Gladiator at 20: 20 things you might not know about the Ridley Scott classic

Ridley Scott’s masterpiece Gladiator turns 20 today, but even on its release, it felt like some lost treasure from another era – an epic in an age of lightweights.

It had the big name director, the heft – coming in at just under three hours – and the spectacle set-pieces of a golden age release like Sparticus or Ben Hur. It made a star of Russell Crowe, but cast him alongside old school British heavyweights, with 60's titans Richard Harris and Oliver Reed both cast.

It boasted bombastic direction, brutal fight scenes and the story was a saga, following Crowe’s Roman general Maximus, who is betrayed after the son of Emperor Marcus kills his father and takes the throne. His search for redemption is one of the most enduring in recent years – and it was an immediate hit at the time, picking up 12 Oscar nominations, winning five.

It's not over yet either – a follow-up film was announced by Scott in 2018, while producers Walter F Parke and Laurie MacDonald confirmed the news last year, adding that it would be set 25 to 30 years after the events of the first movie. From broken bones to plans for Crowe to fight a rhino, here are 20 things you might not know about Gladiator.


1. Russell Crowe suffered a number of injuries on set, breaking bones in his hip and tearing both achilles during filming – all despite the studio attempting to prevent him from hurting himself by banning him from playing football during the shoot.

2. One injury that appeared on screen is the wound audiences see on his cheek in the first battle – it's real, though not inflicted by a sword. Instead, the horse he was riding was spooked and took him into a tree.

3. The Colosseum that played host to the film’s most memorable moments was painstakingly created for the film’s production, costing around £805,000 ($1m) to make. It stood around 16m tall, though only the first two rows of audience we see in the film are real, the rest created with CGI.


4. The thumb signals given by Joaquin Phonix’s Commodus are actually the wrong way round. The thumbs up signals given in Ancient Rome are commonly believed to have indicated death, while a thumbs down was a sign to spare a life. The crew were aware of this, but decided it would be clearer for audiences to show it this way in the film.

5. There were 10,000 costumes created for the film as part of the efforts by the huge production team, as well 20,000 arrows and more than 27,000 pieces of armour.

6. Russell Crowe lost 40 pounds while training for the role, while working on his farm in Australia. It was a quick turnaround after gaining weight for his previous role in Michael Mann’s The Insider, which had required him to put on 50 pounds and age 20 years.


7. Joaquin Phoenix’s famous “am I not merciful?” line wasn’t originally in the script. The actor ad-libbed the fiercely delivered line, which promoted a genuine reaction from Connie Nielsen. There’s also a story that Phoenix passed out after Commodus’s murder scene because he was so carried away with the sequence.

8. There’s another famous line which was ad-libbed, too. Maximus’ description of his home was made up on the spot, with Crowe claiming the “house in the hills” with “stones that warm in the sun” was a description of his own home in Australia.


9. Russell Crowe was never Ridley Scott’s first choice for the part. Mel Gibson was offered the role after his commanding role in Braveheart five years before. He was in his 40s at the time, though and declined the part as he thought he was too old. Antonio Banderas and Hugh Jackman were also considered.

10. The version of Maximus’s story we see is much darker than in the original versions of the script. His family weren’t killed in the earlier drafts of the film, but it was included to give the character greater motivation for his arc of redemption.

11. The battle sequences in the beginning of the movie, supposedly taking place in Germania, were actually filmed in Bourne Wood in Surrey over the course of 20 days. The wood has also appeared in the likes of Warhorse, Robin Hood, Captain America and The Avengers: Age of Ultron.


12. Gladiator marked Oliver Reed’s final role, with the actor dying during a break from filming; he'd headed to a local bar and arm-wrestled local sailors there. Victorious, he stood up and suffered a heart attack. The actor was initially reluctant to play Proximo, only taking the part because he “fancied a trip to London to see a couple of shows”.

13. Following Reed's death, the CGI team working on the team created an additional two minutes of material for scenes involving his character Proximo, including creating a 3D map of the actor’s face. The move cost the film an additional (£2.5m) $3.2m.

14. The famously abrasive Reed frequently clashed with Scott while on set. He’s also said to have had a series of fallings out with Crowe, even offering Crowe out for a fight at one point during filming. Given their characters lock horns throughout the film, perhaps it wasn’t the worst thing.

15. Maximus's pet wolf isn’t played by a wolf, but a Belgian Shepherd. Amazingly, it’s also the very same dog that played Wellard in Eastenders for seven years.


16. The plot of the film could have been very different had both Scott and Crowe not stuck to their guns when coming under pressure from the studio to make changes. One of the rejected suggestions involved the introduction of a sexual relationship between Maximus and Lucilla. Fortunately, the pair believed it would have undermined the emotional turmoil and loss Maximus experiences in the film.

17. Things were nearly very different for the character of Lucilla, too, as Jennifer Lopez auditioned for the role. It came three years after starring in both the Selena biopic and Anaconda, and a year after releasing her debut album.

18. The actress who was eventually cast, Connie Nielsen, contributed more than just her acting to the film. Nielsen is a keen linguist and historian, with a deep knowledge of Ancient Rome and the ability to speak eight languages. She helped to keep the film historically accurate, and was regularly consulted on details throughout the shoot.


19. There might be a sequel on the way now, but there were initially plans in place for an immediate follow up to capitalise on the success of the film. Producers enlisted singer songwriter Nick Cave to write a script and his idea for a second film was truly bonkers. As Maximus dies in the first film, the character in this prospective sequel is in purgatory, before he's sent down by the gods to kill Jesus Christ and stop him gaining popularity on earth. Sadly, it never got past the development stage.

20. The scene where Maximus fights Tigris of Gaul was already epic as it was, even before the addition of five tigers. They all entered the space through hidden trap doors, while Crowe stayed 15 feet away from them at all times. A vet was watching the entire time, ready to tranquillise the animals if necessary.

There were initially plans for Maximus to fight a rhinoceros too, although producers quickly realised filming such a sequence wouldn’t be possible. Scott was keen on the idea of a sequence involving an armour-covered rhino, and looked into the idea of using a real one for filming, combined with animatronics and a mix of CGI. However, the logistics were implausible and the cost of the sequence too great, so Scott was forced to shelve the idea.