Best Movies Never Made — “Gladiator 2”

Gladiator 2 lead

Everyone writes Throwback Thursdays, and there are some great ones out there. They’re all kind of exclusive, though. They only review films that actually exist. What about all those Thursdays that never happened?

From Alfred Hitchcock’s nudie flick Kaleidoscope to David Fincher’s Rendezvous with Rama, we’ll cover everything from the biggest movies never made (Steven Soderbergh’s Cleopatra, anyone?) to long-forgotten treasures (Clair Noto’s sci-fi masterpiece The Tourist). The stories behind them are as interesting as the films themselves. Some were killed for their budgets, some for their politics. Many sank when their auteurs foundered, others were sabotaged by affairs, and still more fell victim to studios unwilling to take risks.

We’ll start with one of the biggest sequels never made: Gladiator 2.

BACKGROUND

The release of Gladiator on May 5, 2000 was considered risky. Back then, the summer movie season didn’t start until June, when schools let out (now it starts in March). The story of Roman general Maximus – who is enslaved as a gladiator and challenges a corrupt emperor – harkened back to sword-and-sandal classics like Spartacus.

The $103 million Ridley Scott film, aside from giving us the confusing gift of Joaquin Phoenix, made $457 million worldwide. Before the advent of streaming sites like Netflix and Hulu, it also did terrific business on DVD.

It also won Best Picture, rare for a film released so early in the year, especially in such a contentious field: its competition included Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the Steven Soderbergh twin threat of Traffic and Erin Brockovich. Though many felt Wonder Boys or Almost Famous (really, people?) deserved its spot, count me as one of the lonely voices that favored Lasse Hallstrom’s dark horse Chocolat over the whole bunch.

Gladiator nabbed Russell Crowe an Oscar in the second year of three straight he was nominated, upsetting early favorite Tom Hanks (Cast Away). The film also picked up Best Costume Design, Best Visual Effects, and Best Sound.

THE PITCH

Gladiator was in the unique position of being both a Best Picture winner and a financially successful summer action movie. It’s not as if you could make American Beauty 2 (although it was discussed) or An Even More Beautiful Mind. There was only one problem, and this is where the spoilers start: Crowe’s heroic General Maximus dies in the end.

A prequel was the most obvious way to bring back Crowe and Maximus. His history of Roman conquests could provide the action while building his loving family (which the audience knew was doomed) could provide the poignancy. It didn’t stick, though – all these things had been established in the first movie. So far, it sounded like a direct-to-DVD affair.

Original writer John Logan shifted gears to a sequel that could take place years later and feature the nephew of corrupt Emperor Commodus – the innocent young Lucius, who becomes emperor at the end of the first film.

One version got rid of Crowe entirely, while another crammed together both the past and future – half prequel covering Maximus’ rise through the ranks, half sequel regarding Lucius’ own fight against corrupt politicians. (The approach has been compared to that of The Godfather Part II.) Both versions revealed that Lucius was the secret lovechild of Maximus and Connie Nielsen’s Lucilla, a needless contrivance that could have seriously undermined too many emotional beats in the first Gladiator.

These approaches all sound pretty ho-hum, don’t they? They’re all too safe. Since when did Russell Crowe, in the middle of Oscar nominations and his Fightin’ Around the World tour, do safe? So Crowe asked a mate of his, Australian goth rocker Nick Cave, to take a stab at Gladiator 2. Between leading bands The Birthday Party, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, and Grinderman, Cave is arguably goth music’s single most influential artist. Crowe asked Cave to research the Roman afterlife and look into ways Maximus could be brought back to life via the gods. What did Cave do?

He went certifiably batshit.

Forrest Gump

If you can imagine What Dreams May Come smashed together with The Crow and an ultraviolent Forrest Gump, you might begin to grasp at what Cave delivered. In his version, Maximus is offered a deal by the dying Roman gods to hunt down the traitor Hephaestus. Maximus, of course, finds him – Hephaestus is on his last legs, and resurrects Maximus to serve penance as an immortal who walks the earth.

