Oliver Reed died three weeks before principal photography ended. Since he was considered a key character, a clause in the movie's insurance coverage would have allowed the filmmakers to re-shoot all of Reed's scenes with another actor, and the insurers would pay for it (an estimated twenty-five million dollars). However, most of the actors and crew were exhausted from the punishing schedule, and Ridley Scott did not want to cut Reed from the movie. The script was re-written, a body double and CGI were used to give Reed's character a plausible resolution.
The wounds on Russell Crowe's face after the opening battle scene are real, caused when his horse startled and backed him into tree branches. The stitches in his cheek are clearly visible when he is telling Commodus he intends to return home.
Five tigers were brought in for the scene in the arena where Maximus fights Tigris the Gaul. A veterinarian armed with tranquilizer darts was present the entire time. For safety's sake, Russell Crowe was kept at least fifteen feet away from the tigers.
Over the course of the gladiatorial scenes, Russell Crowe lost all feeling in his right forefinger for two years after a sword fight, aggravated an Achilles tendon injury, broke a foot bone, cracked a hip bone, and popped a few bicep tendons out of their sockets.
Although Commodus was initially favored by the Roman people, he lost that status through dramatic acts of megalomania, and is often considered the initiator of the fall of Rome. During his reign, he incorporated his name into many common terms, such as the terms for money and the people. Eventually, the citizens and the Senate had enough, and he was poisoned. When he vomited out the poison, he was strangled. Afterward, the Senate returned the language to what it had been before Commodus, and took down the many statues of himself he'd put up.
The opening battle scene was filmed in Bourne Woods, Surrey, England. The Royal Forestry Commission had originally slated the area for deforestation, so Ridley Scott eagerly offered them his facilities to burn the woods to the ground. The Commission happily accepted.
Ridley Scott resisted any suggestion that Maximus and Lucilla (Connie Nielsen) should have a sexual relationship, because it would decrease his need to be with his murdered wife and son. Russell Crowe was also against it, feeling that it wasn't in character.
Maximus' pet wolf is played by Kyte, a female Tervuren Belgian Shepherd. The production couldn't use real wolves because England's strict anti-rabies laws prevented them from importing wolves. Kyte also appeared in the British soap opera EastEnders (1985) for seven years, as a male Tervuren named Wellard.
From the outset, Ridley Scott made it quite clear that this "sword and sandals" movie would not feature any of the genre's clichés of people lounging around eating grapes and drinking from goblets. He intended to create a more realistic vision of ancient Rome.
Russell Crowe began shooting this film a few months after The Insider (1999) wrapped. He'd gained more than forty pounds for his previous film, and lost it all before this one. He claims he did nothing special, besides normal work on his Australian farm.
In reality, Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Sir Richard Harris) died of the plague, and Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) ascended to the throne. He was a much loved Emperor by the Army and the lower classes, until he fell out of their favor, due to his egocentric behavior.
On visiting the real Colosseum, Ridley Scott remarked to Production Designer Arthur Max that it was "too small", so they designed an outsized "Rome of the imagination", which was inspired by English and French romantic painters, as well as Nazi architect Albert Speer.
Commodus was known as a "Gladiator Emperor", routinely appearing in the arena to take down wild animals. He charged Rome an exorbitant amount of money for each appearance, which eventually devalued Roman coins, and led to the fall of Rome. He would often take people with missing limbs or other disabilities into the arena, tie them together, and club them to death. Initially revered for his hunting and combat prowess, the populace turned against him.
The blur effect that appears halfway through the war scene between Maximus' Army and the Germanic tribes was not originally intended. The scene was shot in the early evening, but continued too long, and the light was drastically diminished. In order to keep the continuity of the scene's lighting, and avoid shooting another day on the location, Director of Photography John Mathieson chose instead to shoot the scenes with a very low frame rate. To compensate for the loss of frames, the frames that were shot, were duplicated several times in post-production, and edited into the film in a way that made the switch look natural.
