FILM OF THE MONTH GLADIATOR
Russell Crowe raises the blade in triumph

BLADE RUNNER

Legendary director Ridley Scott and star Russell Crowe hoist up their togas and reveal all behind the scenes of the Roman epic, Gladiator.

TEXT JOHN MILLAR

From Film Review June 2000

Sword and sandals epics were once all the rage. There was a rash of them in the 1950s and early 1960s during which several of the best of the genre appeared, including Charlton Heston's chariot racer in Ben-Hur and Kirk Douglas in Spartacus. But Ancient Rome became a no-go area for movie makers. A combination of the costs of staging such epics and increasing disinterest at the box-office ensured its demise. Four decades on, however, director Ridley Scott returns to the toga with his $103 million adventure, Gladiator.

When Scott approached his lead Russell Crowe, he still didn’t have a script. Normally the actor would not even consider such a proposal, but, like the director, he was excited by the concept.

“When you’re dealing with that subject matter and a great visual artist,” says Crowe, “then it’s intriguing enough to at least sit down and have a conversation.”

Once on board, Crowe began intensive preparation in order to appear convincing as an Ancient Roman killing machine. Fight master Nicholas Powell, who had worked on Braveheart, flew to Australia just before Christmas 1998, to tutor the actor in swordsmanship.

“That was when I had my first sort of introduction to the fighting techniques and the available weaponry,” says Crowe. “I’d done a little bit of fencing before, but, as Nick patiently explained to me, fencing hadn’t been invented by 185AD, so I had to drop all of that knowledge. The short sword, and wearing this type of armour restricts you greatly, so it’s actually quite simple. There are only so many moves you can do.

“But it was important to me to be able to use both hands with equal dexterity because I think, if that’s your weapon and you lived in this time period, you would at some point in time, swap hands during combat.”

The physical side of the film was one of the actor’s toughest experiences. “It was unrelenting,” he says. “I got damaged quite a bit. But if I’m gonna give really as many 100 percent shots as Ridley can use, then I’ve got to get involved. I’ve got to get in the middle of it, you know. And in retrospect, that’s also the greatest part of the experience.”

Crowe’s suffering for his art was considerable. Apart from the unsurprising cuts and bruises, he broke a bone in his foot, fractured a hipbone and had both bicep tendons pop out of their shoulder sockets.

“Fortunately for me, that happened at different times, so I still had one arm I could use,” he says. “I woke up one morning in England and I went into the bathroom and there was this welt running along my arm. I realized it wasn’t a bruise, but the tendon, facing the wrong way. So I had a little shot of Jack Daniels and I stuck the tendon back in place and it’s been fine ever since.”

Ladies and gentlemen, medicine with Russell Crowe…

Image copyright: UIP
Feature © Visual Imagination Ltd 2000. Not for reproduction.

Ridley Scott Ridley Scott in action

The reason for Scott's return to the genre is simple. Scott, responsible for such landmark films as Blade Runner and Thelma and Louise, thought the time was right and was inspired by the most unusual pitch of his career.

Executive producer Walter Parkes asked to see Scott and, instead of handing over a script, he unrolled a piece of paper, saying “This is really what it’s all about.” It was a copy of Pollice Verso, a painting of a gladiatorial battle by the 19th Century artist Jean-Léon Gérome.

Immediately, Scott was hooked. “It’s a beautiful reproduction, albeit a little bit romantic, but still everything’s there, all the architecture and all the beauty of the theatre and the arena is there. And that’s what got me” says Scott.

“I thought, ‘This is a very interesting subject to tackle.’ It hadn’t been done for a number of years and if we could get the script right, it was one for me.”

Filmed on location in Malta, Morocco, Italy and England, Gladiator is a work of which this acclaimed movie-maker feels proud.

A perfect example of the vision that Ridley Scott brings comes right at the start of Gladiator. As the sky is filled with flaming arrows and the Roman and barbarian forces clash in the charred forest, it really does appear like a bloody conflict between tens of thousands. But Scott had about 1,000 extras for the sequence.

“You just keep moving this same group of Roman soldiers across the shot and panning several times,” he explains, “and then be able to blend it with CGI so it looks like there’s 20,000 troops there.” That opening action – in which an entire area of woodland was to be laid waste – was shot at Bourne Woods in Surrey.

“I went to the Forestry Commission and said, ‘What have you got that you want to get rid of?’ And they said there was this area about seven miles west of Gatwick and we just went there and in that little valley, we did everything we needed to do...”

Get the whole feature, with more from Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe plus our review of Gladiator in the June 2000 issue of Film Review
Gladiator • Film of the Month Review here

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