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Released in 2000, Ridley Scott's Gladiator was the movie that made DreamWorks in the eyes of its peers. The film earned $457 million dollars worldwide at the box office and won five Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Actor statues for its star, Russell Crowe, playing the part of the Roman general-come-gladiator Maximus. And you know what happens when a film is a hit with the masses, don'tcha kids? Sure, it's sequel time. But how do you make a sequel to Gladiator when the film's main star dies at the end of the first picture?
If you're the screenwriter being paid to solve the problem there are two solutions staring you in the face: you go with a new character as your hero or you find a way to resurrect Crowe's Maximus. In the immediate years following the critical and commercial success of Gladiator both ideas were tried out. In the first go, DreamWorks paid screenwriter John Logan (Any Given Sunday, The Time Machine) to think up a sequel that was set 15 years after the death of Maximus and centered on the character of Lucius, the son of Connie Nielsen's Lucilla from the original Gladiator, who comes to discover that he's the illegitimate son of Crowe's Roman general. A couple of years pass by and no one's too excited at DreamWorks about Logan's script and so a decision is made to go back to the two main men responsible for the success of Gladiator, namely director Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe, and listen to their ideas for a sequel. The result was a screenplay by musician Nick Cave, someone who by definition of his main job exists outside of the typical Hollywood development circle. I wish that I knew the circumstances about how Cave got the job because I think that would be a story in itself to be told, but the long and short of it was that he cooked up an idea that brought Maximus back from the dead.
Deciding to bring Maximus back was the easy part. The harder part was to not make it suck and Nick Cave did that too. While his screenplay for Gladiator 2 takes an unorthodox approach to the solution of how to resurrect a dead man and make it plausible within the context of the story parameters established by the first film, Cave's ideas might also have caused DreamWorks to get cold feet for reasons that will become apparent as I get deeper into my review. Nevertheless, the screenplay serves as a great example for Hollywood and jaded bastards like myself that creativity isn't dead within the confines of the studio system of development. It may smell bad and look dead but like any zombie worth his or her weight, showbiz creativity is still shambling around. It just needs to bite more development execs and make more of its kind.
Fair warning: there's major spoilers ahead. Don't read any further if you don't want to know what happens in Nick Cave's Gladiator 2.
The story begins in a stark wilderness. Two thieves stumble across the lifeless body of Maximus, still decorated in his gladitorial armor. The pair strip off Maximus' breastplate and take his sword and play would-be gladiators, mocking Maximus' efforts in the Roman arena and cackling with laughter. A heartbeat later the eyes of the thief with the sword go wide and he drops to the ground, dead on impact, a spear jutting out from his back. As the second thief wearing Maximus' breastplate flees, Maximus' body draws a huge gasp of breath and comes alive. A mysterious figure comes into the weak soldier's field of vision, the one that threw the spear. The stranger's name is Mordecai and as the weak Roman soldier regains his strength, Mordecai comes to inform Maximus where he is: the afterlife. It's a bleak place, full of others that eke out a meager subsistence. The afterlife, or at least the region where Maximus and Mordecai find themselves at, is like our world in that people can be killed (again) and hunger and pain exist. One can't simply walk over the land and go to a different place as it's limitless. As Mordecai tells Maximus, the unfortunate souls that find themselves here soon lose all hope and simply have to exist day-to-day. Mordecai knows who Maximus is, having watched him fight to the death against the emperor, and came to find him when he entered the afterlife to help make the transition as painless as possible.
But the transition isn't one without pain for Maximus. Driven by visions of his murdered wife and young son waiting for him outside a home in the fields of Elysium, Maximus learns from Mordecai of a ruined temple where he is told there may be a way for him to move on from this hell. Upon entering Maximus lays his eyes on seven old men, some plagued with infirmities, others ridden with sickness. They are seven of the Roman gods, their health failing as their religion among mortals begins to wane. Confronting Jupiter, Maximus is given a task: slay Hephaestos, another Roman god that has forsaken their number, and the gods will reunite Maximus with his family. The gladiator agrees and sets out on a journey that nearly kills him. When he finally comes to stand in front of Hephaestos, Maximus finds another decrepit god but one that is at peace with his soon-to-be fate. Hephaestos tells Maximus that Jupiter tricked him, for Maximus' wife and son are no longer waiting for him in Elysium. Instead, Maximus's wife gave up her place so that she could send her slain son, Marius, back on Earth to live again. Hephaestos has the power to send Maximus back, to find his son and be reunited, but that he must be part of a larger plan that will reveal itself in time. Where Maximus returns would have made for an amazing visual scene as Cave has him rising from out of the body of a dying Christian believer being slain in a town square in Lyons, a smaller villa down the road from Rome. All around him Christians are being killed en masse by Roman citizens and soldiers, a frenzied mob. Grabbing the sword still sticking out of the body of the Christian that he just resurrected from (!), Maximus goes to work and begins defending himself and the terrorized Christians. Eventually Maximus is held down by the Roman soldiers and their leader, the now-adult Lucius (the nephew of Emperor Commodus from Gladiator) stands before him. Lucius recognizes Maximus from someplace but doesn't remember where. No matter, says Lucius, before ordering his guards to kill Maximus, but the more experienced Roman general breaks free and escapes into the hills surrounding the town.
