MARCH / APRIL 2015: BY MARIANNA KAPLUN
All eyes turned to the trees. A horseman rode out toward the Roman army. There was something strange about the way he was riding. Maximus was the first to understand…
As the horse came closer, the other men could see what had happened. The Roman messenger was tied to his horse. His head had been cut off. Maximus knew now what he had to do. Life was suddenly simple…
At the height of its power, the great Roman Empire stretched from the deserts of Africa to the borders of northern England. Over one quarter of the world’s population lived and died under the rule of the Caesars.
In the winter of A.D. 180, Emperor Marcus Aurelius’s twelve-year war against the people of Germania was ending. There was one last battle to win. Then there would be peace across the Empire.
This is the beginning of the American-British epic historical drama Gladiator. General Maximus, Commander of the Roman Army of the North, fights his last battle in the war against Germania. Then, he hopes to return to his farm and family in Spain. But there are many serious problems in Rome; Emperor Marcus Aurelius knows he will soon die. Maximus realizes that he must perform another duty for the Emperor before he can go home. He knows it will not be easy, and he is right. Soon he is fighting for his life again, first as a prisoner, then a slave, and finally as a gladiator. One thought keeps Maximus alive: that he will finally meet and kill the man he hates most—the new Emperor, Commodus. When Commodus joins Maximus in the Coliseum arena they fight for their lives.
The film was shot in three main locations between January and May 1999. The opening battle scenes were done in Bourne Woods, near Farnham, Surrey, which doubled for the forests of Germania. Next came another three weeks in Morocco. Scenes of slavery and desert travel and at the gladiatorial training school were filmed at Ouarzazate, nestling south of the Atlas Mountains. And then to Malta where in nineteen weeks of massive endeavor from an enormous well of multicultural talent, Ancient Rome was brought to life and captured by some of the most outstanding filmmaking of the 20th century.
In Malta, a replica of one-third of Rome’s Coliseum was built, to a height of 52 feet. Rome’s 55,000-seat Coliseum is at the heart of the film, not only for the gladiatorial contests, but triumphs and other assemblies, and those seats had to be seen to be full. There was also to be aerial views, street scenes and general atmospheric enhancers. The location was Fort Ricasoli, on the south side of Valletta’s Grand Harbor. Constructed by the 16th century Knights of Malta, its history includes brief use by Napoleonic troops and until 1964 by the British. It is enormous; at one time the biggest fort in the British Empire.
Gladiator was based on an original pitch by David Franzoni, who wrote the first draft. It is loosely based on real events that occurred in the latter half of the 2nd Century AD. As director Ridley Scott wanted to portray Roman culture more accurately than in any previous film, he hired several historians as advisors.
The plot was influenced by two 1960s Hollywood films of the sword-and-sandal genre, The Fall of the Roman Empire and Spartacus, and shares several plot points with the former, which tells the story of Livius, who, like Maximus, is Marcus Aurelius’s intended successor. Scott attributed Spartacus, Ben-Hur, and Quo Vadis as major influences: they “were part of my cinema-going youth. At the dawn of the new millennium, I thought this might be the ideal time to revisit what may have been the most important period of the last two thousand years—if not all recorded history—the apex and beginning of the decline of the greatest military and political power the world has ever known.” It brings the glorious battles of ancient Roman back to the big screen in a sweeping story of courage and revenge.
Scott’s complex work was not in vain. Gladiator’s mainstream success is responsible for an increased interest in Roman and classical history worldwide.
The effective and well-crafted soundtrack was composed by Hans Zimmer and Lisa Gerrard. It is clearly divided between the world of Rome and that of the afterlife, and the film opens and closes with the spirit of the latter. Zimmer’s opening cue introduces the ambience of the era with a nebulous motif often referred to as a “calling of the wild” theme that appears as a bridge between the score’s two primary identities. In “Progeny,” Zimmer splits the performances between three of his noted soloists: Djivan Gasparyan on duduk, Jeff Rona on flute, and Tony Pleeth on cello. Lisa Gerrard’s “Elysium” theme, later to be combined with Zimmer’s “Earth” theme to form the famous “Now We Are Free” ascension cue, is heard during Ridley Scott’s shots of wheat blowing in the wind, and thus is provided in a short cue on its own. This cue is mixed directly into the start of “The Battle,” one of the score’s surprisingly few action pieces. Zimmer has claimed that this piece, along with its subsequent variant for the gladiator battles in Rome, is based heavily on a classical Viennese waltz and was the first part of the score written.
In this way, the main merit of Gladiator is that it has an extraordinarily perfect canvas from the beginning to the end.
Maximus walked through the wheat field… The beautiful woman stopped and turned. She called to the boy. He stopped running and looked back. The boy then started running back along the road, toward the man in the wheat field, toward his father, who was coming home at last.
The games had ended… ♥
Marianna Kaplun was born in Moscow. She is a philologist specializing in Ancient Russian drama and theatre. She’s also a film and television critic by calling and librarian by profession. You can find her essays on her Facebook page and on Lumiere. She also blogs in English and Russian.