Russell Crowe was continually unhappy with the screenplay, re-writing much of it to suit his own ends. He would frequently walk off the set if he didn't get his way. The famous line "And I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next." he initially refused to say, telling Screenwriter William Nicholson, "Your lines are garbage, but I'm the greatest actor in the world, and I can make even garbage sound good". He said the speech anyway, because he was unable to ad-lib anything better. Nicholson said, "In his defense, my lines probably were garbage."
The short sword used by the Roman army, the Gladius Hispaniensis, is seen being used by many gladiators in the film. The version used in the arena in the film is accurate as depicted. It was often shorter than the military version. The use of the gladius is actually the source of the word "gladiator". In Latin, Gladius was also a common word for penis. Equally the word vagina originally meant "sheath".
When Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) goes with Lucius (Spencer Treat Clark) to meet Maximus (Russell Crowe) at the Colosseum, he tells Maximus that Lucius insists Maximus is Hector reborn. Then Commodus asks Lucius, "Or was it Hercules?" The real emperor Commodus believed *he* was Hercules reborn.
It is a common misconception that a Roman emperor put his thumb upwards to signify that a gladiator was to be spared, whereas thumb down meant that there would be no mercy for a downed gladiator. In reality, this gesturing was the other way around: thumb up symbolized a sword action (and thus death), and thumb down a sheathed sword (mercy). The crew was aware of this while making the film, but since "thumbs up" is considered to be a good sign nowadays, they decided not to unnecessarily confuse the audience.
Maximus's tattoo "SPQR" stands for "Senatus Populusque Romanus," which translates to "The Senate and the Roman People". This was one of the main slogans of Rome throughout its history (as well as today, manhole covers et cetera).
Due to Academy regulations at the time, co-Composer Lisa Gerrard was denied an Oscar nomination while Hans Zimmer received one, which created a huge controversy over the Academy's snubbing of Gerrard's from the nomination. The two, however, did win the Golden Globe Award for Best Original Score - Motion Picture as co-Composers.
During the opening battle, we see Roman soldiers marching to meet the barbarians in open combat with their pilas (javelins) in hand as if they were spears. In reality, they were thrown at the enemy before the two sides would meet. Pilas (pural for pilum) were too fragile to be used as spears, because the main tip was designed to break and bend after contact, to disallow the enemy to throw them back at the legionaries.
A replica of about one third of Rome's Colosseum was built in Malta, to a height of fifty-two feet, mostly from plaster and plywood. The remainder of the building was added in digitally. It took several months to build, at a reputed cost of one million dollars.
The tigers enter the arena via trap doors in the wooden floor. In addition, there is at least one shot of the gladiators rising up to the floor via a kind of elevator. Both elevators (operated by winch and pulley) and trapdoors were actually used at the Colosseum in Rome.
In an example of "translation convention", all characters in the movie speak modern languages: English for the most part, but also Italian (Maximus' son), German (the Barbarian chief before the battle) and even Zulu (the ancient Germanic war chant). Russell Crowe even wanted to go one step further, and speak his lines imitating Antonio Banderas' accent, in order to show Maximus' non-Italic origins, but Ridley Scott disapproved the idea.
The real Lucius Verus, who is portrayed as a young kid in the movie, was the son of Marcus Aurelius' adopted brother, and died eight years into his reign. Commodus' selection as Caesar was made when he was five-years-old, and coins were made with his likeness on it.
Though dozens of versions of the script were written, the original one hundred thirty page draft, dated October 1997 by David Franzoni, is "different in almost every detail from the finished movie." (As quoted by David S. Cohen in his book "Screen Plays".)
Russell Crowe explained why he said yes to the film: "They said, 'It's a one-hundred-million-dollar film. You're being directed by Ridley Scott. You play a Roman General.' I've always been a big fan of Ridley's."
The real-life Commodus was born to a mother who was rumored to have either slept with a Gladiator or had bathed in the blood of one. Many took the myth as legend, believing that such led to the resulting "Gladiator Emperor".
