Why Gladiator Continues to Echo Through Eternity

We look back on the legacy of Gladiator 20 years later with producer Douglas Wick, and why the movie’s name still echoes in cinema history.

Photo: Paramount Pictures / Getty

French artist Jean-Léon Gérôme’s 1872 painting of gladiators and spectators, “Pollice Verso,” remains one of the defining portraits of ancient Rome. With its depiction of two fighters in the Colosseum, one standing and the other vanquished, pleading for mercy, it works as a paradox: The viewer is given both a sense of moral superiority over the distant past and a discreet delight as the crowd lowers their thumbs in bloodlust, demanding death. Historically accurate or not, it sets imaginations aflutter, and it alone convinced Ridley Scott to direct Gladiator.

Producer Douglas Wick remembers that well. After all, it did lead to him winning an Academy Award for Best Picture. But long before that 2001 Oscar night, he and Walter F. Parkes, studio head of DreamWorks Pictures, were sitting in Scott’s office, trying to convince the eclectic filmmaker behind Alien and Blade Runner about the virtues of a screenplay … all the while Scott, a student of the West Hartlepool College of Art, just kept staring at that damn painting.

“That was a singular experience in my life,” Wick says of meeting Scott with a full screenplay draft, plus a few visual references. “Ridley took one look at a copy of this painting and said, ‘I’ll do the movie.’ We asked, ‘Don’t you want to read the script?’ and he said, ‘We’ll figure out the script.’”

Figure it out they did. Released 20 years ago, Gladiator remains one of the most influential and popular blockbusters of the early 21st century. While it had its share of critics in 2000—with Roger Ebert notoriously shuddering at its Best Picture win—the movie has outlasted dissenting voices to be considered a true classic of its genre. This film that Wick, Scott, and ultimately three screenwriters crafted basks in the grandeur of imperial Rome at the height of its power. Yet for all the operatic sweep of men living and dying in the grand arena, it was keeping that augustness pinpointed on only a handful of people—a father, a daughter, the son he wished he had, and the one he regretted giving birth to—that gave Gladiator its emotional heft.

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Speaking with Wick ahead of Gladiator’s 4K Blu-ray Steelbook release this week, he tells us he had no expectation they were making something that could one day stand in the same company as Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus and William Wyler’s Ben-Hur. He wasn’t even sure he could get it made at first, considering the first studio he took Gladiator to scoffed at the idea of making a swords and sandals epic in the late ‘90s. Everyone knows historical epics are dead.

“Every project you start off with, it’s like a kid, you see it in its idealized version,” Wick explains. “Then normally what happens is what they call it in the military ‘mission creep.’ Instead of Paris you end up in Tijuana. And this is just one of those rare times that the movie we all first envisioned, and everyone who came on board, starting with DreamWorks and then Ridley, and then Russell [Crowe], we all got to have the incredibly exciting and lucky experience of seeing each of our dream versions come to fruition.”

That dream actually began when screenwriter David Franzoni pitched the story of a film about a gladiator killing Roman Emperor Commodus to Wick. Franzoni was taken by the idea of a callow youth suddenly having imperial power and becoming infatuated with the “bread and circuses” of the Great Colosseum in Rome. Indeed, Commodus was a real emperor who did fight rigged battles with gladiators like the ultimate sports fanboy—although the gladiator who murdered him actually strangled him in the bath. But it was still that kernel of Franzoni’s idea that opened the gates of Rome.

Says Wick, “David Franzoni came into my office and he said, ‘Let’s do a movie about the Roman Colosseum.’ And he showed me in research that the Roman Colosseum, the games, was such a focal point of Roman culture that it’s analogous to the Space Program [in the United States]. It was such a focus of the society, and so many technologies were created to service it… animal husbandry, drainage, architecture, engineering. And it had such an unbelievable political role in the culture.” So much so that to this day, many an activist might say mainstream populations are distracted by “bread and circuses,” which is what Roman poet Juvenal coined to describe the superficial appeasements of gladiatorial matches—and in the same century as Commodus’ reign, no less.

Franzoni laid the groundwork for a story about Maximus trying to kill a Roman Emperor, but it was Scott coming aboard, as well as additional rewrites by screenwriters John Logan and William Nicholson, that solidified the movie’s larger themes and poetic ideas about a family man looking for absolution.

“Maximus was a character who was going to, during the course of the story, kill a lot of people in the arena,” Wick reflects about Gladiator’s complicated development process. “So to have an audience go with him, he had to be properly motivated. The first challenge was to make the revenge plot incredibly compelling and dramatic, and John Logan helped a lot with that: that was the killing of Maximus’ family. And then as the revenge was working as a motor, and we started to try and serve the deeper levels of his character, we started talking about the possibility of Maximus dying… That could be a catastrophic decision for a big movie to kill the leading man. So Ridley began to design the afterlife for Maximus and create the visual early on in the beginning, when you introduce the character [with] his hand touching the tall grass.”

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Peaceful fields of Elysium aside, it’s still a bold move to kill off a blockbuster’s hero and treat that as a happy ending. As Wick notes, “Boy, in the hands of someone who isn’t one of the best directors in the world, that could really be cheesy.”

