For director Ridley Scott, it was one look at a 19th-century neoclassical work of art that convinced him to make the Oscar-winning picture “Gladiator.” Jean-Léon Gérôme’s painting “Pollice Verso” depicts an armored gladiator in the ring, triumphantly facing onlookers as the crowd reacts with thumbs turned down, signaling their approval for the fighter to deliver a final, fatal blow. Without even knowing what the film’s story would be, Scott signed on to build a Roman Empire saga that would go on to score five Academy Awards.
Raking in over $460 million dollars globally on what Scott told Variety was at the time a massive budget of $103 million, the film triumphed at the box office when it debuted on May 5, 2000. The Russell Crowe and Joaquin Phoenix action drama paved the way for more historical epics like “300,” “Troy” and “Centurion.” Steven Spielberg at Dreamworks, already in a three-picture deal with screenwriter David Franzoni, signed on to produce the picture, and the crew started filming in England, Malta, Italy and Morocco.
“Gladiator” follows a widowed Roman general Maximus (Crowe), who is forced into slavery as a gladiator, shunted from the battlefield to the arena, where he faces his opponents in brutal death matches. Meanwhile, the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius’s son Commodus (Phoenix) — who ordered the slayings of Maximus’s family — kills his father and seizes his throne. Jealous and skeptical of the new gladiator’s success in the ring, Commodus ultimately goes head to head with Maximus as much of Rome looks on.
Scott, who had already directed “Alien,” “Blade Runner” and “Thelma and Louise,” continued his directing career after “Gladiator” with “Hannibal,” “Black Hawk Down,” “Prometheus” and “The Martian.” Crowe won the Academy Award for best actor, worked with Scott on four more films and Phoenix shot into stardom, winning his own Oscar this year for “Joker.” According to Scott, a “Gladiator” sequel is currently in the works, although the details remain under wraps. A limited edition 4K Blu-ray Steelbook of the film will be released on June 16.
In honor of the film’s 20th anniversary, the cast and crew shared their experiences working on “Gladiator.”
In lieu of a script, producer Walter Parkes pulled out a picture of a 19th century painting, and Scott immediately signed on.
Scott: I’m a very visually driven director. Parkes opened a picture of a painting by a fellow called Jean-Léon Gérôme. It shows the armored man with the tuna-fork that would kill you, standing over a netted victim. He’s looking up at a black marble wall at this purple-faced Nero out of his mind on wine or water. He’s got a thumbs down, and I stared at it for a moment and it was like a flash. When you’re experienced like me, you can do a little knee-jerk flash decision, and normally it’s accurate. So I said, “I’ll do it.” Parkes said, “Hang on, you don’t know what the story’s about.” I said, “I don’t care, I’ll do it” and that was it.
Crowe didn’t initially want to play Maximus, but after talking to Parkes and Scott about their vision, he signed on. At the time, he had a shaved head and had packed on pounds for another role.
Crowe: I’d read the script and I thought it wasn’t a movie. But then Parkes said, “It’s 184 A.D., you’re a Roman general, and you’re going to be directed by Ridley Scott.” And that was enough for me to want to talk to Ridley. I was just coming off the shoot of “The Insider.” I was gigantic. I had no hair because I had been wearing a wig on that movie, so I had shaved my head to make it more comfortable and the wigs go on quicker. I didn’t look like any Roman general.
For Franzoni, the idea came from a motorcycle trip around the world, where he was inspired by the ancient coliseums he passed on the way. In Baghdad, he stayed in a yurt and met an Australian woman who introduced him to a book entitled “Those About To Die” by Daniel P. Mannix, about the Roman games.
Franzoni: When I read the book, it’s not the story of “Gladiator,” but what was in the book was an understanding of how to connect who and how we were to who and how they were. There was a very clear understanding that the coliseums were a sports franchise.
Both Franzoni and Scott refused to make a typical “sword and sandal” movie and looked to foreign cinema for inspiration.
Franzoni: Some of the movies that Ridley and I watched and talked about were “All Quiet on the Western Front” and “La Dolce Vita” — because of the corrupt Roman bourgeoisie — and “The Conformist.” We didn’t talk about any of those sword and sandal movies. The only Roman film I’m pretty sure Ridley looked at was “Satyricon.”
The script for “Gladiator” underwent major rewrites, as cast members like Connie Nielsen (Lucilla) and Djimon Hounsou (Juba) provided their insights.
Nielsen: Ridley calls me from Shepperton, [England] and says, “Connie, would you let me know what you think about the rewrite?” and I pointed out to him that there were some serious inaccuracies in the structure. For example, I had a line where it just said “the police state” and it’s like “Um, police state? Do you want me to actually use that phrase?” or the phrase “put it in a museum.” I don’t think at the time that people considered the word museum the same way we consider a museum today.
Hounsou: The initial script had me being the head of slaves during that time and I said, “I shouldn’t be the definition of slavery.” Slavery didn’t exist back then, so, what are we talking about, really? We’re talking about using humans to do that sort of fighting entertainment and all those people were considered slaves.
The rewrites did not stop at pre-production, though. Throughout filming, the cast members were often given lines on the spot, and Scott, Franzoni and Crowe worked together every day to punch up the screenplay.
Scott: In the first act, the battle of Germania, Russell’s saying, “What the bloody hell am I gonna say?” And I said, “Well, there’s going to be a bird on a twig and you’re going to look at this robin and how ironic this robin is in this field of battle where we’re going to see a bloodbath.” So he went, “OK” and he looks at this twig and imagines a robin. Then he said, “But what the f— am I gonna say?” I said, “I don’t know, why don’t you just say “Hmm, morning! it looks like snow.”
Crowe: I’ve often said to Ridley since, “One of these days we should actually do a film where we know what we’re going to do before we start.”
