“I wanted to call it Christ Killer.”
In a 2006 interview with Variety, musician Nick Cave was quoted saying, “The last thing I ever wanted to get involved with is Hollywood. The way it works is that people get an idea you could possibly do something, but there’s a one-in-a-hundred chance that it could get made. It’s a waste of fucking time, and I have a lot to do.” This was only a year after Cave’s script for The Proposition (John Hillcoat, 2005) had justifiably earned him plaudits and drawn the attention of the wider industry. Even then, Cave was no stranger to the film business, having cameoed in Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire (1987) and Johnny Suede (Tom DiCillo, 1991) and contributed to a number of scores and soundtracks. But something had soured him on mainstream Hollywood – it might have been a simple clash of sensibilities, but just as likely it was the result of something dubbed “the Gladiator effect.”
Flashback to 2000, when Ridley Scott’s Roman epic had burst the box office and inspired a resurgence of the historical epic genre, as Hollywood predictably tried to repeat the trick. No-one should have been better prepared to do so than the the team behind the original film. There were, however, a couple of complications. Firstly and most problematically, not only had Russell Crowe’s titular Gladiator died in the first one, but also Scott’s film was fundamentally about death, with the main narrative drive being Maximus’s entwined desires for vengeance and sweet, Elysi-yummy release (although, presciently enough, not necessarily in that order). Any follow up featuring Crowe would have to do a merry dance in order not to completely undermine the first one, where all he really wanted to do was be with his family in the afterlife. Secondly, the Oscar-nominated script, ultimately credited to three writers, had been redrafted constantly on set, with the additional input of Scott, a host of producers and most famously Crowe himself, who reportedly told third official screenwriter William Nicholson, “Your lines are garbage but I’m the greatest actor in the world and I can make even garbage sound good.”
But success has many fathers, and everyone whose wallets weren’t quite fat enough from the first one had a solid gold idea for a follow-up. Producer Douglas Wick recalls getting a call from Crowe’s agent, just after Gladiator had won five Oscars, including Best Actor for his client. “I got a great idea,” he pitched, “How about we do a sequel and the beginning of the sequel, you see the part where they carry Russell’s body out of the arena and they get him right around the corner and Russell climbs down, they all shake hands and say, ‘Yeah, it worked, they believe I’m dead.’ And we could start the sequel.”
A prequel focussing on Maximus’ life as a soldier was also proposed, but ruled out due to the lack of gladiatorial action. Then, towards the end of 2003, Gladiator’s second original screenwriter, John Hodge (responsible for killing off Maximus’ family and the line “at my signal, unleash hell”), seems to have completed work on a script entitled Gladiator II: Blood of the Empire. Hodge’s take likely focussed on Lucius (Connie Nielsen’s son in the original), 15 years later, probing the ambiguity around his mum’s relationship with Maximus and possibly employing a Godfather Part II-style expansion of the first film’s narrative to take the story multi-generational.
None of those angles had panned out when 2004 saw a bumper crop of Gladiator-inspired movies, including Troy (Wolfgang Petersen), King Arthur (Antoine Fuqua) and Alexander (Oliver Stone). It can’t have been long after that Crowe, having championed and in fact almost signed up to star in The Proposition, called Cave to ask him to take a swing at Gladiator 2. “Hey, Russell,” Cave queried, “Didn’t you die in Gladiator 1?”
“Yeah,” Crowe retorted, “You sort that out.”
Cave’s resultant script opens with Maximus in purgatory, escorted by new character Mordecai (think Conductor 71 in A Matter of Life and Death) to a vast plateau doubling as a refuge camp for lost souls and hence to a ruined temple housing the dying gods. They take the piss out of Maximus (Jupiter does most of the talking) before offering to reunite him with his family, but only if he helps them out. Their power, it turns out, is being sapped by “an evil little idea,” namely growing faith in the Judeo-Christian god. So, according to Cave’s later summation, they want to send Maximus back “to kill Christ and all his followers.” He agrees, only for Mordecai to reveal his wife has given up her place in Elysium so that their son, Marius, can live again on Earth. Long story short, Marius turns out to be a Christian, menaced by a grown Lucius and unwilling to take up the sword to defend himself against religious oppression. With the help of old pal Juba, Maximus picks up the slack and saves the day, only to find himself cursed as an eternal warrior, an idea expressed through a climactic battle montage encompassing “all the wars of history,” from the crusades to Vietnam, culminating in a toilet in the modern-day Pentagon. Crowe’s response to Cave’s script? “Don’t like it, mate.” What about the end? “Don’t like it, mate.”
And so that was that. Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe teamed up again, first for Provençal rom-com A Good Year (2006) and again for Robin Hood (2010). The latter, alongside Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven (2005) may have decisively scratched whatever itch they had for a Gladiator sequel. Nick Cave has continued his collaboration with Hillcoat, providing the script for Lawless (2012), and prospectively an adaptation of Cave’s 2009 novel The Death of Bunny Munro. In 2006, he also confided to Variety, “I’m very comfortable in my day job as a musician.”
This article is taken from Physical Impossibility #2: Popcorn Droppers, which is on sale now from selected stockists. The zine features original writing by Sean Welsh, Ryan Balmer, Matt Carman, Craig McClure, Paul McGarvey and Harriet Warman with original illustrations from Laura Aitchison, Ciara Dunne, Stephen Kelly, Jon Paul Milne, Jack Somerville, ID Stewart and Kseniya Yarosh.
You can also buy a copy directly, here. It costs £4 + 90p postage within the UK (1st class Royal Mail). NB If you are an international customer, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org prior to ordering, and I’ll get back to you with a postage quote.