The Empire Strikes Back

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GLAD ALL OVER: Maximus (Crowe) leads his fellow slaves in one of the film's big battles

It seemed a quixotic notion: "Hey, guys, let's make a movie in a genre that went out of fashion when The Sound of Music came in; that will cost $100 million, require arduous location shooting and elaborate computer effects; whose director hasn't made a film grossing even $50 million domestically in 20 years; whose script will be retooled by three writers turning in new pages during shooting; and whose 'star' is a gifted actor but also, by all accounts, a severe rectal itch." We can hear the moguls chorusing: "Gladiator? Thumbs down."

Today Douglas Wick, the movie's producer, can say, "Anyone with a little showman in his blood knew it could work." And now the rest of Hollywood knows too. Even before it opens, Gladiator smells like a hit. Its early glow has movie people saying "Of course!" Of course there's a magnetic pull of audiences to Roman Empire epics--stories about palace sex, political backstabbing and violent raids are as today as the Clinton Administration. Of course Ridley Scott, whose only big hit was the 1979 Alien but who directed influential films such as Blade Runner and Thelma & Louise, possessed the vision and stamina to bring a complex story to screen life. And you bet Russell Crowe has the thoughtful, coiled danger, the unfakable maleness to become one of Hollywood's most wanted actors. He simply needed a showcase as grand as this one.

Gladiator is quite a good movie--a big, fat, rousing, intelligent, daring, retro, many-adjective-requiring entertainment. It has lots of fighting, but with a posh accent; this may be the first culturally acceptable version of WrestleMania. Beyond the spectacle of large men grabbing and stabbing one another, Gladiator offers body halvings, decapitations, unhandings. A pity the slaves must die for the public's sport, and a pleasure that we get to watch. Violence is an issue directors love to deplore and exploit.

Every movie pitch is a variation on "It's old, but it's new!" As Walter Parkes, the production boss at DreamWorks who greenlighted Gladiator, says, "Recently there have been very successful movies--Titanic, The Mask of Zorro, Saving Private Ryan--that introduced classic genres to new audiences, employing modern writing and digital techniques. The Roman epic occupies a strange, special place in the heart of moviegoers. We love the good ones like Ben-Hur and Spartacus, but even the bad ones are guilty pleasures." Scott recalls seeing these epics in his youth. "I loved the costume drama of it all and remembered that world vividly," he says. "But I also knew you can't bring that to bear today. You've got to reinvent it."

The plot, familiar from the 1964 epic The Fall of the Roman Empire, is this: in A.D. 180, Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) is ailing. He anoints his best general, Maximus (Crowe), a man whose motto is "Strength and Honor," as Protector of Rome until it can again become a republic. Before announcing his decision, Marcus informs his son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), who lusts to be Emperor. Commodus is displeased by the news; he smothers Marcus in his bosom, murdering him with a filial embrace, and proclaims himself Emperor. In short order, the nasty boy has swiped Maximus' job, ordered his death, killed his boss, razed his home, and had his wife and son defiled and slaughtered. The soldier has reason for revenge.

Maximus escapes the executioner's blade and is sold into a troupe of gladiators, including the African Juba (Djimon Hounsou). Their job is to fight and die, and their Vince McMahon is the wily Proximo (Oliver Reed). Act II of Gladiator is a backstage show-biz story, the one about the old pro who makes a comeback in a new role. Maximus' battleground is now the arena; instead of barbarians, his opponents are hungry tigers. Proximo tells Maximus he must make the crowd love him. If he does, he'll go out there as Tiger Chow but come back a star.

The gladiator revue is such a hit in the provinces that it is soon playing Rome. There, Maximus takes two wary allies: Senator Gracchus (Derek Jacobi), who needs help in restoring the republic; and Lucilla (Connie Nielsen), Commodus' sister, who loved Maximus. But it won't be easy outfoxing Commodus. His Heinous Highness loves an unfair fight.

The idea for Gladiator began in the '70s when screenwriter David Franzoni read Daniel P. Mannix's Those About to Die, a briskly lurid history of the Roman games. "It really made a connection between that era and ours," Franzoni says, "about how sports heroes are slavishly worshiped by their fans." A few years ago, while writing his script for Steven Spielberg's Amistad, he worked on an idea about gladiators as "commercialized idols, their endorsements on frescoes, chariots and jars of olive oil." When Scott was hired, he brought in John Logan (Any Given Sunday) to create Maximus' life as a slave and playwright William Nicholson (Shadowlands) for further character shadings.

Casting the film, Scott tested Jude Law for Commodus but went with Phoenix, an odd, inspired choice: beneath the villain's sliminess is an unloved child with vivid plans for vengeance. Scott's choice of Nielsen also was resisted, but the Danish beauty brings a regal presence to the film. The boozy, exuberant Reed gave a superbly knowing performance--alas, his last. He died toward the end of shooting; one scene was accomplished with a body double and some digital legerdemain (which also added tiers to the Colosseum). Crowe, deep into his Jeffrey Wigand character in The Insider, was persuaded to discuss the lead role. Scott was impressed--and knew he could spend more money making the film look good if he spent less for a star name.

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