Contrary to rumor, Enya didn't record any music for the soundtrack of this film. The song simply sounds like something she would have recorded. The song, and in fact much of the soundtrack, was composed and sung by Lisa Gerrard.
Oliver Reed was asked to read for the part of Proximo, something he always refused to do. However, as he sensed that this was a great opportunity, Reed relented his usual rule, and read for Ridley Scott.
Screenwriter David Franzoni started developing the story in the 1970s, when he read "Those Who Are About To Die", a history of the Roman games by Daniel P. Mannix. Franzoni later discussed the idea with Steven Spielberg during their work on Amistad (1997), saying that he envisioned Commodus as being something like Ted Turner, in the way he combined politics and entertainment to establish a base of influence.
Various historians have tried to find proof that the awning in the Colosseum, really was used as a cooling system. Coins and other images of the amphitheater have been found showing a canopy system. In May 1998, a few scientists on PBS's NOVA series constructed two different canopy systems on an ancient amphitheater. One of those designs appears to be the inspiration for the canopy system seen in this film.
In the director's commentary, Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe explain that the names of the horses on Maximus' breastplate, "Argento" and "Scatto" (not Scarto-the film's subtitles are wrong), mean silver and trigger (Argento=silver, Scatto=mechanical latch, or trigger). Silver was the name of the horse ridden by The Lone Ranger, and Trigger was the name of the horse ridden by Roy Rogers.
Hans Zimmer originally wanted Israeli vocalist Ofra Haza to provide the background vocals to his score, having worked successfully with her on The Prince of Egypt (1998). However, she died unexpectedly in 2000, of A.I.D.S.-related pneumonia, so Lisa Gerrard was drafted instead.
While looking at the dailies, Ridley Scott noticed that Joaquin Phoenix was gaining weight. Scott spoke to the Line Producer about it, who then went to Phoenix and told him, "Ridley says you're fat." The next day, Phoenix, in full armor, came to Scott and said, "I hear I look like a little fat hamster. I thought it was the right thing to do. I'm the emperor of Rome, why would I not look a little more debauched?" Phoenix then didn't eat for weeks.
William Nicholson had thought that his time on the film was over, when he returned home to England, only to receive a phone call almost immediately, telling him that Oliver Reed had just died, and that he needed to return to Malta to re-work the script. Nicholson jumped on the first plane out.
David Franzoni was given a three-picture deal with DreamWorks, as Writer and co-Producer, on the strength of his work on Steven Spielberg's Amistad (1997). One of his initial pitches was for this movie.
Ridley Scott and Cinematographer John Mathieson used multiple cameras filming at various frame rates and a forty-five-degree shutter, creating stop-motion effects in the action sequences, similar to techniques used for the battle sequences of Saving Private Ryan (1998).
Initially, Russell Crowe had no interest in reading the script, as he was in the midst of working on The Insider (1999), and was completely focused on his portrayal of Jeffrey Wigand. He was eventually persuaded otherwise by Insider (1999) director Michael Mann, who passed him the script, and told him he ought "to take this Ridley Scott thing a bit more seriously."
After finishing his college education, David Franzoni spent a year travelling around the world. During his adventures, he would run into networks of international travellers, who would get together and trade books that they had read on the road. This is how he came across the book "Those Who Are About to Die" by Daniel P. Mannix.
Maximus' Spanish heritage meshes interestingly with his choice of arms. As a General riding with the cavalry of the Felix Legion, (in the opening battle) he wields a sword known as a "Spatha", popular among the continental tribes, especially in Spain and southern Gaul. As a Gladiator, he uses a sword similar to the spatha in appearance, but shorter and broader. This weapon is known as the "Gladius Hispaniensis", and was adopted by the Roman infantry after Scipio's invasion of the Iberian Peninsula in the second century B.C., after the end of the second Punic War. Roman infantry wore the gladius on the right side. This, facilitated by the short blade length, allowed the legionary to draw his weapon on the same side as his sword arm. Cross-drawing would be hindered by the scutum (the large rectangular shield) while in formation.