All of this would have happened before the first half-hour of the film drew to a close.
As you can now begin to see, Cave's Gladiator 2 ideas are daring and occasionally provocative. The Roman concept of the afterlife, the dying Roman gods, Hephaestos' belief that there is only one true God and Maximus' rising from the body of a believer of Christ in his final living moment, all of these things probably caused a little cold sweat to break out on the upper lips of the execs at DreamWorks. If Ridley Scott had been the director of Gladiator 2 and Crowe had been back under the skin of Maximus it would have looked great on screen.
Further on in Cave's script Maximus comes to Rome in search of his son. He learns from Mordecai, who's followed him and no one but Maximus can see, that twenty years have slipped by since his death in the Colosseum. The emperor is an elderly man named Decius. Lucius, now in his early twenties, is the heir to the throne after Decius. Spreading throughout the city are enclaves of Christians, threatening the status quo of religious order that is the backbone of Rome. Lucius has extra reason to hate the Christians as his mother Lucilla (Connie Nielsen's character, referenced but not seen in Gladiator 2 as she's deceased) was one of their number. Lucius relishes in flushing out the followers of this cult, putting them to death in the Colosseum in various barbaric ways. Maximus learns that his son Marius was adopted by a teacher and has no memory of his death or resurrection. Since Marius and his father are also Christians, Maximus finds himself on a course that will bring him head-to-head with Lucius. Those that remember witnessing Maximus fight that day in the Colusseum soon begin spreading the story that he has returned from the dead. That reunites Maximus with his old gladiator friend Juba, now a business owner and father. A nice scene occurs where Juba presses the two small statues representing Maximus' wife and son into the hand of Maximus having dug them up from their buried spot in the ground at the Colosseum, fortifying Maximus' desire to see his son live and not fall as bloodsport for the Colosseum. Maximus tries to rally the Christians to take up arms and defend themselves. He will teach them how to fight. The Christians want none of it as the teachings they follow are ones of non-violence. If they die then they will be with their creator in a better place than this world. Maximus, all his life a believer in the Roman gods, can't comprehend the loyalty of his son and the others to a god that doesn't offer salvation in this world.
Lucius and his men come calling to Marius and his adoptive father at school. Exposing him as a follower of the "fish religion" in front of his classroom of schoolchildren, Lucius delivers a scathing speech against the Christian believers, accusing them and their misplaced faith for causing the Roman gods to visit plague and drought on Rome and her citizens. Reading Cave's screenplay there's never any doubt that the Lucius character is a mirror copy of Joaquin Phoenix's insane emperor Commodus; he's the villain and while the words are different, the dialogue he speaks could've been taken from the original Gladiator script. The reason that Lucius hates Christianity needed to be accented more and made more three dimensional than it comes across at times in the screenplay. Still, it's Lucius that drives the plot forward in Gladiator 2 and it's a known fact that Christians were persecuted in Rome during the latter part of the empire. The same way that Joaquin's performance knocked it out of the park in the original Gladiator, you need someone like that pulling off Lucius in Gladiator 2 or else it will come across as a poorer imitation.
After the death of his adoptive father (another nicely done visual scene) Marius comes to ask Maximus to show him how to fight the Romans. With a number of their soldiers now dead following an attack by Maximus, Lucius convinces emperor Decius that the Christians are close to rising and wants to implement his rounding up of all followers of Christ. As Decius heard Lucius, the two watch a mock naval battle in the now-flooded Colosseum (this is about as close as we get to watching an actual gladiator battle in the script.) Decius agrees. What more, Lucius now knows where he's seen Maximus before. Somehow a dead gladiator is among the Christian numbers and the story is quickly spreading throughout all houses in Rome. With Juba's forge and his steel, Maximus begins to teach the Christians that will fight how to defend their lives in preparation for the coming battle, all while the ghost of Mordecai watches and converses with Maximus. "Will you haunt me all of my days?" observes Maximus, to which Mordecai replies, "Until eternity herself has said her prayers." All throughout the Gladiator 2 script, Cave has done an excellent job of carrying the same style of phrasing and voice in the characters' dialogue. I didn't once feel that there was a line of Maximus' dialogue that I couldn't imagine Russell Crowe saying.
