23rd May 2022

Gladiator (2000) is the last great ancient epic, and Joey Jones is heading to the Colosseum to bring us the behind the scenes story on the film.

Ridley Scott’s Gladiator was released in 2000 and revitalised the sword-and-sandals epic. The story of a betrayed Roman general-turned-slave, it was a smash hit at the box office, left its mark on popular culture, and made superstar of its lead, Russell Crowe. The folloiwng 25 interesting, fun facts tell the behind the scenes story of Scott’s ancient epic.


1. For the opening sequence, Scott burned a forest down

The film starts in northern Europe in 1800 AD, where the Roman Empire go into battle with Germanian tribes. It’s a huge battle sequence with hundreds of extras, explosions and fire, and Ridley Scott actually found a bit of luck here.The sequence was filmed in Bourne Woods, Surrey, in England, and the Royal Forestry Commission had slated the area for deforestation. Ridley Scott heard about it and offered them the studios services to burn the place to the ground, as long as they could film it.

The opening battle sequence

2. Maximus’ pets are pretty significant

By the end of the first act, we’ve found out that Maximus has two horses back home. They’re engraved on Maximus’ armour breastplate and he tells us that they’re called Argento and Scarto. Translated from latin, Argento means Silver, and Scarto means Trigger. Silver was the name of The Lone Ranger’s horse, and Trigger was the name of Roy Rodgers’ horse.


3. Russell Crowe improvised one of the film’s most famous lines

In the battle sequence, We also hear one of the film’s most iconic lines of dialogue. After Maximus briefs his troops, he says, “Strength and honour,” to them. That wasn’t in the script, and Russell Crowe came up with it himself. Crowe also ad-libbed some dialogue in the scene where Maximus describes his home to Marcus Aurelius. That was all improvised by Crowe, and he was actually describing his own home in Australia.

Maximus describes his home to Marcus Aurelius

4. Scott was convinced to take the gig by a painting

Dreamworks always wanted Ridley Scott to be the man to helm Gladiator, but he wasn’t certain at first. So, to convince him, the head of Dreamworks, Walter F. Parkes, and the producer, Douglas Wick, told Scott what they wanted to do with the film and, to visualise it, they showed him a painting from 1872 by a French painter called Jean Leon Gerome. The painting is called Pollice Verso – which means ‘thumbs down’ – and shows a gladiator standing over a beaten opponent.

Scott loved the painting and it played a part in him signing on to direct the film.

Pollice Verso, by Jean Leon Gerome

Pollice Verso, by Jean Leon Gerome

5. Scott wanted to depict ancient Rome as realistically as possible

Ridley Scott was very keen on avoiding what he thought of as the swords and sandals cliches in Gladiator – things like people lounging about, eating grapes, drinking wine from goblets – he wanted his film to have a grounded realism, and he and his team went all out to achieve that.

  • The costume designer was called Janty Yates, and she and her team created over 10,000 costumes for the cast and extras. And almost 30,000 pieces of armor were created for the movie.
  • Most of the Rome-set scenes were filmed in Malta, and that included building a replica of the Colosseum. It was 52-feet tall, took seven months to build, and cost $1 million.
  • State of the art digital effects were created to provide establishing shots of the city, pushing the boundaries of what was possible at the time.

6. There were other names up for the lead role

The lead character is Maximus Decimus Meridius, played by Russell Crowe, of course. Scott cast Crowe after seeing him in Romper Stomper – a 1992 Australian drama – and said he was, “someone worth watching” but, as is often the case, there were other names up for the part before Crowe was cast.

Most notably, there have been rumours Mel Gibson was offered the role, and turned it down. Gibson says he was too old to play Maximus, and Scott denies he was ever even offered the part. Also considered to play Maximus were Hugh Jackman and Antonio Banderas.


