“At first you will be disorientated and confused, and, indeed, a little vexed. It is to be expected. But direct your anger elsewhere. I am a friend. Let me help you stand… ” – Mordecai, Gladiator II
As well as taking half a billion dollars at the box office, winning five Oscars including Best Picture and Best Actor, and creating more memorable quotes than most movies have dialogue, Ridley Scott’s Gladiator is often credited as resurrecting the ancient historical epic – a setting largely absent from cinema screens since the 1960s. However, there was a proposed sequel for the film that would also involve resurrection…
Following Gladiator’s success, star Russell Crowe asked his fellow Australasian, singer-songwriter Nick Cave, to pen a sequel. When Cave brought up the little inconvenience of Crowe’s character, Maximus Decimus Meridius, dying at the end of the film, Crowe replied:
“Yeah, you sort that out.”
And he did.
Cave had only written one film at this point, Ghosts… of the Civil Dead – for director John Hillcoat – but he approached the Gladiator II script with gusto, creating a narrative that indulges in issues of faith, the fantastical, and the violent. He stated in an interview with NME that “It was a stone cold masterpiece. I enjoyed writing it very much because I knew on every level that it was never going to get made.” The script has since surfaced online and offers a fascinating glimpse at what could have been.
The plot begins the day after Gladiator ends – but in purgatory; a rain-soaked, muddy eternity where desperate souls hope of being ferried to Elysium. Here Maximus finds the decrepit gods lingering in a ruined temple who charge him with killing their brother Hephaestus. Wandering through a nightmarish desert Maximus learns that his murdered son, Marius, was resurrected and adopted by a Christian family, and upon finding the emaciated, dying Hephaestus, he too is brought back to life – 18 years after his death in the arena.
Maximus finds the now adult Lucius, nephew of the slain Emperor Commodus, leading the Roman genocide of Christians after his mother, Lucilla, was stoned to death after converting to Christianity following Maximus’ death. With the help of his old friend Juba, Maximus finds his son and offers help to the beleaguered Christians in Rome. Maximus transforms them into an army to stand against Lucius, and the two sides meet in a bloody battle in the woods outside the city.
Juba and Lucius are killed, but Maximus gives the order to rearm and prepare for further conflict. As he does so he encounters a dying stag, and approaching the animal the film becomes a vision of Maximus’ future as we see him leading Medieval Crusaders in the Holy Land, in the snows of a European battlefield, surrounded by tanks in WWII, fighting in the jungles of Vietnam and, finally, in a suit sat at a table in the Pentagon.
Fade to black.
… Are you not entertained?
In the words of its author, “Let’s call it a popcorn dropper.”
On first reading this sounds like a ridiculous sequel to a sublime original. The supernatural, fantastical elements clash with Gladiator’s stoic sincerity and portrayal of history (however inaccurate it may be) while the heavy focus on early Christianity – a feature notable by its absence in the first film – is often awkward and unsubtle. Some may even question Maximus’ morality, as he essentially converts a group of pacifists into a blood-soaked army.
However, the film is an interesting homage to its generic roots; while Gladiator was essentially a pastiche of Spartacus and The Fall of the Roman Empire, Gladiator II evokes elements of classics such as The Robe, Quo Vadis and Ben-Hur. Furthermore, the idea of bringing the dead back to life was a feature in classical literature; in Lucan’s Pharsalia, for example, the witch Erictho reanimates a dead soldier who can foretell the future, much as Maximus appears to do in the closing montage.
Scott has said of the script that “Russell didn’t want to let it go, obviously, because it worked very well. When I say ‘worked very well’, I don’t refer to success. I mean, as a piece it works very well. Storytelling, [it] works brilliantly.” Cave’s dialogue may lack the almost Shakespearian tone of Gladiator, but one must applaud his ambition. The script contains various nods to the first film, including sequences involving Maximus’ dreamlike homecoming through the fields of wheat, as well as returning characters and a spectacular setpiece involving a flooded Colosseum where a mock naval battle is staged. There are also plenty of wonderful characters for actors to sink their teeth into, especially Mordecai, a phantasmagorical companion to Maximus who can traverse between this life and the next.
Gladiator II had the potential to be absolutely terrible, but in Scott’s hands and with a redraft or two from the writers of the original it could have been epic. Scott is renowned for visual sensibility and seeing him tackle the evocative descriptions of a purgatorial wasteland and a sea battle in the Colosseum is a seductive proposition. That said, the former arguably found form in John Hillcoat’s The Proposition, which was penned by Cave. Scott likewise tackled the crusades with Kingdom of Heaven and Crowe… well, next time you see his veteran crusader in Robin Hood or his Pentagon operative in Body of Lies, both directed by Scott, just think… is that actually Maximus, echoing in eternity?
Is it thumbs up or thumbs down for Gladiator II? Or are you just terribly vexed? Pray to the gods or leave us a comment below with your thoughts.