A replica of about one third of Rome's Collosseum was built in Malta to a height of 52 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 $1 million.
As Oliver Reed died with three weeks of principal photography remaining and as he was considered a key character, a clause in the insurance coverage on the movie would have allowed the film-makers to shoot all of Reed's scenes with another actor, with the insurers footing the cost (estimated at $25million). However, most of the actors and crew were exhausted from the punishing schedule and Ridley Scott did not want to lose Reed from the movie, so the script was rewritten and CGI used to give Reed's character a plausible resolution.
5 tigers were brought in for the sequence in the arena where Maximus fights Tigris the Gaul. A veterinarian armed with tranquilizer darts was in attendance for the entire length of shooting. For safety's sake, Russell Crowe was kept at least 15 feet away from the tigers.
Oliver Reed suffered a fatal heart attack during principal photography. Some of his sequences had to be re-edited and a double, photographed in the shadows and with a 3D CGI mask of Reed's face, was used as a stand-in. The film is dedicated to his memory.
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.
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 was continually unhappy with the screenplay, rewriting 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 "In this life or the next, I will have my vengeance" he initially refused to say, telling writer William Nicholson "Your lines are garbage but I'm the greatest actor in the world and I can make even garbage sound good".
The opening battle scene was filmed in Bourne Woods, in the English county of Surrey. 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.
Commodus was known as a "Gladiator Emperor", routinely making appearances in the arena to take down wild animals, among other challenges. He charged Rome an exorbitant amount of money for each of his appearances, which eventually devalued Roman coins; the start of his influence on the fall of Rome. In his egotistic bravado he would often take cripples into the arena, or people with missing limbs, and tie them together and club them to death. Initially revered for his hunting and combat prowess, his sickening arrogance turned the populace 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, the DP 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, and edited into the film in a way that made the switch look natural.
Although Commodus was initially favored by the people of Rome, he lost that status through dramatic actions of megalomania, and is often considered to be the initiator of the fall of Rome. During his reign he had much of the language changed to incorporate his own name into many of the common terms used, such as the terms for money and the people. Eventually both the citizens and the senate had enough and he was poisoned. When he vomited out the poison he was then choked to death in order to finish the job. The senate then returned the language back to what it was before Commodus, and also took down the many statues that he had put up of himself.
Maximus's companion is his pet wolf, played in the film by a German Shepherd. The production was unable to use real wolves because England's strict anti-rabies laws prevented them from importing any of the animals. The same dog also played Wellard in the BBC soap EastEnders (1985).
Russell Crowe began shooting for Gladiator a few months after The Insider (1999) wrapped. He had gained upwards of 40 pounds for his Oscar-nominated role in The Insider and yet lost it all before Gladiator began. He claims he did nothing special other than normal work on his farm in Australia.
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.
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.
When Commodus goes with Lucius to meet Maximus 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.
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".
Though dozens of versions of the script were written, the original 130 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'.)
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 a 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 life Marcus Aurelius died from the Plague, while in the film he dies from being smothered (during an embrace) by Commodus. Later on in the film, Gracchus asks Commodus the ironic question if he had ever "embraced someone dying of plague."
Various historians have tried to find proof that the awning in the Coliseum 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.
Maximus's tattoo "SPQR" stands for "Senatus Populusque Romanus," which translates to "The Senate and the People are Rome". This was one of the main slogans of Rome throughout its history (as well as today, e.g. manhole covers etc.).
The real Lucius Verus, who is portrayed as a young kid in the movie, was Marcus Aurelius' adopted brother and died 8 years into his reign. Commodus' selection as Caesar was made when he was 5 years old and coins were made with his likeness on it.
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 design to break and bend after contact to disallow the enemy to throw them back at the legionaries.
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.
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."
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 II century B.C., after the end of the 2nd 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.
Writer 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.
Maximus refers to the two horses on his breastplate when talking to Lucius as being called "Scarto" and "Argento" - translated from Italian they are "Waste/scrap" and "Silver". Another meaning of "Scarto" in Italian is "a sudden move of a horse due to fear", in English "to shy"
With 2 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, reworking 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.
After finishing his college education, David Franzoni spent a year traveling around the world. During his adventures he would run into networks of international travelers 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.
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 "Gladiator".
A small section of the background noise (about 5 seconds) just before the battle in Germania was taken from the movie 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. Among their responsibilities were to composite real tigers filmed on blue screen into the fight sequences, and adding smoke trails and extending the flight paths of the opening battle's flaming arrows. They also used 2000 live actors to create a CGI crowd of about 35,000 people. One of their major hurdles was to create a digital body double for the recently deceased Oliver Reed.
While looking at the dailies, Ridley Scott noticed that Joaquin Phoenix was gaining weight. Ridley spoke to the line producer about it, who then went to Joaquin and said 'Ridley says your fat'. The next day Joaquin in full armour 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'. Joaquin then didn't eat for weeks
Maximus's death and the speech Lucilla gives to the Roman spectators and the Roman Centurions and the Gladiators was mirrored in the sixth episode of the fourth season of the revived series of "Doctor Who" The Doctor's Daughter (#4.6), which the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) gives a speech to the humans and the Hath, when Jenny (Georgia Moffett) dies.
Mel Gibson, who was offered, but turned down the lead role of Maximus, was famous for playing Max Rockatansky, vengeful Ex cop whose wife and son and murdered by a motorcycle gang in 1979's "Mad Max". General Maximus's wife and son are murdered by Commodus.
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.
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 TV series Queen of Swords (2000) for which he was the series horse stunt coordinator.
The death and vision of General Maximus influenced similar scenes in 2009's "Kirot" and 2012's "Hirokin". In "Kirot", 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 "Hirokin", Hirokin (Wes Bentley) dies, when he fights and defeats The Griffin (Julian Sands) and has a vision, which he is walking through a field.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
The real-life Commodus was in fact 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.
Historically speaking, the real Commodus himself did fight 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 himself does to Maximus in this film.
Ridley Scott initially thought that writer David Franzoni's dialog was too "on the nose", so he hired John Logan to rewrite the script. Logan rewrote much of the first act and made the decision to kill off Maximus' family as motivation for the lead character.
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.