The character of Maximus is fictional, although in some respects, he resembles the historical figures Narcissus (Commodus' real-life murderer, and the character's name in the first draft of the screenplay), Spartacus (who led a significant slave revolt), Cincinnatus (a farmer, who became dictator, saved Rome from invasion, then resigned his six-month appointment after fifteen days), and Marcus Nonius Macrinus (a trusted General, Consul in 154 A.D., and friend of Marcus Aurelius).
When the gladiators, including Maximus, arrive in Rome, they are seen entering a sort of "holding area" with the words "LUDUS MAGNUS" written above the gate. This remains their prison while in Rome. This Ludus (meaning gladiator school or training facility) was a real place, and its ruins can be seen today, just east of the Colosseum in Rome. It was connected to the underground warrens beneath the arena of the Colosseum by a tunnel.
With two weeks to go before filming, the actors were still complaining of problems with the script. William Nicholson was brought to Shepperton Studios to make Maximus a more sensitive character, re-working his friendship with Juba, and developing the afterlife thread. Nicholson went back to David Franzoni's original script, and reinstated a lot of the scenes that John Logan had taken out.
A small section of the background noise (about five seconds), just before the battle in Germania, was taken from Zulu (1964). Heard was part of the Zulu warrior's taunting chant also used just before battle.
British post-production house "The Mill" was responsible for most of the CGI effects in the film. Amongst their responsibilities, were to composite real tigers filmed on bluescreen into the fight sequences, and adding smoke trails and extending the flight paths of the opening battle's flaming arrows. They also used two thousand live actors to create a CGI crowd of about thirty-five thousand people. One of their major hurdles was to create a digital body double for the recently deceased Oliver Reed.
Ridley Scott claimed that the opening moments of Maximus pondering a bird before the battle was simply improvised between he and Russell Crowe on a day in which they needed to film a moment introducing Maximus before the battle, but they had no scripted dialogue.
David Franzoni's original script had Maximus named Narcissus, Commodus being strangled in the baths (as he was by the real Narcissus), the fight at the Colosseum against a rhinoceros, instead of tigers, and Lucilla not making it to the end of the movie, but being executed (as she was in reality) along with some Senators inside a Sicilian Bull. The rhinos became tigers, because it was impossible to train real ones, and CGI replacements didn't look convincing.
One hundred suits of steel armor and five hundred fifty suits in polyurethane were made by Rod Vass and his company Armordillo. The unique sprayed-polyurethane system was developed by Armordillo, and pioneered for this production.
While Cicero (Tommy Flanagan) is waiting to talk to Lucilla outside the Colosseum, he can be seen standing next to the giant foot of a statue. Although the rest of the statue isn't seen, given the size of the foot, the statue itself is most likely the Colossus of Nero, a ninety-eight-foot (thirty meter) statue that Emperor Nero had erected in his own likeness. It is interesting to know that the statue did not always stand next to the Colosseum. It had been moved there years after its creation, and it probably caused the stadium to be nicknamed "the Colosseum" (it was officially known as the Flavian Amphitheater). Years later, the real emperor Commodus had the statue changed to himself as Hercules, by replacing the head, but it was restored after his death.
The opening battle scenes in the forests of Germania were shot in three weeks in the Bourne Woods, near Farnham, Surrey, England. When Ridley Scott learned that the Forestry Commission planned to remove the forest, he convinced them to allow the battle scene to be shot there, and burn it down.
