Mel Gibson Could Have Been Maximus, And 19 Other Things You Didn’t Know About Gladiator

We’ll be completely honest in saying that we were not massive fans of Ridley Scott’s epic Gladiator the first time we saw it in the cinema, upon its release at the dawn of the new millennium.

It was only in hindsight and revisiting the movie on DVD that we saw it for what it was: an absolute classic, and truly one of the most amazing movies of the modern era.

So it’s only fair that we rectify our original oversight by paying tribute to the story of Maximus Decimus Meridius, with the following 20 things that you might not have realised about this classic historical drama.

20. A painting inspired Ridley Scott to take on the project

Producers approached director Ridley Scott to ask if he would be interested in directing the movie.

It was a 19th Century painting they showed him that gave him the inspiration to sign on the dotted line.

Take one look at Jean-Léon Gérôme’s 1872 painting Pollice Verso (Thumbs Down), and you’ll quickly be able to see how it influenced the movie that we’ve come to know and love.

The painting depicts a gladiator awaiting the thumbs up, thumbs down signal from the coliseum crowd.

“That image spoke to me of the Roman Empire in all its glory and wickedness,” explained Scott. “I knew right then and there I was hooked.”

19. The film ‘borrowed’ its plot from a 1960s epic

Gladiator was heavily influenced by both The Fall of the Roman Empire and Spartacus, two Hollywood ‘sword and sandals’ epics from the 1960s.

The Fall of the Roman Empire especially has a very similar plot, telling the story of Livius, who is Marcus Aurelius’s intended successor, just like Maximus in Gladiator.

Screenwriter David Franzoni started developing the story in the 1970s after reading ‘Those Who Are About To Die’.

This was a book detailing a history of the Roman games and was written by Daniel P. Mannix.

Franzoni then discussed the idea with Steven Spielberg, explaining that he envisioned Commodus as being somewhat of a (CNN founder) Ted Turner-type in the way he was heavily influenced by both politics and entertainment.

18. Mel Gibson was offered the lead role before Russell Crowe

Mel Gibson was the first actor to be offered the role of Gladiator’s slave-turned-gladiator Maximus Decimus Meridius, but he believed he was too old for the part so declined.

Instead, Gibson took the lead in director Roland Emmerich’s The Patriot, alongside Heath Ledger.

At first, Crowe had no interest in reading the Gladiator script as he was heavily committed to working on The Insider – a role that would land him his first Best Actor Oscar nomination.

However, The Insider director Michael Mann told him he should consider the script and ‘take this Ridley Scott thing a bit more seriously’.

Other actors to be considered for the part before Crowe was cast included Hugh Jackman and Antonio Banderas.

17. Crowe got in shape for the role just by working on his farm

Production began on Gladiator only a few months after Crowe completed work on The Insider – a part which hadn’t exactly left him primed for the battlefield.

Crowe had gained 40 pounds in weight – of the body fat variety, as opposed to muscle – for his role in Michael Mann’s film as real-life tobacco industry whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigand.

As such, Crowe needed to shape up fast to become Maximus.

Crowe claimed to have done this the old-fashioned way, simply by doing manual labour around his farm at home in Australia.

It’s not the most drastic role-to-role transformation ever (we’re looking at you, Christian Bale), but it’s still pretty impressive.

16. Crowe wanted to adopt a Spanish accent for Maximus

Throughout Gladiator, Crowe’s Maximus is frequently referred to as ‘Spaniard’ – despite the fact that he’s about as convincingly Spanish as Sean Connery in Highlander.

This, however, is not down to Crowe, who originally wanted to use a Spanish accent for the role.

To this end, early on Crowe tried impersonating the vocal mannerisms of Antonio Banderas – who, as you’ll recall, had been a contender for the role early on.

Ridley Scott was not impressed, and instead insisted Crowe use the British accent we hear in the film.

1999 saw Banderas take the lead in another historical action epic, The 13th Warrior, which met a considerably less favourable reception than Gladiator.

15. Jude Law was considered to play Commodus

Naturally, other big name actors were considered for the vital antagonist role of Commodus as well as Joaquin Phoenix.

The most notable actor who did a screen test for the part was Jude Law.

However, while the British actor’s star was on the rise at the time, Ridley Scott was reportedly adamant that Phoenix was the number one choice for the part.

Not that this hurt Law’s career too much, as that same year he landed an Oscar nomination for his role in The Talented Mr Ripley, alongside Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow and Cate Blanchett.

Law would follow this with high profile roles in AI: Artificial Intelligence, Enemy at the Gates and Cold Mountain.

