Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator” (2000)

Academy Award Wins: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Costume Design, Best Sound, Best Visual Effects

The late 90’s and early 2000’s were watershed years for American cinema, ushering in a new age of gigantic studio spectacles following the imagination-shattering release of Steven Spielberg’s JURASSIC PARK in 1993.  Cinema had been nicknamed “The Dream Factory” for a reason, allowing audiences to escape from reality for two hours at a time and share in the collective rapture of witnessing images in motion— some of which could never be encountered in waking life.  The notion that “anything was possible” when it came to the movies was something taken for granted, but JURASSIC PARK was proof positive of its validity.  Here were realistic, flesh-and-blood dinosaurs — extinct for millions of years, yet walking around up on screen… roaring, stomping, chomping.  Suddenly, there was no limit to what filmmakers could do, and they seized that opportunity with reckless abandon. The phrase “capturing our imagination” might be apt here, but in actuality the opposite was true: our imaginations had been unleashed.  

In our rush to realize untold worlds with boundless possibilities, there inevitably resulted in some regrettable ideas and ill-advised cash-in attempts.  There were also some certified classics— films that employed this new technology in service to a sound story rather than leaning on it as the main hook. Almost twenty years on, these new classics are easily distinguishable, not just by their enduring place in cinephiles’ hearts, but also by computer effects that actually hold up.  Director Sir Ridley Scott’s GLADIATOR (2000), is such a film; in recreating the awe-inspiring majesty of Ancient Rome, Scott’s vision attains an elegant, almost monumental pedigree that modern cinema rarely achieves.  Built like an old-school studio epic with modern sensibilities, GLADIATOR has been held in high regard ever since its release, assuming command as a flagship catalog title that ensures consistent re-releases with each new home video format.  In other words, the film hasn’t strayed too far from the forefront of our collective cinematic memory in the decades since, installing itself in the pop culture pantheon as arguably the first classic studio film of the 21st century.  For Scott himself, GLADIATOR has become a transformative project, marking his emergence as a mature, world-class filmmaker fully attuned to his creative inspirations and operating at the peak of his powers (although age-wise he was on the cusp of eligibility for retirement).  It seems somewhat silly to say, as hugely influential classics like ALIEN (1979), BLADE RUNNER (1982) and THELMA & LOUISE (1991) pepper his back catalog, but yet they are also largely defined by their respective visual aesthetics.  They are, by and large, products of their time. GLADIATOR, however, is an altogether different beast, channeling the spirit of Hollywood Golden Age spectacles like Stanley Kubrick‘s SPARTACUS (1960) or William Wyler‘s BEN-HUR (1959) to create a timeless adventure that restores majesty and a sense of Shakespearean dramaturgy to the modern theatrical experience.  

Like many films of this kind, GLADIATOR’s road to production was a long one forged by a passionate individual.  This person was screenwriter David Franzoni, who had been spinning his interest in ancient Roman culture and the gladiatorial games into a single narrative thread since the 1970’s (1).  Following his writing involvement with Steven Spielberg’s AMISTAD (1997), Franzoni was invited to pitch his long-gestating passion project to Spielberg and other executives at Dreamworks, who immediately responded to the exciting possibilities inherent in recreating ancient Rome in this emerging digital age.  Franzoni subsequently joined fellow producers Douglas Wick and Brando Lustig in searching for a director who could capably navigate the production’s complicated logistics and inevitable challenges. Their search led them to Scott, whose gifts for worldbuilding and innate knack for big-budget spectacle positioned him as the obvious top candidate.  Scott did agree to direct the film, but not because he particularly responded to Franzoni’s script (indeed, I’ve read his early draft myself and can confirm its excellent structure comes at the expense of… well, everything else). Instead, Scott’s personal attraction to the project stemmed from an evocative painting shown to him by Wick during his pitch (1).  That painting was “Pollice Verso” (“Thumbs Down”) by Jean-Leon Gerome— a rather famous work depicting a Roman gladiator standing over his vanquished opponent, waiting on the Emperor to render one of two verdicts: mercy or death. Upon seeing the painting, Scott knew his involvement was inevitable, and his first order of business was hiring John Logan to heavily rewrite Franzoni’s dialogue, which he deemed too un-artful and unsubtle for his tastes.  Logan also retooled the first act, using the murder of the protagonist’s wife and child as his primary motivation (1). Having your work rewritten by another screenwriter can be a painful, bitter process, so Franzoni must have felt especially aggrieved when Scott brought on a third screenwriter, William Nicholson, after what was reportedly a less-than-promising table read by the cast. Nicholson’s contributions focused on the addition of the spiritual “Elysium” angle and making the protagonist more well-rounded, and Scott felt these revisions were so necessary that he invited Nicholson to stay on through the shoot and provide additional rewrites as needed.  Indeed, Nicholson’s services would be very much required— the combative rewriting process ultimately resulted in Scott and company commencing on a $100 million shoot with only a quarter of a finished script, with the remainder being written and rewritten on the fly against the cast’s aggressive questioning and criticisms of its contents (2).