In Malta, a replica of about one-third of Rome's Colosseum was built, to a height of fifty-two feet (sixteen meters), mostly from plaster and plywood (the other two-thirds and remaining height were added digitally). The replica took several months to build, and cost an estimated one million dollars. The reverse side of the complex supplied a rich assortment of Ancient Roman street furniture, colonnades, gates, statuary, and marketplaces for other filming requirements. The complex was serviced by tented "costume villages" that had changing rooms, storage, armorers, and other facilities. The rest of the Colosseum was created by using computer graphics imagery, using set-design blueprints and textures referenced from live-action, and rendered in three layers, to provide lighting flexibility for compositing in Flame and Inferno software.
A prequel was considered, but it was changed into a sequel that would play fifteen years later and focus on Lucilla's son Lucius. When Russell Crowe showed interest in reprising his role as Maximus, a script was written which followed Maximus in the afterlife. However, this sequel was abandoned, because it was not felt to be in the spirit of its predecessor.
Joaquin Phoenix was incredibly nervous on-set, and would ask Russell Crowe before their big scene together, so he could psyche himself up. Crowe was at a loss, and went to Sir Richard Harris for advice. "Mate, what are we going to do with this kid, he's asking me to abuse him before takes", he said. Harris thought for a while and then replied, "Let's get him pissed". Over the course of several hours, and several pints of Guinness later, Crowe and Harris relaxed their co-star.
The Mill used two thousand actors and actresses to create a computer generated crowd of thirty-five thousand virtual actors and actresses, that had to look believable, and react to fight scenes. They accomplished this by shooting actors and actresses at different angles, giving various performances, and then mapping them onto cards, with motion-capture tools used to track their movements for three-dimensional compositing.
Historically speaking, Gladiators were owned and trained by Lanistae, and kept at a Ludus. Neither elements were incorporated into the film, and the character Proximo was never mentioned to be a Lanista by trade.
It was Michael Winner who persuaded Oliver Reed to audition for the film. While working on their last collaboration, Parting Shots (1998), Reed complained, "I can't believe it, Ridley Scott wants me to go and read for him. But I'm a star." Winner replied, "Oliver, don't fuck with me. You're not a fucking star. You're out of work, and you're not old enough to retire, so you need a third act to your career. Obviously, they think if you're working with me, you can't be as drunk as people think you are. So go to Ridley and read. End of story, Oliver, and if he wants you to read twice, read twice."
Right before filming their scene together, Oliver Reed asked Omid Djalili, "Are you a method actor?" before squeezing his testicles throughout the take. "Not that many people can say Ollie Reed has fondled their nuts", Djalili recalled.
During a "surprisingly brief" pitch meeting with Steven Spielberg, David Franzoni told the Writers Guild of America that the director "really had three basic questions. My gladiator movie, it was about ancient Roman gladiators-not American, Japanese, whatever else? Yes, I said. Taking place in the ancient Colosseum? Yes. Fighting with swords and animals to the death and such? Yes. Great, let's make the movie."
Ricardo Cruz, Horse Stunt Specialist, took the white horse Montero, that Russell Crowe rode to The Texas Hollywood Studios, Tabernas, Almeria, Spain, to be used as Captain Grisham's horse in the television series Queen of Swords (2000) for which he was the series Horse Stunt Coordinator.
In the Battle of Carthage battle scene in the Colliseum, Dimon Hounsou "Juba" the black gladiator, hands a sword to Maximus who's on horseback. He called out to him "Maximus"! instead of "Spaniard"! It wasn't till the end of that scene when Maximus reveals his identity to Commodus. Until that moment no one knew his name was "Maximus"...
The first fight in the Colosseum is called the "Battle of Carthage", to commemorate the Roman victory over the barbarian horde of the Punian commander Hannibal. Coincidentally, Ridley Scott's next movie would be Hannibal (2001).
While reading the script one morning two weeks into production, Joaquin Phoenix thought it made sense that Commodus would grow physically larger as his belief in his own power as Emperor increased. Phoenix also kept a sword in his hotel room.