14. Crowe and Richard Harris calmed Phoenix’s nerves by getting him drunk before takes

Phoenix, aged just 25 at the time of filming Gladiator, was by all accounts extremely anxious taking on the role of Commodus, and often struggled with this on-set.

Crowe has stated that Phoenix asked him to actually hit him before they went on camera, to help him get psyched up.

Not too happy with this, Crowe consulted co-star Richard Harris, reportedly asking “Mate, what are we going to do with this kid, he’s asking me to abuse him before takes.”

Harris considered this carefully and declared, “Let’s get him p***ed.”

The elder actors proceeded to help calm their young co-star down with the help of a few pints.

13. Jennifer Lopez auditioned for Lucilla but Scott wasn’t impressed

The role of Lucilla, daughter of Richard Harris’s Marcus Aurelius and sister of Joaquin Phoenix’s Commodus, also drew some big name actresses.

Before Connie Nielsen was cast, Jennifer Lopez auditioned for the role.

Lopez wasn’t yet fully established as a pop star at the time, but had a number of noteworthy films on her CV including Out of Sight and U-Turn.

However, the actress states that while she “wanted the part of the sister so bad… I could tell (Ridley Scott) didn’t see me in the role” as soon as she met with the director.

The years ahead would see Lopez appear in The Cell, The Wedding Planner and Maid in Manhattan, parallel with the rise of her music career.

12. The production burned a real forest to the ground for the opening battle scene

Viewers may recall Gladiator opens with a spectacular battle sequence, where Maximus memorably rallies up the troops with the line, “What we do in life echoes in eternity!”

While this scene is set in Germany, the production actually shot on location in Bourne Woods, England – and burned much of it to the ground in the process.

Admittedly that doesn’t sound too good in these ecologically-conscious times, but the area in question had already been marked for deforestation by the Royal Forestry Commission.

When the production learned this, director Ridley Scott offered to do the job for them for free, and made use of the burning woods on film.

As such, we got a spectacular large-scale action sequence, and some public money was saved, so it’s a win-win really.

11. Over 27,000 pieces of armour were made for the film

As a large-scale period piece, Gladiator required a vast amount of specialist work in the costume department.

Due to the expense, unavailability and impracticality of using authentic Roman armour, however, all that we see on screen was custom made for the film.

Gladiator’s production saw over 1500 suits of armour made by a company called Armordillo.

While a hundred of these were constructed from genuine steel (no doubt reserved for the close shots), the rest were made from polyurethane.

Not only that, but 27,500 additional component pieces of armour were also created, over a period of just three months.

10. The production recreated one-third of Rome’s Colosseum

The iconic city of Ancient Rome is undoubtedly every bit as much a character in Gladiator as Maximus and Commodus.

As such, the crew had their work cut out to make it look mightier than ever.

Most vital was, of course, the Colosseum, where the bulk of the film’s most vital sequences play out.

The scenes set in Ancient Rome were filmed in Fort Ricasoli, Malta, where the production created a replica of approximately one-third of the original structure.

The replica was built to approximately 16 metres tall, with the rest of the structure being added digitally in post-production.

9. There was originally another gladiatorial battle involving a rhino

One of the most memorable action sequences in the movie sees Maximus facing off not only against other gladiators, but also tigers.

While this would surely be done entirely with CGI today, the production had a number of real tigers on set, with digital effects and puppetry utilised to make them appear closer to the actors than they actually were.

Originally, the plan was to also shoot a scene in which Maximus would do battle with another animal – namely, a rhinoceros.

As you can see below, the sequence was storyboarded, but ultimately scrapped as the animals were too hard to train and CGI wasn’t quite sophisticated enough yet to do what Scott wanted.

Still, it’s not as though the final film is particularly lacking for spectacular action even without the hero battling a rhino.

8. Proximo doesn’t make it to the end of the film because Oliver Reed died before he finished his scenes

Oliver Reed, as much of a legend for his boisterous personality as his acting, hadn’t been in a major movie for some time when he was cast as Proximo.

By all accounts he was as cantankerous as ever on set, butting heads with Crowe, refusing to work any later than 5pm, and remarking that he only accepted the role for “a free trip to London to see a couple of shows.”

Tragically, Reed died from a heart attack during the movie’s production, before all of his scenes had been shot.

While an insurance clause would have allowed for Proximo to be recast and all his scenes reshot, Scott and the cast were against this, so Reed’s role was completed with the help of a script rewrite and some state of the art digital trickery.

The script was changed so that Proximo died (he was originally meant to survive), and a combination of stand-ins and what at the time was state of the art digital effects were used to complete Reed’s missing scenes.

7. Russell Crowe at first refused to say the ‘in this life or the next’ line

Gladiator is known to have started production without a finished script, with new pages coming in while production was underway – and this didn’t always go down well with its leading man.

