Sympathy For The Devil? Gladiator’s Proximo

gladiator proximo

I love Gladiator. You could even say my love for it echoes in eternity. And a major part of that love extends to the rascally Gladiator Master Proximo, a part tailor made for the late Oliver Reed.

Proximo is a merchant of death, a former gladiator himself, freed by the late Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris). We first meet him scratching a living in the Empire’s hinterlands, in Africa’s Zucchabar Province. Dressing native fashion, he looks like an Arabian bandit, idly swatting flies while squeezing the balls of another trader who’s diddled him: “Those giraffes you sold me, they won’t mate. They just walk around, eating, and not mating. You sold me… queer giraffes. I want my money back.”   

Oliver Reed inhabits the character with a quiet, restrained charisma, rarely raising his voice or moving extraneously. His eyes and voice convey layers of meaning, which would come in handy later. Proximo sees in Maximus (Russell Crowe), the betrayed General turned enslaved gladiator, something of himself, and seeks to mentor him:  “Listen to me. Learn from me. I was not the best because I killed quickly. I was the best because the crowd loved me. Win the crowd and you will win your freedom.”  

With the exceptional Maximus, Proximo’s fortunes change and he returns with his gladiators to Rome, where Emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) has revitalised the games to distract the masses. “So Spaniard,” he says, “we shall go to Rome together and have bloody adventures. And the great whore will suckle us until we are fat and happy and can suckle no more. And then, when enough men have died, perhaps you will have your freedom.” 

As Maximus plots to get close to the Emperor who betrayed him, he subtly works on Proximo’s nascent conscience. 

“Marcus Aurelius had a dream that was Rome, Proximo.” 

“Marcus Aurelius is dead, Maximus. We mortals are but shadows and dust. Shadows and dust, Maximus!” 

Oliver Reed was a risk for director Ridley Scott, the actor’s hell raising had burned a few bridges, and insurance was high. But he kept his drinking to his own time, and was never drunk or unprepared on set. Everyone who watched him or saw the rushes were impressed by his magnetic performance, and hailed it as a renaissance for his career. Scott intended to give his Proximo the last word in the film. Yet his lifestyle caught up with him and he died of a heart attack in Malta on May 2, 1999, before his work was completed. The cost of reshooting all his scenes was prohibitive, so a combination of body double, CG pasting of Reed’s features, and re-editing and new dialogue, brought Proximo’s arc to a fitting close. Fittingly, Proximo’s final scene, as he awaits death by the Praetorian Guard after he is “in danger of becoming a good man,” and helping Maximus escape, is a close up of Reed’s own face, echoing an earlier line – the performance is all his. One that will not be destined to be forgotten as but “shadows and dust,” but one that “echoes in eternity.”


Originally posted 2014-02-05 13:17:15. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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