Brian Blessed: A Collosseum spectator during the games. Blessed is best known for playing the Roman emperor Augustus in the acclaimed series I, Claudius (1976). Augustus was the grandfather of emperor Claudius, played by Derek Jacobi, who portrayed Senator Gracchus in this movie.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
Historically speaking, the real Commodus fought in the arena. Unbeknownst to him, the soldiers preparing the gladiator to fight, would stab the opponent in the back, to weaken him in the same way that Commodus does to Maximus in this film.
The real-life Commodus was the only Roman Emperor in history to fight as a gladiator in the arena. However, he did it several times, not just once. Also, he was not killed in the arena, but was strangled in his dressing room, by an athlete named Narcissus (which we already know, from other trivia entries).
Ridley Scott initially thought that David Franzoni's dialogue was too "on the nose", so he hired John Logan to re-write the script. Logan re-wrote much of the first act, and made the decision to kill off Maximus' family, as motivation for the lead character.
The scene where Maximus finds his family's corpses originally called for him to do a normal discreet-few-tears-down-each-cheek dignified cry, but Russell Crowe and Ridley Scott agreed that what Maximus was seeing demanded as Crowe put it, a "full blown snot-fest".
Tigers can be difficult to train, but remarkably, the production found that several days into filming with them, the tigers got used to being in the midst of a film crew, and weren't unduly bothered by all the activity going on around them. In fact, one of the bigger challenges was goading them into action when it came time for them to perform.
Although much of the movie is fictitious, it's interesting to note that Emperor Commodus' historically accurate killer, Narcissus, was born in the same Roman African province as the one in the movie where Maximus becomes a gladiator.
Commodus tells Lucius the tale of emperor Claudius who was betrayed by his own family, as an analogy to his own situation. Emperor Claudius was portrayed by Derek Jacobi in the acclaimed series I, Claudius (1976). Jacobi plays Senator Gracchus in this movie.
Maximus' death, and the speech Lucilla gives to the Roman spectators, the Roman Centurions, and the Gladiators, was mirrored in Doctor Who: The Doctor's Daughter (2008), where the Tenth Doctor gives a speech to the humans and the Hath, when Jenny dies.
While the character Maximus is fictional (or an amalgam of several historical figures, as noted elsewhere in this trivia section), several characters and events in this movie are based in history. Emperor Marcus Aurelius was succeeded by his son Commodus in 180 A.D. Female gladiators, like the charioteers in the recreated Battle of Carthage, were occasionally featured in games in the public arena. The real Commodus had emotional issues (vanity, paranoia, cruelty) that made him unsuited to rule, and like the movie character, he was quite athletic, and appeared in the arena as a gladiator. He had an older sister, Lucilla, who was caught plotting to depose him. Lucilla's son Lucius Verus, like the boy in the film, was named for his father. Finally, Emperor Commodus died by violence. He was strangled at the end of 192 A.D. by Narcissus, his trainer and sparring partner, who was recruited into a plot by several Senators.
The death and vision of General Maximus influenced similar scenes in The Assassin Next Door (2009) and Hirokin: The Last Samurai (2012). In the former, a dying Galia (Olga Kurylenko) dies from her gunshot wound and has a vision, which she is standing a field and sees her daughter on the other side waving back at her and in the latter, Hirokin (Wes Bentley) dies, when he fights and defeats The Griffin (Julian Sands) and has a vision in which he is walking through a field.
Mel Gibson, who turned down the lead role of General Maximus, is famous for playing "Mad" Max Rocktansky in Mad Max (1979). In that film, Max's wife and son are murdered by Toecutter and his motorcycle gang, and he sets out to avenge them. In this film, Maximus' wife and son are murdered by Commodus, and Maximus sets out to avenge them. Maximus' son is trampled and killed by Roman horsemen, and Max's wife and son are killed, when the Toecutter and his gang run them over with their motorcycles.
In this film, Lucilla's husband is dead, and Lucilla falls in love with Maximus, a Roman General. In Soldier (1998), her character, "Sandra", falls in love with Todd, who is a soldier, and her husband Mace was killed.