According to reports, Russell Crowe was constantly questioning the script, simply walking off the set if he didn’t get answers – and one executive revealed that he almost refused to say one of the movie’s most iconic lines.

“He tried to rewrite the entire script on the spot,” the executive was quoted as saying.

“You know the big line in the trailer, ‘in this life or the next, I will have my vengeance’? At first he absolutely refused to say it.”

Happily, Crowe eventually conceded, and it wound up perhaps the most memorable speech in the film, and in Crowe’s career on the whole.

6. Maximus’ description of his home was actually a description of Crowe’s own home

Another less dramatic but equally memorable speech from Maximus wasn’t in the script at all.

The scene early on, in which Marcus Aurelius asks Maximus to tell him about his home, was entirely ad-libbed by the actors.

Maximus goes on to vividly describe his home in very specific detail, noting that the kitchen “smells of herbs in the day, jasmine in the evening,” and listing the different fruits growing in the garden.

Marcus Aurelius smiles, remarking that this is a home “worth fighting for.”

Crowe was in fact describing his own home in Australia.

5. The film isn’t remotely historically accurate

Despite being loosely based on real events within the Roman Empire in the latter half of the 2nd century AD, Gladiator’s plot also uses a lot of poetic licence.

While Marcus Aurelius, Commodus and Lucilla are all real historical figures, Maxiumus is an entirely fictional creation.

While the movie shows Commodus murder his father for the old man’s refusal to allow his son to succeed him as Emperor, in reality Marcus Aurelius died of plague and Commodus did indeed ascend to Emperor.

Later on, the real Commodus murdered his sister (for whom he is not reported to have had incestuous desire), and was indeed slain by a gladiator – but in his bath, not in the arena.

Historian Allen Ward has been quoted as saying that “creative artists need to be granted some poetic license, but that should not be a permit for the wholesale disregard of facts in historical fiction.”

4. It won a lot of awards

As well as being a big box office success ($460.5 million worldwide) and receiving positive reviews from critics (76% on Rotten Tomatoes), Gladiator also proved a big winner in the awards season.

Most notably it won five Academy Awards, including two of the most coveted of all: Best Picture, and Best Actor for Russell Crowe.

It also picked up the gongs for Best Costume Design, Best Sound, and Best Visual Effects.

Ridley Scott and Joaquin Phoenix were also nominated in Best Director and Best Supporting Actor, but respectively lost out to Steven Soderbergh and Benicio del Toro, both for Traffic.

Gladiator was also awarded Best Picture at that year’s Golden Globes and BAFTA Film Awards ceremonies.

3. An extended cut of the movie features an additional 15 minutes of footage

In 2005, a three-disc ‘extended cut’ version of Gladiator was released on DVD, which featured 15 minutes of additional scenes.

These included more scenes in the gladiator training camp, more political subplots, and Commodus ordering the execution of two praetorians.

However, none of the material edited back into the film was previously unseen, all of it having been included in the deleted scenes section on earlier DVD editions.

The extended version was not officially endorsed by Ridley Scott, who still refers to the original version as his ‘director’s cut’.

Scott of course knows a thing or two about this, as the numerous revisions of his 1981 classic Blade Runner popularised the concept of the Director’s Cut.

2. The film was responsible for an increased interest in Roman history

The movie’s success was responsible for what became known as ‘the Gladiator effect’, namely an increased interest in Roman history.

There’s a bit of an irony here, given that, as we’ve established, Roman history is something the movie plays very fast and loose with.

Nonetheless, Gladiator saw an increase in tourism to Rome, and academic interest in the period – something that didn’t go unnoticed by The New York Times in 2002.

“The snob in us likes to believe that it is always books that spin off movies,” The New York Times wrote.

“Yet in this case, it’s the movies, most recently Gladiator two years ago, that have created the interest in the ancients.”

1. A sequel is officially in development

A Gladiator sequel (or prequel) has been talked about since 2001, only a year after the original movie was released.

The original sequel script, penned by musician Nick Cave (hand-picked for the job by Russell Crowe himself), is one of the most notorious unmade projects in recent movie history.

The bizarre-sounding film would have followed Maximus through the afterlife where he meets the Roman gods, and is reborn to fight again in, amongst other conflicts, World War II and Vietnam.

Unsurprisingly, this bold concept failed to curry favour, and talk of a Gladiator sequel soon died down – but in 2019 it was confirmed that a follow up is still being developed, with Ridley Scott set to return as director.

“We’re working with Ridley Scott,” said a spokesperson. “That’s one we wouldn’t touch unless we felt in a way to do it was legitimate. We’re working with an amazing writer as well, it picks up the story 25 years later.”