What’s your favorite movie?
Don’t say you don’t have one. Everyone has one, you just don’t know what it is yet; it’s something you can turn on whenever; something that makes you smile every time you talk about it; something that impacted you and continues to amaze and delight you with every re-watch. I also believe our favorite movies are ones that define us, that connect in perhaps indefinable ways to our own stories and help mold and shape our choices onward. Is that a little extreme? Maybe. But quarantine has made me extremely grateful for movies and for the Backseat Directors community. So as we celebrate its 20th anniversary, allow me to share with you my all-time favorite movie: Gladiator (2000).
A Dream that was Rome
Let’s set the scene—it’s 180 A.D., and Emperor Marcus Aurelius is waging war with Germanic tribes, accompanied by his loyal Roman general. His son, Commodus, is brutal and unfit to be emperor, so Marcus Aurelius asks this general (who is the former lover of his daughter Lucilla) to take his place as heir to the Roman Empire. Naturally, Commodus is hurt by his father’s decision, and Marcus Aurelius is killed. Without the Emperor’s choice of heir made public, Commodus takes his father’s place as Caesar while the loyal general is exiled.
Those who have seen Gladiator might recognize the plot points and characters found in this description, but this synopsis actually belongs to a movie called Fall of the Roman Empire (1964). Considering the latter was released to an audience well-acquainted with Roman epics, the studio expected it to be a smash at the box office like Quo Vadis (1951) and Cleopatra (1963) before it. After all, it starred such titans of the screen as Sophia Loren (Two Women), Christopher Plummer (The Sound of Music), Alex Guinness (Star Wars) and Stephen Boyd (Ben-Hur). The studio had spared no expense; the film’s Battle of the Four Armies (not to be confused with the Hobbit movie) involved 8,000 extras, and the Roman forum they built is still the largest outdoor film set in Hollywood history (yes, even bigger than Hobbiton). But the film was an utter failure. It tanked at the box office, almost single-handedly bankrupting its production company. Critics of the time panned it as being too ostentatious and devoid of humanity and drama (ironically today it holds a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes). So much for the glory of Rome. Fall of the Roman Empire was the last of the old Hollywood Roman epics, famed for making its title ironically intuitive and credited with killing the genre.
For 35 years, Hollywood steered clear of Ancient Rome, the Caesars, and the Coliseum. That is, until a screenwriter named David Franzoni had a pitch meeting with DreamWorks and suggested that they make a gladiator movie. Even though Fall of the Roman Empire was a disaster, the idea of making a Roman epic was thrilling enough to attract an acclaimed cast and crew. This included Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner) as director and a rough-and-tumble, goofball Aussie/Kiwi named Russell Crowe (L.A. Confidential) as the lead character, Maximus. The supporting cast included seasoned veterans like Richard Harris (Harry Potter) and Oliver Reed (Oliver!) and relative newcomers like Joaquin Phoenix (Joker) and Connie Nielsen (Wonder Woman). Hans Zimmer was invited to compose the score, and he had the good sense to bring on Lisa Gerrard. In addition to these well-knowns, 566 other names are listed in the credits (I counted). It was the dream team, and the movie’s success is owed to each and every one of them.
Death Smiles at Us All
When Gladiator won Best Picture at the 73rd Academy Awards, three producers took the stage to accept their Oscars. One of them was Branko Lustig, a native of Yugoslavia who as a boy spent years imprisoned during the Holocaust. He survived Auschwitz but lost the majority of his family. The life he went on to live is the best representation of why the movie he helped to make endures. Maximus is a hero who loses everything, but not because of a mistake or a momentary lapse of judgement: it is his very goodness that brings on his head punishment, heartache, and loss. But it’s his adherence to his principles that allows him to rise and eventually challenge the corrupt Emperor in the Coliseum, becoming leader to a Rome that lost its way. Overcoming adversity through strength and honor against even insurmountable odds is not uncommon in Hollywood pictures, but few films resonate with a worldwide audience the way Gladiator did. It’s what made Roman epics so popular in the first place.
