As great as the Colosseum sequences are in Ridley Scott's Gladiator, my favorite scenes happen early on. Russell Crowe plays the disciple as Maximus Desimus Meridius to Richard Harris's Marcus Aurelius. "Caesar," says Maximus. "Don't call me that." The emperor tells him.
I love the chemistry between Crowe and Harris. They seem like the old friends they're supposed to be and Harris delivers true gravitas as the dying emperor. I love the wolf skin draped around Maximus, the way he strides through camp greeting different parties of soldiers after victory. He's powerful and loved, and these scenes make what follows all the more heartbreaking.
It's been 20 years since Gladiator premiered in May of 2000. Almost a year later, it would win Best Picture at the Academy Awards, etching its name in movie history. Will the film "echo in eternity" like Maximus told his soldiers they would? Only time will tell, but now, 20 years later, it remains a fixture of the adventure epic genre. To celebrate the movie's two-decade anniversary, here are 20 things you never knew about it.
1. Mel Gibson was offered the role of Maximus, but turned it down because he thought he was too old for the character.
2. Gladiator begins in a daydream, as Maximus remembers touching the stalks of wheat near his home. But the hand is not Russell Crowe's, it's actually his stunt double, Stuart Clark's.
3. Crowe began shooting Gladiator a few months after 1999's The Insider wrapped. He had gained over 40 pounds to play Jeffrey Wigand in that film and had to lose it all before shooting started again. He claimed he did it by working on his farm in Australia, "nothing special."
4. Maximus' description of his home (specifically how the kitchen is arranged and how it smells) was ad-libbed: It's a description of Crowe's own home in Australia.
5. Crowe suggested giving Maximus a Spanish accent similar to Antonio Banderas' but director Ridley Scott nixed the idea. Coincidentally, Banderas was considered for the role early on.
6. Oliver Reed, who plays Proximo, died of a heart attack with three weeks of principal photography remaining. Insurance would have allowed Scott to reshoot all of Reed's scenes with another actor, but the schedule was punishing enough already without reshoots and Scott didn't want to lose Reed from the film anyway. So the script was rewritten and CGI used to kill the character in a believable way.
7. Crowe complained about the screenplay constantly and would walk off the set if he wasn't allowed to rewrite scenes. He initially refused to say the line, "In this life or the next, I will have my vengeance." Reportedly, he told co-writer William Nicholson, "Your lines are garbage, but I'm the greatest actor in the world and I can make even garbage sound good."
8. During filming, Crowe became friends with his "father" Richard Harris. However, he had the opposite experience with Reed, who took an instant disliking to Crowe, even challenging him to a fight at one point.
9. The opening battle scene was filmed in Bourne Woods, in the English county of Surrey. The Royal Forestry Commission had originally slated the area for deforestation so Scott eagerly offered them his facilities to burn the woods to the ground. The Commission happily accepted.
10. The wounds on Crowe's face after the opening battle are real, caused when his horse was startled and backed him into tree branches. The stitches in his cheek are clearly visible when he tells Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) he intends to return home. But stitches are nothing. Over the course of the gladiatorial sequences, Crowe broke bones in his foot, hip, and he injured both bicep tendons.
11. Phoenix improvised his "Am I not merciful!?" line by shouting it, and Connie Nielsen's (who plays Lucilla) frightened reaction is genuine.
12. In reality, Commodus was known as a "Gladiator Emperor," routinely making appearances in the arena to take down wild animals, among other challenges. He charged Rome an exorbitant amount of money for each appearance, which eventually devalued Roman coins; the start of his influence on the fall of Rome. In his sadistic bravado, he would make "giants" by tying disabled people together so he could club them to death. According to Gibbon, he once killed 100 lions in a day, and three elephants on another. But the ruler's murderous arrogance soon turned the people against him. He was poisoned. And when he vomited to save himself, he was strangled in his bathtub.
13. On a trip to the real Colosseum, Scott remarked to production designer Arthur Max that it was "too small." So they designed a "Rome of the Imagination" which was inspired by English and French romantic painters, as well as Nazi architect Albert Speer. A replica of about one third of the Collosseum was built in Malta to a height of 52 feet, mostly from plaster and plywood. The remainder of the building was added in digitally. It took several months to build at a reputed cost of $1 million.
14. Five tigers were used for the fight between Maximus and Tigris of Gaul (Sven-Ole Thorsen). A veterinarian armed with tranquilizer darts was in attendance the entire time and Crowe was kept at least 15 feet away from them.
15. The script had called for a battle scene between Maximus and a rhinoceros. Since the animal was too difficult to train and CGI could not make it realistic enough, the rhinoceros was omitted.
16. Maximus' tattoo "SPQR" stands for " Senātus Populusque Rōmānus," which translates to "The Senate and People of Rome." The phrase appears hundreds of times in Roman political, legal and historical literature, including the speeches of Cicero and the Ab urbe condita libri ("Books from the Founding of the City") of Titus Livius.
17. Costume designer Janty Yates and her team created more than 10,000 costumes for the cast and extras.
18. Nielsen found the 2000-year-old signet ring, which she wears in the movie, in an antique store.
19. Luciano Pavarotti was asked to perform on the soundtrack but turned down the opportunity, something he later regretted. Hans Zimmer's score is one of the bestselling movie soundtracks of all time.
20. Crowe has said Gladiator is his favorite of his American films. He also cites Maximus as his favorite character that he's played so far.
[h/t to IMDb, Wikipedia, & my Gladiator DVD]