7. Crowe was convinced to take the part by another famous filmmaker

Crowe said that when he was first approached to play Maximus, the script was so bad that the producers wouldn’t send it to him in case it put him off, and they just asked him to meet Ridley Scott instead. Crowe did get his hands on the script though, and didn’t like it. He was going to say no but he was working on The Insider (1999) at the time and its director, Michaeal Mann, told Crowe he should meet with Scott anyway. Crowe did and said:

“Ridley’s pitch was basically – ‘we’ve got a $100m budget. It’s ancient Rome. You’re playing a General. And you’re being directed by me.’”

Crowe was suitably impressed, and took the part.


8. Crowe was not a fan of the script

Crowe was so unhappy with the script during production that he would frequently walk off the set and inititally refused to say the famous line, “I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next.” Crowe later said to the screenwriter, William Nicholson: “Your lines are garbage, but I’m the greatest actor in the world, and I can make even garbage sound good.”

William Nicholson modestly said later: “In Russell’s defense, my lines were garbage.”

Russell Crowe delivering the famous line

9. Playing Maximus took its toll on Crowe

Despite not being a big fan of the script, Crowe really threw himself into the role. Over the course of the action scenes, he lost all feeling in his right forefinger for two years afterwards, aggravated his Achilles tendon, broke a foot bone, cracked a hip bone, and popped a few bicep tendons out of their sockets.

Crowe in the action scenes in Gladiator

10. Joaquin Phoenix wasn’t convinced by his own performance

The antagonist of the movie is Emperor Commodus, played by Joaquin Phoenix. Phoenix was Ridley Scott’s first choice, but he did have one other name in consideration in case it didn’t work out – Jude Law.

Joaquin Phoenix is a big name now, but at the time this film was a big step up for him, and he was nervous about playing Commodus. He felt so out of his depth that he offered to pay the producers back for his hotel and travel if they let him walk away from the movie. And before filming scenes with Crowe, he would ask Crowe to slap him about a bit to psyche himself up for the scene. Crowe said to him, “why don’t you try acting, you little maggot!” and Phoenix said, “oh, that was good. Can we go now?”

Phoenix was so intense in the role that, immediately after filming the scene where Commodus kills Marcus Aurelius by squeezing the life out of him, Phoenix passed out on the set.

Crowe spoke to Richard Harris (who played Marcus Aurelius) about Phoenix and said “what am I gonna do with this kid – he keeps asking me to abuse him before takes!” and, Harris being Harris, said, “let’s get him pissed,” and they took him for a few pints of Guinness.

Commodus kills Marcus Aurelius

11. Scott told Phoenix he had to lose some weight

Midway through production, Ridley Scott was looking at the dailies and noticed that Phoenix was noticeably “chunkier” than he had been at the start of filming. He spoke to Phoenix about it and Phoenix said, “Yes, I’m a fat little hamster. Why wouldn’t I be? I’m the Emperor of Rome.” Scott told him to lose the weight immediately, which Phoenix did.


12. The real life Commodus may have been even more ruthless that the movie version

Unlike Maximus, Commodus is based on a real life person, the former Emperor of Rome. And, it seems, the real Commodus was just as merciless.

He was born to a mother who had slept with a Gladiator and then bathed in said gladiator’s blood and, because of this, Commodus referred to himself as, “the Gladiator Emperor,” and would fight in the Colosseum. Whenever he fought, his opponent would be stabbed in the back before the fight (which is what happens to Maximus at the end of the film before his fight with Maximus). Commodus would also take people with disabilities into the Colosseum arena, tie them together, and club them to death. And he was such a megalomaniac that he renamed Rome to be called Colonia Commodiana, and he began charging the state for his appearances in the Colosseum. He charged them so much that the value of Roman currency fell, and historians say this is what directly led to the fall of the Roman Empire.

Commodus was eventually killed for his indiscretions. He was poisoned when in the bath and, when he vomited up the poison, he was strangled by a wrestler named Narcisssus. (Interestingly, Narcisssus was Maximus’ name in the first draft of Gladiator).