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That GLADIATOR’s final narrative is so cohesive and powerful is something of a miracle, but that’s not said to diminish Scott seasoned storytelling skills or the contributions from his stellar cast, all of whom turn in career-best performances.  Set 180 years after the birth of Christ, the film details an epic story about, to paraphrase the now-famous marketing campaign, a Roman general-turned-gladiator who defies an empire in his quest for personal revenge. We begin in wooded Germania, where Russell Crowe begins his first of several performances throughout Scott’s filmography as Maximus, a general of the Roman army in service to Emperor Marcus Aurelius.  A gifted and charismatic leader, Maximus has been tasked with delivering Germania from the barbarian hordes and placing it under Roman control. Crowe excels in a role that original choice Mel Gibson reportedly turned down because he felt he was too old, bringing a fierce, yet compassionate authority that helps us to believe this stone-cold killer is truly a family man at heart. After his victory in Germania, his ailing Emperor Marcus Aurelius (a sublime Sir Richard Harris) assigns Maximus a formidable new task: succeed him as Emperor and reinstate the Republic, subsequently returning democracy to Roman society.  Naturally, Aurelius’ son and assumed heir, Commodus, doesn’t take this news lightly. Joaquin Phoenix strikes a perfectly sniveling and petulant tone as GLADIATOR’s classical villain— aggrieved and emasculated by his father’s unexpected decision, he proceeds to mask his murder of Marcus Aurelius as a natural death and condemn Maximus and his family to execution when he won’t pledge loyalty to his new “Emperor”.  A better killer than his own executioners, Maximus narrowly escapes death and rides for his native Spain to prevent the murders of his beloved son and wife (seen in visions in the form of actress Giannina Fabio, who would later become Scott’s wife in 2015 (1)).  

Upon arriving home, Maximus tragically discovers that he is too late— the sight of his family’s burned and crucified bodies robs him of his will to live, sending him into a kind of comatose state that results in his abduction by passing slave traders.  Pressed into a brutal life of forced gladiatorial combat in the arid Roman province of Zucchabar, his natural fighting talents turn him into a local star while also giving him something to strive for: his freedom. After a series of wins in regional gladiatorial arenas, his owner, Proximo, decides to take Maximus to his gladiator academy in Rome and groom him for battle at the Coliseum.  Celebrated actor Oliver Reed proves a brilliant choice as the grumpy former gladiator-turned-slave owner and mentor to Maximus, lending GLADIATOR a worldly gravitas akin to the sword-and-sandal epics of yesteryear.  GLADIATOR also marks Reed’s final on-screen performance, having suffered an unexpected heart attack that would cause him to pass away three weeks before production wrapped.  Rather than recast the role and undergo reshoots, Scott put his considerable logistical skills and profound understanding of visual film grammar to the test in an effort to keep Reed’s performance intact.  This was achieved via some light CGI compositing, but the majority of Scott’s workaround consisted of good old-fashioned cinematic trickery— a mix of body doubles and cleverly-chosen outtakes from other scenes.  The death of a major cast member during production is one of filmmaking’s most debilitating scenarios, but Scott’s quick thinking and resourcefulness enabled production to continue on with barely a hiccup.

Maximus’ series of hard-fought wins in the Coliseum cause his fame to spread throughout Rome, elevating him to a level of celebrity on par with Commodus himself and forcing him to reveal his true identity to his scheming nemesis.  With his crusade against Commodus now out in the open, Maximus devises a slave uprising that will free his fellow gladiators, conspiring with the likes of Proximo, select Roman senators, his loyal friend and fellow slave, Juba (Djimon Hounsou in a breakout performance), and even Commodus’ own beloved sister, Lucille, played by Connie Nielsen with a regal elegance that recalls the string-pulling manipulativeness of Lady Macbeth while subverting the expectations of the “romantic interest” archetype.  Far more than just a damsel in distress, Nelson’s performance as Lucille takes its place alongside Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, Sean Young’s Rachel, and Susan Sarandon & Geena Davis’ Thelma & Louise in Scott’s lengthy display of strong, resilient heroines. With her love of Maximus, as well as the crowd’s, preventing Commodus from outright killing him, the stage is set for a final, Shakespearean encounter between these two bitter rivals on the blood-stained Coliseum floor.

