The Legacy of ‘Gladiator’

Have you not been entertained? Here’s a look at the effects of the success of Ridley Scott’s Best Picture winner ‘Gladiator’ 20 years on.
Russell Crowe In Gladiator
Universal Pictures
By  · Published on May 6th, 2020

The Best Picture of 2000, according to the Academy Awards, is a movie that took decades to come together. Of course, the origins of Ridley Scott‘s Gladiator go back almost two millennia with the true stories of the Roman Empire during the reigns of Marcus Aurelius and his son Commodus. But the movie really got its start with the 1958 publication of Daniel P. Mannix’s Roman games history Those About to Die (aka The Way of the Gladiator). In the 1970s, following a trend in sword and sandals epics from Hollywood as well as foreign film and B-movie industries, recent college graduate David Franzoni discovered the book in Baghdad while traveling around the world, and it changed his life.

From the moment Franzoni decided to become a screenwriter during that fateful trip until he actually adapted the book into a screenplay took about 20 years, following his success on Steven Spielberg’s historical feature Amistad. Elements from history were changed drastically to get to the story we see on the screen, and production even began before there was a finished script. Franzoni was further influenced by media moguls and agents, Nazi propaganda films, modern sports events, the WWE, and of course the sword and sandals classics, like The Fall of the Roman Empire, Spartacus, and Ben-Hur. The result was the second-highest-grossing movie of the year worldwide and the biggest winner at the Oscars.

In the 20 years since its release, Gladiator has continued to be popular with critics and dads alike. The movie’s legacy, however, is a little more complicated. From influencing a glut of copycats to being cited in rhetoric against Donald Trump, this period action flick has given way to some unfortunate associations, plus a lawsuit and an overused cinematographic technique. The movie has also spawned some good things, too, like charitable causes and an interest in ancient history. Below is a list of all the positive and negative to directly come out of the release of Gladiator on May 5, 2000.

Ancient History Action Movies

While Gladiator was already part of a wave begun by Braveheart five years earlier, Scott’s movie focused a trend of action-packed historical epics set during the Ancient Period rather than the Middle Ages. Franzoni even followed up his screenplay for Gladiator by writing a King Arthur movie set in the 5th century, not the Medieval Period (meanwhile, Scott tried a repeat with Kingdom of Heaven, but that is set in the Middle Ages). Ancient history action movies included Troy and Alexander, both released in 2004, followed by 300 in 2006, Pathfinder, The Last Legion, and Beowulf in 2007, and a decade beyond there was Centurion, the remake of Clash of the Titans, and The Eagle. Plus there was the TV series Rome from 2005 to 2007.

And big studio pictures and B-movies alike, including plenty mixing in fantasy elements, have continued the wave since then, but nothing has reached the success of Gladiator. Unless we count the financially exceeding Star Wars prequel Attack of the Clones, which began filming just after Gladiator‘s release. Although unlikely to have inspired the gladiatorial combat sequence of Episode II, which George Lucas surely had envisioned much earlier (perhaps as a more open version of the bit in Return of the Jedi, as well as an homage to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom books), fans certainly thought of Scott’s Best Picture winner while watching it, especially as the main glut of true wannabes hadn’t yet arrived.

King Joffrey

Game of Thrones also came about through the wave of historical and fantasy epics, but the fictional HBO series is definitely more Middle Ages era adjacent. Still, there’s one noteworthy connection to Gladiator beyond any possible genre similarities. Jack Gleeson, while getting to appear in a Batman movie way before Joaquin Phoenix did, based his most iconic role on another one of Phoenix’s greatest performances. That’s right, the show’s portrayal of Joffrey Baratheon, especially during his reign as King Joffrey, was modeled after Phoenix as the wicked Roman leader Commodus in Gladiator. “Certainly, for my characterization of Joffrey, that had a big impact, the smirk,” Gleeson told Entertainment Weekly.

President Trump

“I was watching Gladiator not long ago, and it just hit me: I’ve seen this movie before. Or rather, I am seeing it again. Donald Trump is the Emperor Commodus. He’s all about show. He stages events (like Commodus choreographed a sword fight) to make himself look better than he is. He is swayed by popularity and what the crowds want. He’s vain. He’s petulant…” That’s the start of a brief blog post by a philosophy professor at the University of Central Florida. It’s the first of many writings, some of them more professionally published, found when you Google “Trump and Commodus.” It’s not all tied to Gladiator; Donald Trump has been likened to numerous Roman emperors. But many see his America as a new fall of Rome.

