Movie Reviews

Gladiator: 20 Years On

Ridley Scott's masterpiece celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. We look at why its legacy is so important.

APRIL 29th, 2020


Director: Ridley Scott | Cert: 15 | Runtime: 2h 51m

© Universal


hirty-two pages – that’s how long the script was for Ridley Scott’s epic blockbuster, Gladiator. Yet from that modest collection of pages emerged a film that would not only set the movie world alight, but redefine a genre of moviemaking altogether. Inspired by the painting, Pollice Verso (Thumbs Down), which depicted a gladiatorial battle, Scott signed on to make a film which could capture the awe, magnificence and brutality of the Colosseum in ancient Rome.

Yet long before Scott, the idea for Gladiator had been in inception for some time. Screenwriter David Franzoni had originally pitched the movie after reading the 1958 novel Those About to Die, by Daniel P. Mannix. However, due to a disagreement over the original Franzoni script’s dialogue – Ridley Scott felt the language lacked subtlety – the acclaimed director hired John Logan to rewrite the First Act and reimagine many of the characters. Perhaps the biggest alterations which Logan made, much to the dismay of Franzoni, and delight of Scott, was changing the name of the protagonist from Narcissus to Maximus and killing off his family. John Logan felt this added to the motivation of the newly named Maximus and allowed him to create what is now the iconic ‘Husband to a murdered wife’ speech.

Russell Crowe as Maximus - © Universal

With the script only partially finished, the cast assigned, locations scouted; production was ready to start. But, in what would become a common theme throughout the production of Gladiator, the script faced serious backlash. Much of the cast were unhappy with it, especially the movies main star, Russell Crowe, describing the plot as: “substantially underdone”, and claiming his character Maximus “didn’t exist on the pages.”

With two weeks to go before filming began, William Nicholson was brought in to rework the character of Maximus. Adding more sensitive and emotional characteristics, Crowe still had his reservations, specifically with one line in particular: “In this life or the next, I will have my vengeance.” The line – which has since become one of the most iconic in movie history – was so disliked that Crowe would point-blank refuse to say it, leading to the Australian actor seeking to rewrite most of his parts again. When many of the other actors followed suit, Ridley Scott was starting to become frustrated, as was co-star and seasoned actor Oliver Reed.

The behaviour of his fellow actors would result in the British acting giant erupting in anger, calling them “pompous, uneducated fools”. There were more arguments made by Reed with more nuanced expletives, and whilst shocking, they successfully achieved what he had hoped for. The cast suddenly stopped questioning the script, and filming began.

As the cameras started rolling – mainly in the UK, Morocco and Malta – it isn’t hard to see why the cast began to become frustrated with the script – or lack of. Crowe recounts: “we got to Morocco with a crew of 200 and a cast of 100 or whatever, and I didn’t have anything to learn. I actually didn’t know what the scenes were gonna be.” This forced the actor to think on his feet, resulting in arguably Gladiator's’s most memorable moments. Lines such as “strength and honour”, “at my signal, unleash hell”, were adlibbed by Crowe. But perhaps the most iconic and famous adlib he created was the name which has been uttered ever since: Maximus Decimus Meridius.

The movies imagery was based on a painting of a Gladiatorial battle - © Universal

If Ridley Scott is noted for anything as a filmmaker, it is his aversion to CGI. With a preference for physical effects, the director would task his crew in building a 52ft replica of part of Rome’s Colosseum. At an estimated cost of $1 million, the set remains – to this day – one of the most expensive in film history. With such a huge set, a record number of extras were needed to fill the Colosseum’s stands. Its spectacle and scale, alongside the noise made by the thousand-strong crowds, Joaquin Phoenix – who portrayed Commodus – described the feeling of walking onto set: “It was overwhelming, the screams, boos; there was an authenticity to the scenes in the Colosseum which I had never experienced before or since.”

Whilst the visuals of Gladiator have stood the test of time, and the iconic lines repeated by movies fans for 20 years, Ridley Scott’s epic is perhaps remembered mostly for its celebrated and timeless score.

