Style and substance. Gladiator is a phenomenal revenge drama that earned the Oscar for Best Picture in 2000 (the original screenwriter, David Franzoni, shared the award with William Nicholson and John Logan), as well as Best Actor for Russell Crowe, Best Costume Design, Best Visual Effects, and Best Sound. Long after the CGI fades into nostalgia, or possibly a few laughs, the story will keep this film alive. As Maximus says, “what we do in life echoes in eternity.”
Gladiator Screenplay: The History
With David Franzoni, John Logan and William Nicholson as the three credited screenwriters, it should be noted that Franzoni is the original author of the script. His success writing Spielberg’s Amistad earned him a three picture deal with Dreamworks. For Gladiator, Franzoni was inspired by Daniel P. Mannix’s Those About To Die (published after the film’s success as The Way of the Gladiator) during motorcycle trip around world nearly thirty years earlier. In his first draft, the protagonist was named Narcissus, after the man who killed Commodus in real life.
Franzoni’s General Narcissus wins the war in Germania. Immediately after the death of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, which is neither shown nor described, Narcissus is shipped as a condemned prisoner to the Colosseum, where he becomes a huge popular success. A superstar gladiator sponsored by the Golden Pompeii Olive Oil Company, Narcissus ultimately strangles Commodus in the Colosseum sands and then sails off into the sunset with his wife and two daughters. 1
Obviously, a lot changed from that first draft to what ended up on the screen. When Ridley Scott was brought in, he believed Franzoni’s dialogue was too “on-the-nose” and hired John Logan for a rewrite. It was Logan who came up with the idea of killing Maximus’ family, an idea that Franzoni had difficultly with:
Creatively, I was concerned when the family was dropped out of the script. As originally written, that’s a big part of what motivates the hero. And then when I saw the first cut, suddenly, the “family” was back in – Ridley had shot some pickups in Italy while scouting Hannibal, and there it was, the emotional element I wanted. 2
The bulk of the first two acts in Logan’s draft, at least structurally, is far closer to what ended up on the screen, though the third act differs quite a bit. In Logan’s third act, Maximus escapes through the sewers to reunite with his army and then leads them into the city to overtake Commodus. Unfortunately, they do not get there in time to save Lucilla, stabbed to death at the hands of her brother, but manage to stop Commodus from killing Lucius. A chase begins, ending with Maximus killing Commodus below the Colosseum floor. With the dead Emperor at his feet, Maximus uses an elevator to take them both to the arena floor where a packed Colosseum waits. There, Maximus grants the Senate the power to form a new government, just as Marcus Aurelius had wished. Maximus then leaves Rome, taking Lucius to raise on his farm in Spain.
Two weeks before filming began, Ridley Scott brought in William Nicholson to make Maximus more than a man hell-bent on revenge. It was Nicholson who developed the internal goal of an afterlife, as well as the Juba character, giving Maximus more dimensions than in previous drafts. But the fun didn’t stop there. As rumor has it, Russell Crowe questioned every aspect of the script. When he didn’t receive the answers he wanted, he would leave the set.
Says a DreamWorks exec: “Russell was not well behaved. He tried to rewrite the entire script on the spot. You know the big line in the trailer, ‘In this life or the next, I will have my vengeance’? At first he absolutely refused to say it. He did a lot of posturing and put the fear of God into some people. Thankfully, Ridley never yelled. He was the voice of reason dealing with many unreasonable factors, not the least of which was his lead.” 3
Perhaps Russell was so on edge because the production walked into principal photography with only thirty-two pages of the script complete. From his Inside the Actor’s Studio episode:
Jon Solomon has an excellent essay on the history of the Gladiator script, which I’ve done my best to summarize in this section. You can download the PDF by clicking this link.
Gladiator Screenplay: The Theme
Gladiator is a broad film. As much as it examines faith in the afterlife, slavery, and democracy, you could talk just as much about mortality, class distinctions, jealousy, perseverance and family. All of it’s in there. Probably more. For the purposes of this post, I will explore democracy, slavery vs freedom, and faith in the afterlife.
The moment Commodus returns from Germania, the senators notify him of problems that require his attention. In Rome’s Greek district, the plague is taking lives and the senate believes implementing sewers could help manage the death toll. The entire time the Senate debates the crisis, Commodus plays with his sword. He could save lives, but what does he do? He declares one hundred fifty days of games.
I think he knows what Rome is. Rome is the mob. He will conjure magic for them and they will be distracted. He will take away their freedom and still they’ll roar. The beating heart of Rome is not the marble floor of the Senate, it is the sand of the Colosseum. He will bring them death, and they will love him for it.
It would be wrong to think of Commodus as just a power-hungry dictator. He represents the worst of politics. Sleight of hand. Misdirection. He’ll entertain with the lives of the nameless and the people will give him limitless power. Most of us don’t need a history lesson to remind us one person having unlimited power over a country is a bad idea.
Slavery vs Freedom
The film begins with an epic battle in Germania. Once it’s evident the tribes will not surrender, Quintus, one of Maximus’ lieutenants, laughs:
People should know when they’re conquered.
Would you, Quintus? Would I?
The Germanic tribes are fighting for the freedom of their people, their way of life. The scorched battlefield suggests they’ve been pushed back to the point they cannot retreat any further. It’s do or die and they choose to fight. From the get-go, Maximus empathizes with his enemy. So, when the tables are turned and he must fight against the odds, he already knows the mindset. He’s been there. Of course, it helps that he has…
Faith in the Afterlife
How comforting would life be knowing that your loved ones are waiting for you after you die? That comfort gives Maximus the strength to carry on when all he wanted was to die at their graves. When Maximus discovers Proximo will take the gladiators to Rome, Maximus’ motivation is all about vengeance, but his faith gives him the power to face death. What else does he have to lose? He’s lost his family and his freedom. Death is welcome.
Gladiator Screenplay: The Structure
Around the 40 minute mark, Gladiator throws two big turns at the audience: one, Maximus discovering Commodus killed Marcus Aurelius to assume the Emperorship; two, Quintus informing Maximus his family will be killed for his action against the new Caesar. There’s strong arguments on both sides of the fence for what constitutes the turn and decision into act two. I chose patricide is the major turn, sticking to the external goal of the protagonist — to kill Commodus. Maximus knows Commodus killed his father to assume power and his decision is to seek counsel from the senators. Unfortunately, Maximus knows nothing of politics. He’s a warrior. It would have been easy for him to take Commodus’ hand as a sign of loyalty and work the system to stage a coup. True to character, he shows disdain, giving Commodus all the information he needs to remedy the situation. More important, once Quintus arrests Maximus, there’s a big transition from general to prisoner. However, since both of these turns are reflected in the climax, it’s best to add an internal turn and decision (Turn, Quintus telling him his family will die; Decision, racing to save his family in Spain). While the external climax would be killing Commodus, joining his family in the afterlife would mark the internal climax.