the classic opposition between good (white) and evil (black). There is then a closeup of his face, his black beard blending in with the black forest behind him, as he screams: “Ihr seid verfluchte hunde!” or “you are damned dogs!” This is followed by a very long shot of his forces emerging from the woods. This shot is incredibly dark, to the point where it almost looks to be taking place at nighttime. This enhances the light/dark contrast that’s already been developing in preceding shots. He tosses the severed head of the messenger into the mud, and then it cuts back to a closeup of Quintus, who condescendingly says, “people should know when they’re conquered.” A shot of Maximus and Quintus from the side follows, and Maximus replies, “would you Quintus? Would I?” This shows Maximus’ underlying disdain for the war. He recognizes that he is no less of a barbarian than the Germanic tribesman throwing the severed head of a messenger in the mud. He is simply fighting to get home, but he is a barbarous killer nonetheless, and at face value, he knows that makes him just as evil as his rival. He reaches down, grabs some dirt, and smells it. This is a pre-battle ritual that occurs many more times in the film, and it speaks to Maximus’ meditative personality, as well as the connection he feels with the earth, his home, and Rome.

He looks at something, and then the scene cuts to a closeup shot of Maximus’ dog of war, whimpering in excitement. The dog represents the other side of Maximus’ personality: the bloodthirsty, well-oiled, killing machine—the side of his personality that has led to his great success as a Roman general. The gaze of the dog awakes Maximus’ inner warrior—he stands up, is shot at a low angle to make him look like a giant, a conqueror before his conquest, and grabs Quintus’ hand, saying “strength and honor” in an aggressively proud tone. He mounts his horse, still being shot at a low angle, looks back at Quintus and says, “at my signal, unleash hell,” and rides off. This opening scene is effective in characterizing Maximus, even though he speaks very few lines. First, we see his introspective and sensitive side, as he meditates and observes the bird we see that he is not merely a soldier, but a thinker, and a man who longs to be done with battle. Then, we are introduced to the calm leader; as all the people around him are rushing through rapid-cut shots, he remains steadfast, cooly confident. Finally, we are introduced to the dog of war that is Maximus—fiery and fearsome, once he is in battle he will not surrender and is never beaten. We are able to infer all of this about him after he only speaks nine lines. All of this characterization is accomplished through the way the scene is shot, the expressions on Maximus’ face, and the reactions had by all of those who are in his presence.

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