Joaquin Phoenix as Commodus before the epic climactic fight with Maximus - © Universal

Hans Zimmer would be given the task of bringing the majesty and sadness of Gladiator's story to life through music, and much like the script, the infamous composer would struggle. Before filming had completed, he had already written a Roman fanfare, a theme he had found easy to compose. What was much more of a challenge was the quieter, subtle moments between the characters. Nothing seemed to work. Sitting by his piano, Zimmer would play four notes, and constructed a basic melody on top. It sounded great, though after playing the piece for Ridley Scott, it was decided it didn’t fit the tone of the movie.

Ironically, that four note composition would reappear years later, and become one of Hans Zimmer’s greatest music pieces – Time¬, from Inception.

Gradually growing frustrated with a lack of ideas, the German composer was sent an album by Australian singer Lisa Gerrard. Upon hearing her grounded, traditional vocals, inspiration struck, and Zimmer would write “Now We Are Free”, the signature piece of music synonymous with Gladiator.

This piece of music would be responsible for creating the emotional gravitas of the final act of the movie, where Maximus – gravely wounded from his final battle with Commodus – succumbs to his injuries and dies. The ending, which continues to bring a tear to the eye of the most stonehearted, wasn’t always planned, however.

Joaquin Phoenix as Commodus - © Universal

As filming continued, Scott had always intended for Maximus to live after the credits began to roll. Though as the plot unfolded, the director approached his leading man. “Look, the way this is shaping up, I don’t see how you live.” Stating that Maximus only has one goal left in life – to avenge the death of his wife and son – once he achieves that, what next? The answer was inevitable. Maximus had to die. Crowe was relieved about the decision, agreeing it was a fitting end to the character, though filming the final climactic speech was anything but a relief.

Wearing a metal helmet would prove problematic for the actor, the static left behind after removing it would cause his hair to stand on end, leaving Crowe looking like a “Teletubby”. To solve the potentially humorous shot, Scott would shoot the actor in close up when taking the helmet off, cropping out the static-fused hair.

Russell Crowe’s hair was an easy problem to solve for Ridley Scott, the death of one of his cast members less so. Oliver Reed – whose character Proximo was originally scripted to bury Maximus’ family figurines beneath the dirt of the Colosseum at the end of the movie – suffered a catastrophic heart-attack and died before production finished. Djimon Hounsou’s character Juba would fill in instead. With scenes still left to be shot, CGI would be used to complete newly written sequences to bring Proximo’s story to an end.

The loss of Reed was a huge blow to production, specifically the crew, who the actor had formed a close relationship with. “He was a character, a fierce fire of talent and fun that just extinguished over-night. It was a loss to us all,” recalled Scott. “He was also my biggest champion and truly a creative entity. At the end of the movie, when Maximus dies, it was his [Reed] idea to send him back to the afterlife to be with his family. I owe a lot of Gladiator's success to that man.”

Oliver Reed hugs a crewmember alongside co-stars Djimon Hounsou and Ralf Moeller - © Ridley Scott

With production ended, the film eventually released in theatres and took the world by storm. An instant blockbuster, Gladiator decimated the box office and the Awards Season the following year. Winning five Oscars, including Best Actor for Russell Crowe and Best Picture, the movie cemented its place as a juggernaut. Since then, numerous films have tried to recreate the success of Ridley’s masterpiece – and failed. The failure comes from a unique element of the filmmaking industry.

In retrospect, Gladiator shouldn’t have worked. Issues in scripting, relationships between director and cast abysmal (both Russell Crowe and Ridley Scott have openly admitted they hated each other while filming. They have since commented how their disdain for one another brought out the best in their work on the film, and formed a friendship which stands strong to this day), the loss of an acting giant whilst filming; the movie was hit with constant roadblocks.

Yet it worked, and more so, has become a movie with significance. It rehabilitated the ailing genre of Roman epics, breathing life into the old Hollywood way of making movies. Gladiator provided an almighty swansong for Oliver Reed to take his curtain call, and it achieved what many movies today fail to – it inspired a whole new generation to fall in love with movies. Gladiator is the prime example of a film, which against the odds, succeeded, and within thirty-two pages, bestowed strength and honour to the movie industry again.

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