The influence of aforementioned epics like SPARTACUS and BEN-HUR loom large throughout GLADIATOR’s visual presentation, infusing Scott’s trademark pop aesthetic with the prestige of world-class production value.  Working with Scott for the first time, cinematographer John Mathieson would earn an Oscar nomination for his efforts here, imprinting a series of enduring images onto the 2.39:1 35mm film frame, a prime example of which is Maximus’ hand caressing golden wheat stalks as he walks through a field (a surprisingly influential visual that’s been endlessly copied and parodied in the years since).  Scott employs his tried-and-true color palette of blues and oranges to better differentiate the film’s various locales: a cold blue cast communicates both the wooded chill of Germania and the marble chambers of Rome’s Forum, while strong orange hues convey the arid vistas of Zucchabar as well as the warm Mediterranean climate that hangs over the Coliseum. Maximus’ visions of a peaceful afterlife take on a strong blue/green tint, firmly establishing its otherworldly nature without pushing in too fantastical a direction. Scott’s approach to camerawork has always been based on a mix between the classical formalism of crane and dolly shots and new-school techniques handheld photography, and GLADIATOR further reinforces this blend by drawing inspiration from both sweeping Golden Age epics and more-recent works like Steven Spielberg’s SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998)— a picture whose innovations with 45-degree shutter angles create a hyperreal staccato in action sequences that GLADIATOR ably replicates for its own visceral battles.  This evocative mix can also be glimpsed in some of the film’s stylish time lapse shots, or in a standout sequence that finds Commodus returning to Rome as its new Emperor, rendered in a fascist visual syntax that immediately calls to mind the Nazi propaganda of Leni Riefenstahl’s TRIUMPH OF THE WILL (1935) (although, as Scott notes in his commentary, the Nazis actually followed the Roman Empire’s lead in the design of their own iconography).  

Scott’s atmospheric signatures are ever present throughout GLADIATOR: smoke, shafts of concentrated light, plumes of dust, billowing snow, and intimate candlelight work in concert to bring theatricality and immediacy to the antiquity of imperial Rome.  Returning production designer Arthur Max would earn an Oscar nomination for his own efforts towards this end, the highlight being the building of a portion of the Coliseum in Malta at a cost of $1 million and several months’ construction time.  Thanks to the oblong oval shape of the structure, clever compositions and strategic viewing angles could create a comprehensive impression of depth and scale without the need to build the whole damn thing. Likewise, only the first couple tiers of audience seating needed to be built, with the remainder being digitally recreated.  Indeed, a considerable quantity of computer-generated imagery was required to recreate Ancient Rome in the wide, but Scott’s tasteful implementation uses real elements as the base of each effect shot, allowing GLADIATOR to age far more gracefully than most of the other CGI-heavy films from the period like THE PHANTOM MENACE (1999), George Lucas’ first installment in the Star Wars prequel trilogy.  GLADIATOR’s post-production process benefits from the familiarity afforded by Scott’s hiring of two returning collaborators, both of whom would also score Oscar nominations of their own for their work here.  Editor Pietro Scalia’s seasoned hand brings a propulsive rhythm and an intuitive spatial cohesion to GLADIATOR’s several battle sequences, while composer Hans Zimmer’s heroic and appropriately-bombastic score infuses the action with rousing drama.  One of the best selling soundtracks of all time (1), GLADIATOR’s score is an easy contender for Zimmer’s finest work— an honor he shares with renowned vocalist Lisa Gerrard, whose haunting, mournful wails perfectly complement Zimmer’s use of harps and mandolins, adding an exotic antiquity to the otherwise-standard orchestral blend of strings, horns, and percussion.