Bust of Emperor Commodus

A bust of the real Emperor Commodus

13. Oliver Reed was typically eccentric on the set

A key supporting character in the movie is Proximo – the slave trader and former gladiator who becomes a mentor-of-sorts to Maximus. He was played by Oliver Reed who, as a notorious helraiser, caused some issues on set. He said he took the role because, “he fancied a trip to London to see a couple of shows.”

Omid Djalili played a slave trader and shared a scene with Reed. In his scene, Proximo grabs Djalili’s character by the crotch. This wasn’t part of the script, Reed improvised it. And Djallil said:

“The film got an Oscar, Russell Crowe got an Oscar, Ollie got a posthumous Oscar. I got a partial erection.”

Omid Djalili grabbed by the crotch by Oliver Reed

14. A bodybuilding legend could’ve made an appearance

After Maximus successfully winns the Battle of Carthage recreation in his first appearance at the Colosseum, Commodus brings in Maximus’ biggest challenge yet – he must face off against the only undefeated Gladiator in Roman history, Tigris the Gaul.

Tigris the Gaul is played by Sven-Ole Thorsen – a Danish bodybuilder and former World’s Strongest Man winner – but he wasn’t originally cast. Initially, the role went to Lou Ferrigno – famous for playing the Incredible Hulk in the hit 1970s TV show.

Maximus fights Tigris the Gaul

15. The tigers were real

A memorable element of the fight between Maximus and Tigris the Gaul is that Commodus has several live tigers released into the arena. Not a movie embellishment, this ideas was based on reality, as the Romans would often throw tigers or lions into the Colosseum unannounced for the gladiators to deal with.

Ridley Scott had 5 tigers on the set and, for safety reasons, they had an expert on hand with a gun loaded with tranquiliser darts should anything go wrong. The tigers weren’t supposed to be allowed within 15ft of Russell Crowe but, due to a miscalculation, the biggest tiger, which was 11 ft long, got within two feet of him and swiped at him. That shot is in the film.


16. A key part of the Colessuem fights was (incorrectly) based on reality

Something we see all the way through the film is the famous thumbs up or thumbs down that the Emperor gives when he’s deciding whether a gladiator should live or die. In reality, it was actually the other way around: thumbs up meant death, and thumbs down meant mercy. This was because thumbs down represented the sheathing of a sword. The crew was aware of this while making the movie, but since “thumbs up” is considered to be a good sign nowadays, they decided not to confuse the audience.

Commodus gives the thumbs down

17. The writing of the film was decades in the making

Three writers are credited on Gladiator – David Franzoni, John Logan and William Nicholson – but they weren’t a writing team, they worked on the movie separately. David Franzoni originally started developing the story back in the 1970s. He got the idea from a book about the Roman games called Those Who Are About To Die (1958) by Daniel P. Mannix.

Then, in the 90s, Franzoni wrote Amistad (1997), about the North American slave trade, directed by Steven Spielberg. He told Spielberg the idea for Gladiator, and Spielberg loved it. He had three questions for Franzoni:

  1. Is it about Roman Gladiators?
  2. Do we see the Colosseum?
  3. Fighting with swords and animals and stuff?

When the answer to all three questions was “yes”, the film was greenlit. Franzoni wrote a draft in 1997 but Ridley Scott didn’t like Franzoni’s dialogue much, so hired John Logan, who’d just written Any Given Sunday (1999), to rewrite Gladiator. It was Logan who made the decision to kill off Maximus’ family as motivation.

Those About To Die by Daniel P. Mannix

Those About To Die, by Daniel P. Mannix

18. There were issues with the script

When filming started, despite the rewrites, the cast were still complaining about script problems. Russell Crowe said they started shooting with only 32 pages approved, so William Nicholson, who wrote First Knight (1995), was brought in. He made Maximus more sensitive, brought out his friendship with Juba, and added in the afterlife aspect, so Maximus wasn’t just out for revenge.

