2016-06-30
Jerry Falwell, a Baptist minister, is chancellor of Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., and founder of the now defunct Moral Majority. He is a nationally known, often controversial, voice on matters of faith and politics. Pastor Falwell took time this week to discuss "Gladiator" with Jonathan V. Last.

"Gladiator" is the story of Maximus (Russell Crowe), a general in the Roman army at the dawn of the Christian era. When the dying emperor asks Maximus to succeed him, he earns the enmity of the emperor's son, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), who disregards his father's wishes, grabs the throne, and has Maximus' family killed. Maximus himself escapes, however, and vowing revenge on Commodus, rises as an anonymous gladiator to face his rival.

In "Gladiator," we have this emperor whose unbridled ambition and flexible morality places his country in danger. Maximus, on the other hand, is a religious man, persecuted for trying to bring down the emperor. Does that make him Ken Starr?
Well, I don't think it makes him Ken Starr. I consider Ken Starr a great American who did his work and did it well. At the same time, I believe Maximus

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was indeed a man of character and a man of courage who stood for his country and for virtues when not many others were.

What do you think the movie is saying about the duties of a citizen?
I think the first duty of any citizen, and especially a citizen of faith, is to stand for his or her values, regardless of the cost. Beyond that, like Maximus, a citizen of faith needs to speak out in every forum he or she has, to try to give guidance and direction to the state. And in some instances, where an individual such as Maximus has an opportunity, a platform, a stage on which to make a difference--even to his own hurt--he or she should take that stand.

Do you think there's also a lesson there about how personal ambition rots the government?
There's no question about that. His hedonism, his rejection of his father's virtues--wisdom, justice, fortitude, and temperance--and his hatred of all of his critics, made him just the antithesis of a true leader.

So that makes Commodus a particularly compelling villain these days.
He does. He reminds me a lot of Bill Clinton.

What's the difference between the two main characters in their faith?
Well, Maximus was looking constantly through that door to the Elysian Fields--the Roman concept of heaven--and living with eternity in view. Commodus had one thing in mind--self gratification. He had no love or respect for other people. He placed no value on human life. And Maximus was just the opposite.

How essential do you think faith is to the concept of "good government"?
Well I'm one who takes the Bible literally. And Proverbs 14:34 says, in paraphrase, living by God's principles promotes a nation to greatness; violating those principles brings a nation to shame. Maximus seemed to know that. Commodus did not know it, and had no interest in spiritual values, moral values.

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The Roman Empire at that particular moment parallels very closely the moral and spiritual condition of our own country today. With a 50% divorce rate, legalized abortion, even late-term abortions, and moving towards euthanasia, we have pretty well abandoned the Judeo-Christian ethic on which the nation was built, and, very frankly, we need the arrival of a number of Maximuses on the scene in government, in pulpits, in business, and particularly in the media.

The other major theme of "Gladiator" is the whole concept of mortality. The Romans seem to be much more comfortable with the idea of death than we are. Do we think this is a good thing?
Oh I think it is a very good thing. The apostle Paul said, "For to me to live is grace--that is Christ to live--to die is gain." He was simply saying that while I live, I want God to be honored through my life, but if it comes time to die, it's far better for me because I will be in God's presence. I think that is what Maximus dreamed about throughout the entire movie and his war-time experiences and later as a slave.

In a strange way, though, his belief in the afterlife gives him a pretty serious death wish. He really becomes a man who's on a mission to rejoin his family. What do you think Ridley Scott is saying about faith here?
Well I think that the older one gets, the more mature, the more experienced, the more value he places on eternity. Young people, myself included--I was younger many years ago, I'm 67 now, but younger people think of the present, the right now, whether they're spiritual or not spiritual. And it is normal after one reaches 50, 60, 70 years of age, he is thinking quite seriously about eternity, making decisions in that light. That is not new to any group, only pagans and heathens disregard the possibility of eternity and, as a result, make very little contribution to the world they live in.

It's a pretty violent movie, yet the violence Scott depicts is in many ways less horrific that what actually went on in the Coliseum. Did the violence bother you?

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No, because it's historically accurate. They could have made it far worse, such as throwing Christians to the lions. War then was hand-to-hand combat. There's no way to defeat the enemy without coming eyeball-to-eyeball with the enemy. That means bloodshed was horrific--that was in the war part of the movie. And later, in the arena, there's no question in my mind that what we saw in that movie actually happened. And worse.

Director Ridley Scott actually filmed a scene where Christians were being fed to the lions, but then he decided to cut it because he decided that in the end, it was an entire separate conflict and really the basis for a whole separate movie. Would you have liked to have seen a mention of the plight of the early Christians?
Well since it really happened, I think it would not have hurt to have some mention or reference to the killing of Christians, because in fact that really did occur, and there are very few students of history who don't know that it occurred.

So do you think "Gladiator" should win the Oscar for Best Picture?
Well, I like the idea that there are no sex scenes, language is clean. Technically it is magnificent. The director, producers, writers did a superb job in "Gladiator," and while I am not qualified to select an Academy Award winner, and I have not watched all the other films that are competing, I certainly liked "Gladiator" and I highly recommend it.



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