Perhaps this is why Wick says the first answer to all questions is to have Ridley in the meeting. But it was also a laborious process, with the movie beginning to film in Ouarzazate, Morocco without a finished script. For this reason, Crowe famously struggled with adjusting to big budget moviemaking. While he already had an Oscar nomination for The Insider by the time cameras rolled, Crowe was not yet a movie star and initially chafed at this production model. He even absolutely refused to say Maximus’ now famous threat to Joaquin Phoenix’s Commodus: “Father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife. And I will have my vengeance in this life or the next.” In fact, Crowe kept improvising new lines until Scott forced him to say what’s on the page.

“He thought it would come across arch,” Wick remembers. “But in fairness to him, every movie is a lot of push and pull. There would be no successful Gladiator without Russell Crowe. In retrospect, when you get lucky on a movie, just exactly the right actor exists at the right time… He was not yet a movie star, so the audience would discover him as Maximus. And so he had the weight of delivering Maximus on the screen, and there’s always lines and challenges, but a lot of his input was integrated into the character.”

That investment shows on screen: Crowe brings a beleaguered nobility to Maximus, turning what could have been a generic action hero into a weary idealist who is literally forced by bondage into violence after the movie’s first act. In many ways, his taciturn performance is of the type Oliver Reed might’ve delivered in the ‘70s. Which is why Reed, who played gladiator owner Proximo in the film, had such deliciously crusty chemistry with Crowe. It was also Reed’s well earned reputation as a hard-living, hard drinking cynic out of the Hemingway mold that drew Scott toward the English actor. The director even agreed to Reed’s unusual precondition: Gladiator would have him on set all day, but the moment five o’clock rolled around, his time was his own.

“No one was going to be able to tell him not to hit the bars,” Wick surmises. Tragically though, it was at one of those bars in Malta where Reed was coaxed into a drinking match with Royal Navy sailors and suffered a fatal heart attack.

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“I’d just flown back to LA from Malta, and suddenly I got home and there were like 15 messages on my machine saying Oliver Reed had died,” Wick remembers. “Obviously, a profound human tragedy. I basically just went back to the airport, got Bill Nicholson to meet us in Malta, and we had to figure out if we were going to go back to Morocco, go back and reshoot the whole first two-thirds of the movie with a new actor, or if we could figure out a way to somehow finish Oliver Reed’s performance in what remained of the movie.” They made the choice to save Reed’s final performance. It was a prudent one because, as Wick says, his scenes with Crowe were like lightning in a bottle.

“I think the excitement with Oliver Reed was that we all, in watching dailies, knew… that a great actor was about to do an extraordinary performance that would make a new generation love him. So we were all rooting for him, excited about what he was delivering.” After his death, they came to the conclusion that they would save that excitement, even if it meant changing the ending of the movie.

In the original shooting script, the movie concluded with Proximo crossing the Colosseum’s sands one last time, picking up flicks of dust and letting them fall back into shadow. But now they had to find a conclusion to his arc with the footage they had.

“[It was] like the old theater manager after the play’s finished for the night, walking across the empty stage,” Wick says about what wasn’t filmed. “That would have been really poignant, [but] we were able to construct a way to redeem his character… because he was callously sending men in to die into the arena.”

The producer again credits Scott with how relatively seamlessly they were able to repurpose other footage of Reed, and edit together a noble sendoff to Proximo. “It could only be pulled off because of Ridley’s craft, to take those dialogue scenes from earlier in the movie and repurpose them through a prison door and then kill the body double. He would free Maximus and that would be the redemption of his character.”

Reed’s final performance thus became a cherished one, alongside a slew of others that worked like kismet in the film. In addition to Crowe and Reed’s natural gruffness, there is Joaquin Phoenix’s slightly sympathetic, but ultimately skin-crawling, performance as an unloved emperor with incest on his mind; Connie Nielsen’s commanding turn as the strong Roman woman who must use that strength as a mask to disguise fear of her brother; John Mathieson’s sun-drenched cinematography; and crucially Hans Zimmer’s ethereal score which creates an aural soundscape worthy of Maximus’ line, “What we do in this life echoes through eternity.”

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And echo Gladiator has. When Franzoni pitched a movie about Commodus and the Colosseum, Wick may not have expected a classic, but he got one that continues to influence, from 300 to Troy, to this day with films like Netflix’s The King. Wick admits that in 2000, there was no guarantee it would be a hit—and to mitigate the risk they knew it would work as an action movie “for boys,” even if the drama fell flat. But the drama didn’t fall then, nor does it fall now.

“I think if you’ve been around for a while, one of the things you’ll learn is that if you look at a hundred years of movies, every cycle repeats, and it’s all about someone who will be able to reinvent it,” the producer says. “Every 20 years there’ll be a vampire movie, and the 20-year-old versions usually start to look kitsch. Luckily with Gladiator that’s not the case.”

Gladiator is now available for a limited time in a 4K Blu-ray Steelbook.