Despite the talented and dedicated people involved, the making of Gladiator was fraught with difficulty and chaos. Much of Franzoni’s original screenplay was thrown out, so they began shooting with only about 31 pages of script. Dozens of other writers weighed in, brainstorming ideas that were often rejected and ridiculed by Scott and his actors (especially Crowe). While filming, the script was often freshly written the night before. When they flew a 300-person team to film the second act in Morocco, there wasn’t a line of script to work with, just a repurposed soccer stadium where they could shoot some gladiator bouts. The toll of filming such an epic affected everyone involved; Crowe was battered and injured throughout shooting, and Phoenix was incredibly anxious about his performing abilities and physique. Just as the end of the arduous shoot came into sight, tragedy struck: Oliver Reed (Oliver!), who plays the retired gladiator Proximo, died while shooting in Malta. Instead of replacing him with another actor, the ending was rewritten and filmed with the help of CGI and extra footage.
Gladiator was released on May 5, 2000. Even with its first act similarities to Fall of the Roman Empire, the final result was a journey more reminiscent of Ben-Hur (1959) and Spartacus (1960), with similar success. It’s a simple story: the general who became a slave, the slave who became a gladiator, and the gladiator who defied an Emperor. But it did the impossible; it ushered in another age of sword and sandal epics with a loose remake of the very movie that killed the age before. It won five Oscars, conquered the box office, and won over fans everywhere. Despite the legendary and extensive careers of both Crowe and Phoenix, today it remains the film they are most asked about in interviews. Franzoni, whose script was repeatedly thrashed, rewritten, and criticized, earned an Oscar nomination for his writing and took home an Oscar beside Branko Lustig when the film won Best Picture. It renewed a love and interest in Roman history in the United States (termed “the Gladiator effect” by the New York Times) and led to a series of movies and television shows set in Ancient Rome, though none of them were able to reach the same level of success. A Roman epic was not, and still isn’t, a guaranteed win for a movie studio, but Gladiator was a home run.
Are You Not Entertained?
So why now? Why take the time to extoll the stories and virtues of this film beyond my own obsessive fandom? Because I think Gladiator is the kind of film that inspires people to be artists. It’s the kind of film that pulls people like Richard Harris out of semi-retirement because they just can’t say no to starring in it. Nobody would go into entertainment if not for those kinds of films, and I’m sure everyone at Backseat Directors could tell you the films that made them love movies. With a founder who left a corporate career to pursue a passion and a group of writers made up of professional critics and film fanatics alike, we might be a dream team of dreamers not unlike the one Ridley Scott put together.
Hollywood became an empire because it told stories that captivated our imagination and elevated our perspective. Seated with our popcorn and good company, we enjoy visual storytelling that transports us across continents and to time periods both real and imagined. The beauty of art is its subjectivity, so this will not be true for everyone, but for me, Gladiator is Hollywood at its best. It is the ultimate hero’s journey: overcoming adversity by maintaining principles that the outside world calls you to abandon. The story on the screen and the one taking place behind the scenes can inspire and encourage us as we write our own stories. Daring to believe in your own creativity and build something that’s yours is not always easy, and the rewards are not always apparent. While your leap of faith may not be quitting the corporate life or standing up to corrupt dictators or taking a 300-man crew to Morocco with only an inkling of what you’re going to film, seeing people do so can give you courage. There’s always a chance that your idea will turn out like Fall of the Roman Empire; but if there’s something you feel drawn to do, something you can’t stop thinking about that lights you up inside, could it be worth the chance of failing? I’m certainly no expert on the subject. If there’s anything we can learn from Gladiator, it’s that life is short; but as a fictional man once said, “What we do in life echoes in eternity.”
“When you grow up in the suburbs of Sydney or Auckland……or the suburbs of anywhere, you know, a dream like this seems kind of vaguely ludicrous and completely unattainable. But this moment is directly connected to those childhood imaginings, and for anybody who is on the downside of advantage, and relying purely on courage: it’s possible.”Russell Crowe, Oscar for Best Actor acceptance speech (2001).