Analyse how the traditional conventions of tragedy are manipulated through the use of visual and/or verbal features in the film Gladiator by Ridley Scott

The movie ‘Gladiator’ is a tragedy created by Ridley Scott used as a mode to toy with an audiences emotion using the character of Maximus, our Aristotelian-perfect tragic hero of the story. Emotion in tragedy is pulled from the tragic hero, a character at a higher power than the common with human characteristics that goes through a grounded struggle that an audience can relate to or at least feel for, for the sake of drawing catharsis from an audience. Maximus moulds into this role perfectly and is established quite quickly that he is the tragic hero of this story due to Scott’s techniques such as costumes and camera shots/angles in the opening sequence and the scene where he comes home.

The opening scene shows us right away why Maximus is the tragic hero of the story; there is a close-up shot of his hand is dressed with a ring on the ring finger gliding through a wheat field with a sense of comfort-ability. The close-up shot is used by Scott to give the audience details of the character in order to give us an idea of who Maximus is. The shot draws attention to his ring which tells us that he has a wife or even family. It draws weight to his character in terms of the emotional impact as the idea of family hits close to the audience as human nature suggests that we need companionship and makes us feel a wholesome, relatable connection to Maximus which sets up the inevitable nemesis of Maximus. Flash-forward into the scene and we see Maximus in a full set of iron armour with gold lining and a wolf skin draped across his shoulders and is distinct from all other characters on screen. The use of the wolf on the costume of Maximus by Scott is to show that he is of higher power and is honoured throughout the army which Scott uses to further emphasise that he is the tragic hero by having a wide shot of Maximus walking through a crowd of soldiers all in the same iron armour while he stands out with the fur sticking out from around his neck to show his position in the hierarchy. The hamartia is a characteristic of a tragic hero which causes the peripeteia of the hero later on in the tragedy which the audience is also introduced to this idea through the clever use of Scott’s camera shots on Maximus, which makes the audience to pay closer attention to one particular piece of dialogue: Quintis orders the catapults to be moved further forward to avoid damage to the cavalry where a close-up shot of Maximus saying “there is good”, drawing attention to Maximus to hear a follow on to what he has to say. Quintis, surprised by this order, explains to Maximus “The danger to the cavalry is…” where Maximus interjects with “…is acceptable” while framed in a over-the-shoulder shot from Quintis to again give us a more personal position for an audience to take in and get a point of view of the hamartia of Maximus. From this shot, we can see that Maximus being stubborn in his actions which we see by him keeping the catapults in range close range of the cavalry and being stubborn by putting his opinion over Quintis and saying that the damage that will be done to the cavalry is acceptable, meaning that he is willing to sacrifice a couple of soldiers all for the sake of a higher chance of winning the battle and making Rome stronger. The hamartia of Maximus is his stubbornness which the viewers can establish this flaw as the camera moves to track his face to really cement into the audience’s minds that Maximus is a character that makes stubborn decisions that they will see more of throughout the movie. In the end, they win the battle and his stubborn decision works. The next scene is the aftermath of when he makes one stubborn decision that does not work. The Peripeteia of Maximus.

The next scene that shows us how Scott manipulates the tragic hero convention is the scene where Maximus returns to his home. It occurs after Maximus has been ordered to be executed and ends up escaping on horseback after killing men that he commanded the day before. This scene is in stark contrast to the opening scene where Maximus has his iron armour with gold outlines, Maximus has been stripped down to just a brown cloth. This change in costume shows us that Maximus is no longer the higher ranking soldier but is now at the bottom of the pyramid. It is symbolic as it is the peripeteia of Maximus, a reversal of fate that the tragic hero experiences, which is where Maximus was once destined for ruler of Rome but he is now running away from that same empire . “Won’t you accept this great honor that I have offered you?” “With all my heart, no”. “Maximus, that is why it must be you” This is what Maximus could have been but in a sadistic twist of irony, this scene shows us a grieving Maximus at the feet of his hanging family. Initially, Scott shows two parallel scenes  where both Maximus and the legion has this moment framed with the camera positioned behind the dangling feet of the family of Maximus with brown clothed Maximus down on all fours to communicate to the audience that the legion has got to his family before. The next few shots are close ups that show us Maximus reaching out for his family then crawling to mourn at the feet of his family. This camera shot was used to show us the pain and suffering that Maximus is going through at that moment; it makes us feel like we are there experiencing his pain right next to him which makes for a cathartic experience for the audience.

In just the first half of the movie, Scott has shown almost an entire journey of a tragic hero through his use of camera shots and costume which in turn not just gives us cathartic experience, but also more of an insight into human nature. Scott manipulates the audience into experiencing these two thoughts by showing us a man’s fall from grace by giving us a close up shot of a once destined ruler in a suit of rags to show us how everything can change in an instant, cementing this idea into an audience’s mind and making them think about it by giving them a personal view through a close up shot to give it emotion. The two techniques used by Scott works together to give the audience a scene of true tragedy where both catharsis and the reflection of human nature are present. With Maximus, he possesses flaws that the audience watching could come to recognise as some of their own. Maximus is supposed to be a reflection of our stubbornness, our inability to change our behaviour even if it means life or death. Like other tragic heroes such as Lear in the play King Lear and his flaw of arrogance or Romeo in Romeo & Juliet and his flaw of loving too much, Scott’s own tragic hero in the form of Maximus has his flaw of being too stubborn and the journey undertaken because of this is displayed not just through dialogue, but instead mostly through these camera shots and the costume to create these personal moments where we can be closer to the tragic hero than ever before. In the opening scene where there are close-ups of Maximus with a straight face in a iron suit of armour is in stark contrast to the home scene of Maximus face full of tears and snot in a suit of rags, Scott shows us a twist of irony and the peripeteia of Maximus

The manipulation of the tragic hero Maximus by Ridley Scott’s use camera shots and costume, achieves its purpose of creating a cathartic experience for the audience and a reflection of the nature of the human race. Gladiator by Ridley Scott serves as a love letter to the genre of tragedy while still being able to add its own flair to the formula.

Join the conversation! 2 Comments

  1. Hi Callum,

    You have made a good start here. Your analysis of the costume is accurate and there are some good moments of insight into why we are positioned by this.

    You need to keep building your content, step by step. Use the structure we discussed and keep revisiting the key words of the statement to ensure you are sticking to the task.

    Keep asking yourself what impact the technique has on the audience and how it has been used to develop the tragic hero in this film.

    Mrs. P

  2. Hi Callum,

    You are showing that you understand how Scott uses costume to communicate the characteristics of the tragic hero.

    You need to increase your analysis of the specific use of camera shots. At the moment, costume is dominating this essay and there needs to be balance.

    Look to revisit the structure we have discussed in class for each paragraph:

    – the description of how the two techniques are presented in your selected scene.
    – discussion of the directors intentions and why they have chosen to use these techniques in this way.
    – analysis of how this positions the audience to view the film and its ideas in a certain manner.
    – connection to the genre of tragedy

    At the moment, you are focusing too much on your description of the technique. You must increase your analysis of the directors intentions and the impact on the audience and our ability to recognise the tragic hero.

    You need to check your work for technical accuracy. At the moment, you have many grammar errors that hamper the clear communication of your writing. Taking time to read your work out loud to yourself will help you to find and fix these errors.

    Mrs. P


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