Of course, there are images and videos of Trump as the hero Maximus in addition to those subbing his face as Commodus in the movie. Also, a lot of presidents are compared positively or negatively to Roman leaders. George W. Bush, who became president just after the release of Gladiator, was also likened to Commodus. Then Barack Obama was, too. I’ve seen contemporary articles looking for real political subtext in Gladiator. Well, any significant changeover can be compared to the difference between Marcus Aurelius and Commodus. Meanwhile, Eric Trump infamously quoted from the movie in criticism of the Bidens, as if to label father and son as Marcus Aurelius and Commodus. But history should be the context, not a movie.

Settling the Score

When Hildur Guðnadóttir won the Oscar this year for Best Original Music Score for Joker (starring Joaquin Phoenix), she was said to have been the first woman to win the award for a dramatic film score. Technically, she was the first to receive an Academy Award for the specific category, as previously women won for now-defunct categories Best Original Musical or Comedy Score and Best Adaptation Score. There was also talk of how few women had been nominated in any variation of the score categories, and that continually brought up how only Hans Zimmer was credited for the nomination for Gladiator, ignoring the work of Lisa Gerrard, who is named alongside him as the film’s composer.

If that wasn’t enough of an issue, six years after the movie’s release, Zimmer (through his publishers and Universal’s involved music entities) was sued by the estate of composer Gustav Holst for copyright infringement. Zimmer’s score, specifically the track “The Battle,” was alleged to have plagiarized Holst’s The Planets, specifically the movement “Mars, the Bringer of War,” which was created in 1915. No, the earlier composition wasn’t fair game at the time — Holst’s work wouldn’t enter the public domain until 2004. Zimmer does admit in the liner notes to More Music from the Motion Picture Gladiator that his score uses “the same vocabulary if not the same syntax” as The Planets. The matter was resolved out of court, implying a settlement.

That second album, by the way, was released in 2001 because the first soundtrack album was a huge success. While it sold nowhere near as many copies the best-selling soundtracks, for a score album rather than song compilation, Gladiator did very well. Fans still consider it among Zimmer’s best work as well as one of the best scores of at least the last 20 years (or, in other words, of this century so far). The AFI named it as one of the 250 best scores of all time. Gerrard deserves more recognition for the acclaim it has received, and not just for her vocals (she was granted a Golden Globe award alongside Zimmer and was named in the BAFTA nomination at least). Zimmer meanwhile would borrow from himself for his Pirates of Caribbean music.

The Look of the Battles

While director of photography John Mathieson did not win the Oscar, his work on the movie has become more influential in the world of cinematography than what was recognized. Gladiator was Mathieson’s first big movie following his employment on commercials and music videos and then a little known film called Plunkett & Macleane directed by Ridley Scott’s son, Jake Scott. Mathieson was wanted for the experimental and improvisational flexibility he’d shown on those smaller gigs, though the most famous look of Gladiator was achieved even less intentionally. The battle scenes were initially just evoking the style of Saving Private Ryan, with a forty-five-degree shutter, yet Mathieson took the technique further. Because he had to.

“We got into trouble one day with the light towards the end of the battle, so we couldn’t shoot at forty-five degrees,” the DP told American Cinematographer. “Instead, we shot everything at eight frames, which gives you two more stops, and printed that back to six frames. Then we stretched that back out [to twenty-four frame-per-second]. Of course, each exposure is really long. You’ve got these people swinging swords, and it’s no longer frenetic with all of these sharp edges you get a far more brushy stroke. The sword becomes almost like a fan as it gets pulled through the air. It worked very well for the scenes in question, which happen as the battle is winding down. The approach wasn’t designed ahead of time, but Ridley is flexible like that.”

The strobing effect achieved with the shaky handheld camera, varied frame speeds, narrow shutter angle, and skipped frames, is sometimes described as a desired “motion blur,” and filmmakers and cinematography aficionados have been discussing and/or replicating the result, sometimes with post-production tools, ever since. The look was also in fashion for a while, especially found in other Ridley Scott works through the aughts, and any other intense action movies attempting a gritty approach. Other ancient history action movies, in particular, were guilty of mimicking the look. The shakiness gives you that “documentary realism” feel while the experiments with frame rate and shutter angle give it a more fantastical stylishness.