Connie Nielsen played Commodus’ sister, Lucilla and, as a part-time historian, knew a lot about ancient Rome. She complained about the first draft of the script as it made reference to museums and the police, neither of which existed in ancient Rome.


19. Some tragedy struck the composer team

The famous score for the film was composed by Hans Zimmer and Lisa Gerrard, who also sang several of the songs. Zimmer was originally planning to use an Israeli singer called Ofra Haza, after working with her on The Prince of Egypt (1998). Tragically, though, Ofra Haza died before she was able to record, and Lisa Gerrard was chosen instead. She’d worked on The Insider (1999) with Crowe, and she and Zimmer composed the music for Gladiator together.

Now We Are Free, performed by Lisa Gerrard

20. Some big music names had a part to play, too

Before Lisa Gerrard came on board, the legendary operatic tenor Luciano Pavarotti was asked to sing a song for the soundtrack, but he said no.

Also, Hans Zimmer was actually sued by the Gustav Holst Foundation, who said that parts of Zimmer’s score were too similar to Holst’s Mars: The Bringer Of War.

Mars: The Bringer of War, by Gustav Holst

21. Sadly, Oliver Reed died midway through production

Oliver Reed famously passed away during filming, three weeks before production ended. A legendary hellraiser, he died in a pub during a break in shooting after drinking eight pints of German lager, a dozen shots of rum, half a bottle of whiskey, a few shots of cognac and after beating five Royal Navy sailors at arm-wrestling.

A clause in the movie’s insurance contract would have let Ridley Scott re-shoot all of Reed’s scenes but most of the actors and crew were exhausted, and Scott didn’t want to cut Reed from the movie, so William Nicholson was flown back in to do rewrites, and a body double and CGI were used to give Reed’s character a different ending.

Proximo is killed, with a stand-in Oliver Reed

22. The Austrian Oak could’ve made an appearance

Reed ended up being posthumously nominated for an Oscar but, when the film was first announced, Scott didn’t want Ollie Reed for Proximo, he wanted somebody else – Arnold Schwarzenegger. He changed his mind to cast Reed when the character was changed to be older, with more lines of dialogue.


23. The ending was originally very different

The film ends with Juba burying the figurines of Maximus’ family in the Colosseum before heading back to his family in Africa. Originally though, before the death of Oliver Reed, it was supposed to be Proximo burying the figures in the sand.

Also, Maximus didn’t die in the original versions of the script, and Scott and Crowe changed it on the set. Crowe later said:

“I remember Ridley coming up to me on set saying, ‘Look, the way this is shaping up, I don’t see how you live. This character is about one act of pure vengeance for his wife and child, and, once he’s accomplished that, what does he do? Does he end up running a fucking pizzeria by the Colosseum?’”

The ending as we see it in the movie

24. The film had an impact on the popularity of ancient Rome

Away from Hollywood, Gladiator had a direct impact on an increased interest in Roman history – particularly in the U.S. – after it was released.

The New York Times called it, “The Gladiator Effect,” and books like Cicero’s biography and Marcus Aurelius’ meditations received massive spikes in sales after its release.


25. An iconic UK soap character is in the film

Going back to the start of the movie, we find out in the first act that Maximus has a pet wolf called Kyte.

In real life, Kyte wasn’t a wolf, he was actually a Tervuren Belgian Shepherd – they couldn’t use a real wolf because the opening was filmed in England, which had strong anti-rabies laws. Kyte also played another famous screen dog – he was Robbie Jackson’s dog Wellard in UK soap, Eastenders, for a few years.

Robbie Jackson and Wellard

Robbie Jackson and Wellard

And we’re at the end – 25 fascinating and fun facts about an ancient Roman epic. We will see each other again but… not yet. Firstly, please share on your social platforms, and subscribe to our YouTube channel for lots of great video content.