Franzoni: We’d all drink whiskey and smoke cigars. We’d exchange notes and ideas. Then I’d go back and write at 3 or 4 in the morning and I’d hand the pages to Ridley. During the shoot, I went off and met with Russell. We would meet almost daily before he would go shoot and talk about the scenes. I remember once we were sitting on the ground, drawing things in the sand. It was a very ‘60s way to make a film.
The direction was a collaborative effort led by Scott. Input from the cast was encouraged, and Nielsen said that Richard Harris — who played Marcus Aurelius — came up with a novel idea during a scene with Nielsen and Phoenix in a carriage together.
Nielsen: We were getting ready to shoot the carriage scene and Harris said to me, “Oh, you know, people at the time didn’t wash, so I’ll bet you anything that Commodus smelled terrible in that carriage. You know what they did, at the time, they would have a little fan made out of bunched herbs.” And I was like, “Dude, I’m gonna use that, thank you Daddy.” I went up to Ridley and told him, “Hey this is what Richard tells me that people did and I think it’s a great idea” and he’s like, “Absolutely, let’s put it in.”
The crew built 40% of a full-scale Colosseum nearly 100-feet high, using CGI to finish the rest of the massive structure. In the ring, Hounsou and Crowe, along with the other gladiators, prepared for their battle sequences, oftentimes injuring themselves in the process. They also lifted weights in a tent on the outskirts of the Colosseum.
Hounsou: I almost accidentally stabbed somebody in the head in the fight sequence in the Colosseum when Maximus gets on the horse. Most of us got carried away and I think when you’re truly doing it for real, the pretend sort of goes out of the way and the emotional takes over, so a lot of people got hurt.
Crowe: If you’re rolling around on the ground with gigantic sequences with hundreds of moves of choreography, you’re dealing with horses and tigers and other things that can go wrong, of course there’s gonna be injuries. But when you’re younger, you’re made of rubber and you can bounce back again. I do remember saying to my mom when I got home from that shoot, she said: “How do you feel?” I said, “I actually feel like a football player who’s played one season too many.”
There was also a real tiger in the ring, which Crowe had to narrowly escape.
Scott: [The tiger was] a big boy from tail to nose, eleven feet. You’ve got two guys on a chain with a ring in the floor to control it. Russell said, “OK, release them” and when Russell would fall back, the tiger would come out of the hole and Russell would roll out of the way and he said, “F— me, that was close.” And I said, “We were there as well, Russell. Hey, you were two feet, I was like four feet.”
Crowe: It’s so beautiful, it’s so regal, and you’d love to be able to just pet them and cuddle them, but obviously that comes with inherent risk.
Oliver Reed (Proximo), died in the middle of filming. An infamous hell-raiser, he promised Scott that he wouldn’t drink while shooting. Instead, he drank on the weekends. He died before he finished filming, and the cast mourned his death.
Scott: One Sunday morning, he dropped down dead in the floor of a pub. He probably had a couple of pints and said, “I don’t feel good,” laid on the carpet and died. David Hemmings (Cassius) promised to look after him and said to me, “I’m really sorry, old boy.” Joaquin was very attached to Oliver and was very upset about that. We managed to finish off what was required from Oliver, stealing digital images of his face and attaching them to an appropriate body.
Franzoni: He’s in this bar in Valletta and this British Destroyer is anchored in the bay and the crew comes in. He challenges the crew to some sort of drinking debauch. He drinks some, passes out and dies. I still have his bar tab, by the way.
“Gladiator” was one of Phoenix’s first major roles after the death of his brother, River Phoenix, and he and Crowe developed a brotherly friendship that he referenced during a press conference for the movie.
Crowe: There were a lot of people in that strange journalistic habit who wanted to just poke that fire and kept asking Joaquin about his brother and then about his relationship with me because we have that in the film. At one point, we were doing some press conference and he just said something along the lines of, “Look, Russell treated me like a brother” and it just hit me in a really heavy way.
The last time we got together we had just bumped into each other in a corridor and it was then followed by six or seven hours of just throwing away whatever it was we were supposed to do that day and just being in each other’s company.
The night of the Oscars, Crowe beat out Tom Hanks (“Cast Away”) and Ed Harris (“Pollock”). Scott didn’t make it onstage to accept the Oscar for best picture and he lost the director prize to Steven Soderbergh (“Traffic”). The film would capture five statues, including wins for costumes, sound, and visual effects.
Crowe: I had no idea at all that I would actually be winning that night. I think that year was a really incredible lineup of actors. In that moment when my name was read out, it’s kind of like the ground drops away from underneath you.
Scott: I was knocked over in the trample to get onstage because I’d actually given up the right to be a producer because there’s so many producers. I said, “Oh what the f—, I won’t bother.” And I was run over when they all got up on the stage. So I just sat down thinking, “Holy sh–, I’m not gonna do that again.”
In the end, the filmmaking team behind “Gladiator” sees it as a career high-point, a rare movie that came together both artistically and commercially.
Franzoni: For me, what “Gladiator” really amounts to is a kid having a dream when he’s 25 and is living in a yurt by the Tigris River with no plan and coming out here and being able to see it get made. My favorite quote that is my own quote is that, “I’m tired of seeing movies about movies people have seen. I want to see movies about lives people have led.” And I think that’s what gave this project so much power.
Scott: I’m very fortunate to be fit enough to be still flying, really. I think “Gladiator” would have to go up near the top one, two or three, and after nearly 30 movies, that’s crazy.
Crowe: The standout thing with this film, and 20 years later I can say with confidence that somewhere in the world, today, tonight, that movie will be played on primetime. And it’s 20 years since it came out. Not every movie lasts in that way.