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20 Years Later: Gladiator

12 May 20 words: Miriam Blakemore-Hoy

Here’s another anniversary to make you feel old - Ridley Scott’s sand and sandals epic Gladiator is now 20. It’s time to take a look and see if the Oscar-winning spectacle has stood up to the tests of time...

Director: Ridley Scott
Starring: Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen
Running time: 155 minutes

After a hiatus of forty-odd years, Gladiator was the first in a renaissance of blockbusters to bring sprawling epics back to the big screen. And the sheer size and ambition of it certainly bowled people over at the time, as it scooped up five Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Visual Effects. With a nod to the humongous movie sets of classics like Cleopatra and Ben-Hur, Gladiator aimed to dazzle its audience and yet show how modern and technologically advanced it was by adding all the CGI magic it could get its hands on. Yet, looking back, the result was a bit of a mish-mash offering, with some things working better than others.

The Colosseum - while it was a wonder in its own time - wasn’t deemed grand enough for Ridley Scott’s vision, so it was blown up to much bigger, awe-inspiring proportions. Half of this monster of a stadium was built in real life, and the rest was computer generated - something quite novel back then. Then there was the case of losing Oliver Reed in the middle of filming, an extremely tragic and unfortunate event. The visual effects team had to pull together surplus footage of Reed from what had already been taken and combine it with a body double to try and cobble together enough to get them through to the finish. As a result, the end is quite a bit different to what was originally intended, as Reed and Crowe were supposedly to go head to head in the arena under the orders of the cruel Emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix). Unfortunately, though the approach was laudable, some of the effects haven’t stood up very well to the tests of time, and it is a shame that Reed’s final performance is somewhat marred by this.

There is a core sense of heart and soul in this film that makes many of its faults forgivable and forgettable

This wasn’t the only thing to go wrong during filming. From the tales on set, the whole process was beset with difficulties. On one hand, cast members Richard Harris and Russell Crowe hit it off and became firm friends. On the other, Reed took an instant dislike to Crowe and apparently challenged him to a fight. There were disagreements with the script, which was written then rewritten by three separate screenwriters. Harris would refuse to read the script amendments, possibly because he didn’t want to go through the bother of learning new lines, and Crowe would refuse to read any lines that he deemed to be rubbish, famously hating the classic declaration, “I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next.” Joaquin Phoenix was fat-shamed into not eating for weeks, after Ridley Scott disagreed with his unorthodox view of what it meant to be Caesar. And Harris and Crowe are said to have taken it upon themselves to get Phoenix roaringly drunk in order to help him over his nerves on set.

Yet somehow despite all of this, there is a core sense of heart and soul in this film that makes many of its faults forgivable and forgettable. Crowe managed to flesh out the character of Maximus in a way that had the audiences really rooting for him. And there are some strong supporting performances from Derek Jacobi, Connie Nielsen and Djimon Hounsou that helped to bridge the gap between an action-fest and an enthralling drama. It may be far from perfect, but it’s worth it all the same.

Did you know? The opening scene of the attack in a forest was filmed in the Bourne Woods, south of Surrey. Scott heard part of it had been labelled for deforestation, so he was able to burn it down while filming the battle.

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