GLADIATOR’s producers were wise to seek out Scott’s directing services— whether they possessed the intuition or not, their project’s specific narrative needs play directly into Scott’s strengths as a storyteller.  With the exception of 1991’s THELMA & LOUISE, the 90’s had been something of a stagnant creative period for Scott, finding him treading water with projects that appealed to his artistic interests without necessarily challenging him.  Indeed, challenge appears to be the “special sauce” in his touchstone works; he thrives on it, drawing the necessary oxygen from it to deliver a meaningful and resonant exhortation. GLADIATOR would pose a formidable challenge from every logistical angle, beginning with the hard truth that the swashbuckling sword-and-sandals genre was all but dead at the turn of the 21st century.  The prospect of recreating Ancient Rome as an immersive environment, however, was too powerful a draw for Scott to resist. Under Scott’s seasoned eye, the environment becomes the selling point for audiences, offering them a chance to experience the antiquity and the majesty of imperial Rome in all its grimy, sweaty, bloody glory.  In many ways, GLADIATOR resembles Scott’s 1977 debut, THE DUELLISTS, in its vibrant historical recreation of an era long gone— a tribute to Scott’s longtime flair for building fantastical, cohesive worlds on-screen.  This is especially true of GLADIATOR’s locales outside of Rome, which aren’t as reliant on heavy computer manipulation: the woods outside Farnham, England stand in for the rugged wilderness of Germania while a Moroccan desert town that Scott had previously scouted for G.I. JANE (1998) transforms itself into the bustling province of Zucchabar while further indulging his on-screen interest in Middle Eastern locales.  In undertaking GLADIATOR, Scott establishes a new template for his career, continually returning to the genre he helped to invigorate with subsequent works like KINGDOM OF HEAVEN (2005), ROBIN HOOD (2010) and EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS (2014).  

None of those works, however, would ultimately achieve the level of prestige and universal praise accorded to GLADIATOR.  Almost-uniformly rave reviews (although the late Roger Ebert was not a fan (3)) drove box office receipts towards half a billion dollars worldwide, making GLADIATOR the second highest grossing film of 2000.  Its old-school approach to spectacle and unrivaled production value positioned the film as a major awards contender, especially at the Oscars, where it took home gold statues in technical categories like Best Sound, Best Costume Design and Best Visual Effects as well as two of the big marquee categories: Best Actor and Best Picture.  Other nominations beyond the aforementioned included Best Screenplay and a Best Supporting Actor nod for Phoenix’s performance, with Scott himself earning his first nomination from the Academy for his direction. Scott’s eye for tastemaking design had always been beloved by pop culture, but his recognition by the admittedly-stuffy members of the Academy marks a profound ascent in the eyes of the industry, emerging from the realm of slick, yet workman-like commerce into the prestigious plane of high art.  Whereas critics had previously derided him for favoring style over substance, they now recognized that his style had become the substance, not unlike a painter whose work is celebrated more for its visible brush strokes than the image that said strokes comprise.  The film’s influence is still felt today, with recent sword-and-sandal epics like 2016’s remake of BEN-HUR or the Starz television series SPARTACUS resonating like the aftershocks of GLADIATOR’s earth-shattering success.  Indeed, GLADIATOR has done an admirable job in staying in the public eye for almost two decades, with a 2005 home video re-release providing audiences with a new extended cut of the film that adds fifteen minutes to the runtime (Scott, however still maintains the theatrical cut is his definitive director’s cut).  A sequel was even considered, to the extent that producers commissioned a full screenplay by renowned rock star and film composer Nick Cave. While the project was ultimately abandoned for straying too far from the spirit of the original, Cave’s 2006 draft nonetheless explored some interesting ideas in its detailing of Maximus’ quest through the afterlife, becoming an immortal soldier fighting through the major wars of history (up to and including World War 2).  None of these revisionist developments have dulled the sharpness of GLADIATOR’s blade, serving only to further reinforce its legacy as a modern classic.  Its eventual selection for the National Film Registry all but assured, GLADIATOR has claimed victory as a cornerstone of Scott’s cinematic legacy.  As one of mainstream American cinema’s most prominent voices during its first hundred years of existence, Scott was now primed to do the same as the medium entered its second century.

GLADIATOR is currently available on 4K UHD Blu Ray via Paramount.

Credits:

Written by: David Franzoni, John Logan, William Nicholson

Produced by: Douglas Wick, David Franzoni, Branko Lustig

Director of Photography: John Mathieson

Production Designer: Arthur Max

Edited by: Pietro Scalia

Music by: Hans Zimmer and Lisa Gerrard

References:

  • IMDB Trivia Page