Musician Nick Cave wrote a time-travel saga in which Maximus is not a gladiator – and an emperor laments his lightning-struck giraffe, writes Nicholas Barber.
Two hours into Ridley Scott’s swords-and-sandals epic, Gladiator, the evil Emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) recaps the plot for us: “The general who became a slave. The slave who became a gladiator. The gladiator who defied an emperor. Striking story. Now the people want to know how the story ends.” Happily, the people soon find out. The film’s gruff general-slave-gladiator, Maximus (Russell Crowe), kills Commodus in the Colosseum, thus avenging the murder of his wife and son, liberating his ex-lover Lucilla (Connie Nielson) and his fellow gladiators, fulfilling the last wishes of the former emperor, Marcus Aurelius, and allowing democracy to flourish in Rome. There is literally nothing more for Maximus to achieve – which is lucky, because he dies just before the credits roll.
In short, if ever there was a film that didn’t cry out for a sequel, it’s Gladiator. In 2001, it won five Oscars, including best picture and best actor, and it took $457m (£355m) at the box office, so you can’t blame its director and star for wanting another taste of that astounding success. But Gladiator leaves no questions unanswered, no plot lines unresolved, no logical way for its striking story to continue. How could Scott and Crowe make Gladiator 2? Only by thinking outside the box – several miles outside the box.
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Scott’s plan was to commission John Logan, one of the screenwriters of Gladiator, to write a sequel which would be set in ancient Rome, but which wouldn’t feature either Crowe or gladiators. So… not really a sequel at all, then. Understandably, Crowe was keener on a film that he could actually be in, and so he hired another screenwriter, Nick Cave. Yes, the theatrical singer-songwriter.
At the time, Cave had written just one produced screenplay, John Hillcoat’s Ghosts… of the Civil Dead, and he was concentrating on his music career. But he couldn’t resist when Crowe offered him the Gladiator 2 job, despite one obvious misgiving. “Didn’t you die in Gladiator 1?” he asked. “Yeah, you sort that out,” replied Crowe.
And that’s what he did. Cave’s Gladiator 2 screenplay opens with Maximus waking up in the afterlife. To his disappointment, it isn’t the sun-kissed Elysium he dreamt of in Gladiator, but an endless rain-sodden netherworld where wretched refugees huddle on the shores of a black ocean. With the help of a ghostly guide, Mordecai, Maximus treks to a ruined temple where he meets Jupiter, Mars and five other diseased and decrepit Roman deities. Jupiter explains that one of their number, Hephaestus, has betrayed them, and is now preaching the gospel of another god who is more powerful than all of them. Just to quibble for a moment, Hephaestus is a Greek god, not a Roman one, so Cave should really have named him Vulcan. But the screenplay compensates for this slip with some writing to relish.