Christopher Plummer Finally Works With Ridley Scott

In addition to the cinematography, the special effects are one of the most memorable visual aspects of Gladiator. For all the digital crowds, computer-generated completion of the Coliseum, and more compositing work, the VFX team led by John Nelson won the Oscar in their category in a rare occasion of the award going to a movie void of sci-fi or fantasy elements. One of their jobs, though, was unexpected. When Oliver Reed died during production, he could have been replaced and all his already-filmed scenes been reshot. Instead, the VFX crew at The Mill created a body double for Reed’s remaining and/or re-written scenes and then added the legendary actor’s face digitally to finish out his performance as gladiator trainer Antonius Proximo.

Jump ahead 17 years, and Scott would face another casting issue with a historical drama he’d directed after scenes were already shot. This time, it was a matter of the original actor in a minor role, Kevin Spacey, being charged with sexual harassment and sexual assault allegations right before the movie, All the Money in the World, was set to premiere. Quickly, Scott decided to reshoot (at a cost of $10 million) all the scenes with a new actor rather than having that new actor digitally inserted into existing frames (fyi: the Oliver Reed digital fixes had cost $3.5 million). Christopher Plummer took the gig, for which Scott claims he was the first choice anyway, and even received an Oscar nomination for the last-minute substitution.

On top of the parallel with Gladiator‘s casting crisis, the whole thing with All the Money in the World‘s fix gave Scott the opportunity to finally work with the legendary Sound of Music star. After enjoying working with Plummer on The Insider, Russell Crowe had tried to get the actor cast as Marcus Aurelius, but Richard Harris got that part portraying the dying emperor (Crowe, fortunately, got along very well with Harris, as well). Plummer had actually previously played the part of Commodus in The Fall of the Roman Empire, taking over the role from the originally-cast Harris. If you want more links, you can go back and find both Reed and Plummer acting together in the 1990 TNT made-for-TV movie A Ghost in Monte Carlo.

“The Gladiator Effect”

Not to be confused with the Gladiator effects (or the issue of whether helmets cause girl athletes to be more belligerent, which is what mostly comes up when you Google the phrase), the “Gladiator Effect” is a term for the movie’s impact on scholarly interest and work related to Ancient Rome. And maybe other ancient civilizations and antiquities, as well. The New York Times used it to label newfound success for history books focused on the classical period. The trend in movies is related, but it’s the real stuff that’s more important for “The Gladiator Effect.” That includes further archaeological discoveries and excavations helped by the film’s popularity around the world as well as Crowe’s own direct support.

Gladiator vs. Polio

Not only has Crowe been a blessing for historians and archaeologists, but he’s also lent his support for more life-altering issues. And not just the lead of Gladiator but also co-stars Connie Nielsen and Tomas Arana. They all gathered two years ago for a reunion at a very special screening of Gladiator at the Colosseum in Rome, an event that also included a live performance of the score during the screening featuring Lisa Gerrard singing in person. This wasn’t just an occasion to mark the 18th anniversary of the movie’s release, though. The event was a fundraiser for charity, specifically benefitting the Rotary’s End Polio Now campaign.

Gladiator Part II

While some of the items on this list are ongoing parts of Gladiator‘s legacy, this one has barely gotten started. Plans began for another Gladiator just after the first movie left theaters (which was in May 2001, a year after it opened!). The initial idea was for a prequel starring Crowe, but by 2002, the producers and writers decided the best way to follow-up Gladiator was to do a sequel set 15 years later. No, they didn’t forget that Maximus dies at the end. And would still be dead more than a decade afterward. The plan was to focus on Lucilla’s son, Lucius (Spencer Treat Clark). Maybe discovering that Maximus was his real father? Crowe still wanted to be involved, however, by portraying his heroic character in the afterlife.

Another idea was to do like The Godfather Part II and have prequel and sequel narratives intertwined. In 2006, though, Nick Cave was commissioned to write the script, and that draft eventually wound up in the hands of the public. Its plot involved Maximus being reincarnated at various points throughout history, including again in Ancient Rome as well as during World War II and the Vietnam War, plus a sequence set in the present. It was rejected because the studio preferred the Lucius idea and because it was, clearly, ridiculous. In the last few years, the Gladiator sequel has picked up steam again. Scott has said he’s trying to get Crowe back, though the latest word is they’re going ahead with the Lucius spinoff idea, now set 25-30 years later.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.