Before the climactic battle there's a confrontation between Lucius and Maximus where the former asks plainly how the great general-turned-gladiator he saw die as a boy could now be standing alive in front of him. With every question Maximus refuses to answer Lucius, instead offering barbed bon mots back to him. Finally when the end battle comes its two hundred of Maximus' trained Christians squaring off against the larger army of Roman soldiers led by Lucius in the woods outside the city. The battle is joined. Men die. Maximus and Lucius face off against each other but in the end it's the hand of Marius that finally brings Lucius down. The Romans retreat. The Christians are aghast at the carnage that they have wrought but the words of Maximus bring focus. The Romans will be back in greater numbers and the fight will go on another day. Maximus reaches down and picks up some soil in his hands, feeling its grit between his fingers.
And with that, the scene shifts in time. Maximus stands on another battlefield, dressed in the armor of a soldier from the Crusades. He fights in battle again.
The scene shifts again to another battlefield, one covered with snow. Maximus' weapons are now automatic ones.
Again, the scene shifts. Another war. Bloodshed across centuries. Maximus doesn't age. After all he's died once already.
Present day. Maximus is in the bathroom of an office, washing his hands. He wears a suit and tie. Glancing up to look in the mirror he sees the figure of Mordecai standing behind him, never leaving him until eternity has said its prayers. Maximus exits the bathroom, walks down a hallway that we see is in the Pentagon. He enters a situation room, sits down at a table surrounded by military officers and politicians waiting for him. The implication is that Maximus is now a very powerful commander for the United States. End.
Now you understand, don't you? Even with its weaker moments Nick Cave's Gladiator 2 reached high and found a truly interesting method of continuing on the tale of Maximus, as well as setting things up for a second sequel that could be set in the here and now. The question is, would audiences have accepted this kind of somewhat radical shift in thinking? Leave aside for the moment that twist ending and look at the start of the movie where Maximus' concept of an afterlife is presented as hard fact. During the making of Gladiator, Ridley Scott said that he wanted to impart a sense of greater realism of what life was like for citizens in Rome. Obviously he succeeded because the worry about making a hokey looking "sword and sandals" movie dissapated when Gladiator came out. I also would claim that without the success of Gladiator there may not have been a 300 and certainly no Troy. But would the heavier emphasis on the supernatural and religious underpinnings ward off the masses coming to check out Gladiator 2 in the theaters? I think that this uncertainty, at least in the minds of DreamWorks executives at the time, is what brought a demise to this ambitious screenplay.
In an interview with UGO from earlier this year, Ridley Scott spoke a little about the reasons why the project got axed. From what Sir Ridley said, it sounds like the problem wasn't with convincing Crowe or Scott to make the picture, it was the studio. "We tried. Russell didn't want to let it go, obviously, because it worked very well," he said. "I mean, when I say ‘worked very well,' I don't refer to success. I mean, as a piece it works very well. Storytelling, he works brilliantly. I think he enjoyed doing it, and I think it was one of those things that he thought, "Well, maybe there's a sequel where we can adjust the fantasy and bring him back from the dead." The site also said that Scott loved the ending of Gladiator 2, a claim that he didn't deny.
A lot of sequel ideas that get developed into screenplays are ones that are the low hanging fruit, the obvious ones. It's the son of the first film's hero; it's another robot version of the guy; it's a clone; it's a reimagining...you know what I'm talking about. Nick Cave's unused Gladiator 2 screenplay brought back the dead hero but from that point on it took a less-traveled road and brought with it some truly interesting concepts. I would have liked to have seen the attempt made but as the chances of that happening are now virtually non-existent the unused script makes for an truly interesting story in what could have been, a movie for you to imagine watching in the theater of your mind. And Nick Cave, you keep writing screenplays as well as making your music.
Got an inside tip on a hot screenplay? Send it to scoop [at] coronacomingattractions.com because we're always interested in what screenwriters are cooking up for H-wood.