The bulk of the story follows Maximus defending early Christians and his resurrected son Marius from the bloodthirsty Romans under the command of a Lucius so malevolent, they could have stuck Phoenix back in the role and no one would’ve blinked. He’s aided by his occasional spirit guide Mordecai.

Maximus survives to see Christianity take hold, later fighting in the Crusades, leading a tank charge in World War 2, and unleashing a flamethrower on the Vietcong. Wait, what? Yes, Maximus essentially turns into Highlander for the Tea Party. In the end, we see Maximus in the Pentagon. Mordecai’s last words – depending on your interpretation – imply that either the world is about to end, or that Maximus is doomed to continue fighting into eternity.

And the whole movie is spliced together with footage of a dying deer and visions of Maximus’ wife, doomed to Purgatory.

WHAT WENT WRONG

The studio balked. There was no way they’d spend $150 million to make an esoteric art film that would’ve risked the loyalty of the fans. Gladiator possessed no supernatural or divine elements, and to make a sequel based solely around these additions felt too mad.

The strange thing is, according to all accounts, the screenplay was a work of genius. Crowe stood by it tooth-and-nail, and it was eventually the ONLY sequel to Gladiator that Scott might have returned to direct (although this may have been Scott’s polite way of saying he wouldn’t return for a sequel.)

Cave’s script was leaked years ago – reviews were unanimously favorable. You might find that hard to believe, but try watching the next film Cave scripted, The Proposition, and then tell me the man can’t write.

Gladiator 2 cap

THE FALLOUT

Russell Crowe continued delivering Oscar-worthy performances, but in this humble critic’s opinion, his best performance stands as his most overlooked – he wasn’t nominated for his role as Captain Aubrey in Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World. Despite widespread reports that he’d fought with Scott incessantly during the making of Gladiator, the two reunited for four more films (A Good Year, American Gangster, Body of Lies, and Robin Hood).

Ridley Scott himself enjoyed a sort of golden era. He pumped out eight major films in the next eight years, and the production company he’d started with his brother, director Tony Scott (since deceased), took off. In its 20 years of existence before Gladiator, it had produced 10 films. In the 14 years since Gladiator, it’s produced more than 40.

Scott himself returned to the sword-and-sandals genre in 2005’s Kingdom of Heaven, Robin Hood, and the upcoming Exodus: Gods and Kings. On a critical note, the theatrical release of Kingdom of Heaven was a mess; the director’s cut is Scott’s best film. Combined with Blade Runner, Scott now boasts the two films most heavily screwed over in the history of Fox Studios.

And Nick Cave? In a broad sense, facets of Cave’s screenplay were adapted – or at least echoed – in The Proposition. The 2005 Australian period piece is both brutally nasty and philosophically haunting. Its monologues stay with me even all these years later. Guy Pearce and Emily Watson delivered two of the best performances of their careers, and it helped introduce director John Hillcoat (who later directed The Road and Cave-scripted Lawless).

As a musician, Cave’s made some of the best albums of recent years – Push the Sky Away was one of my top 5 albums of 2013, and you can’t go wrong with Grinderman 2.

Gladiator 2 will never be realized. It remains a film that I’d very much like to have seen not just for its novelty, but for how bravely it might’ve turned the original film’s formula on its head.

ADDED BONUS

An Historian Goes to the Movies recently wrote two articles regarding the historical accuracy of Gladiator. You might be surprised how well many of its details hold up:

Gladiator: Why Did Commodus Become Emperor?

Gladiator: Just How Bad an Emperor was Commodus?

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3 thoughts on “Best Movies Never Made — “Gladiator 2””

    1. Just as a cult film, I’ll eternally be curious what it would’ve been like. Plus, it could segue perfectly into a Gladiator 3/Avatar 2 crossover.

      Alternately, you could just do a version where you resurrect Commodus and Joaquin Phoenix creeps his way through history. I think I just came up with Mel Brooks’ comeback movie.

      Like

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