Most men over 30 know and love the movie Gladiator. When I’m in the mood for a quintessentially male movie after my wife has gone to bed, I have several options—Braveheart, The Patriot, Saving Private Ryan, Good Fellas—but Gladiator has been my hands-down favorite since I heard Maximus scream at the crowd “Are you not entertained?” It doesn’t matter at what point I start watching the movie—though I hate to miss the opening battle sequence. I can fill in the missing details from memory. I know the movie so well, I’ve developed Gladiator muscle memory: My body knows to flinch when Cicero’s horse bolts, leaving him hanging from a rope, or when Commodus drives the dagger into Maximus before their final showdown.
Every time I watch this flick, I ask myself why I’m so into it. I like Roman history, but everyone knows the movie has major lapses in historical accuracy. Commodus didn’t die in gladiatorial combat, for example. And, while I’m a fan of Russell Crowe, I don’t especially love all his work. I bet if you asked a Hollywood executive about the success of Gladiator with male audiences, she would say it employs a known recipe for appealing to men. Wondering what that recipe might be, I looked around online and found a blog post by Mohammad Hanbal in which he breaks down the movie’s appeal. He gets it mostly right, identifying Maximus’ compelling characteristics, including “he had vision” and “he was fighting for a noble cause.” Hanbal, it turns out, is a leadership consultant so his analysis predictably focuses on Maximus as a military leader—but not as a man. His explanation left me feeling like I ate the menu and not the hamburger. Being an effective leader doesn’t equate to inspiring other men to revel in their manliness.
When I watch Gladiator, I experience a rush of primitive masculine pride—I feel at once ennobled by Maximus and his multi-ethnic troop of gladiators and challenged to be a bolder man myself. I have a very different reaction watching, say, Bridge of Spies with Tom Hanks. As principled and even heroic as Hanks’ Jim Donovan is, I feel no frisson when he wins the release of Americans held in East Germany. Donovan is an engaging intellectual male hero, but he doesn’t excite my sense of manliness. So why do I get such a rush from Maximus? Is it simply his prowess as a warrior, the fact that he effortlessly cuts down every opponent? Well, that’s a big part of it. It wouldn’t be nearly as satisfying a movie if Maximus lost occasionally, relying on the Emperor’s upturned thumb to fight another day.
Masculinity in Balance
Then I think about other movies that affect me the way Gladiator does—Braveheart and The Patriot, to be specific (obviously Mel Gibson has me figured out). In these movies, the heroes are thrust into violent situations they tried to avoid and, left with no choice but to fight, do so with a mix of terrifying ferocity and impressive restraint. As many enemies as William Wallace, Benjamin Martin, and Maximus cut down in combat, they all express profound regret they must fight to survive—and, more importantly, exhibit a compassionate self-control born of that regret.
That’s the appeal of Maximus, I decide—the palpable tension inside him—the crackling electricity between serving a greater good and his inspiring, even terrifying male puissance. He is a killing machine who would rather not kill the German colossus lying defeated at his feet, a warrior who just wants to go home and make olive oil with his wife. It’s a picture of masculinity at peace with itself, a harmonious (if somewhat taut) coexistence of seemingly opposite forces.
That kind of restraint won the highest praise in another notable conflict: It is said that King George III remarked that George Washington was the greatest man in the world if he retired from power at the end of the revolutionary war. Men admire men who have great power; but good men admire more those who abjure their powers for the benefit of society.
These days masculinity is under the cultural microscope, frequently being coupled with the adjective “toxic.” It hasn’t felt meritorious to be a man for a while now, thanks to boneheads like Harvey Weinstein. As I write this, women are marching in cities around the country demanding social justice and change in American governance. In this context, men don’t look so hot. So I find myself debating what masculinity means, looks like, stands for—and how it can redeem itself in our culture. I rather like the model of Maximus and his epic restraint. Can the ability to resist or govern our masculine nature become our greatest superhero power of all? I don’t know the answer to that question, but when I think about all the shit men might have avoided if we’d shown some restraint, I think I’m on the right track.