Screenplay by Nick Cave (The Proposition).
Russell Crowe to Empire (AU): “At first I was very cynical about that notion [of a Gladiator sequel], but I’ve come around on it. We’ve had other ideas too, where we step off into the metaphysical and you actually acknowledge the fact that Maximus is dead [laughs], but that is a hard script to write. Nick Cave actually wrote a draft for me and Ridley [Scott] at one point. He’s an excellent writer, man. Nick did this draft and Ridley and I considered it for a while.”
In a nutshell:
One of the most amazing, out-of-left-field screenplays I have ever read.
EXT. Dark Wilderness, a storm rages. We follow two thieves as they stumble across the body of a Gladiator lying in the mud. They strip it of its armor and weaponry. One of the men suddenly goes silent; a large spear is embedded in his spine. As the other man flees, he turns to see the dead Gladiator rising:
It is MAXIMUS…gasping for air, frantic and disoriented.
A middle-aged man steps out of the shadows to assist. He introduces himself as MOREDECAI. He says that he’s been waiting for Maximus to arrive since watching him die in the Coliseum yesterday. Maximus says that he has no time for riddles. Mordecai responds that he has all eternity.
Cut to: Maximus makes his way through a wheat field, his wife and son (MARIA and MARIUS) stand beneath a giant poplar in the distance. A storm hits, heavy rain obscuring his vision. A fantastic bolt of lightning strikes the poplar. He violently awakens. Mordecai approaches and explains that there is something he needs to show him.
As they walk, Maximus stresses that he must locate his family. Mordecai tells him that there are those who search and those have given up the search. Over eternity, the former eventually become the latter. They approach the edge of a cliff…
Beneath them in the valley: an encampment bordering a pitch-black sea, filled with the infinite numbers of the damned, stretching endlessly to eternity. They descend.
While making their way through the camp, Mordecai breaks up a fight between two women. He’s something of a peacekeeper here. In return for his services, the Gods allow him to return to Rome (in spectral form) for brief visits. In the midst of their conversation, the crowd explodes with excitement. In the distance: a lone man glides along the darkened sea on a small boat. Thousands pour into the water shouting “Elysium!” as the boat disappears into the fog. Mordecai pronounces them fools for believing there is any escape.
The two make their way to a massive, ruined temple near the encampment. Maximus enters and finds the Roman Gods (Jupiter, Apollo, Pluto, Neptune, Mars, Mercury, and Bacchus) who mock his predicament. Still, they offer a deal: their brother, Hephaestos, has run off to the desert filled with bad ideas. He is gathering apostates/fanatics and slowly amassing a power greater than their own. As a result, they’ve aged…grown weak and diseased. They want Maximus to seek out Hephaestos and kill him. In exchange, they will reunite him with his family. Maximus bolts out of the temple without saying a word.
Mordecai warns him that the Gods are lying. He can not be reunited with his wife because she sacrificed her place in Elysium to allow their son to cheat death. Marius was resurrected and returned to Earth (specifically Rome) where he lives out his days. As for Maria…she could be anywhere in the netherworld, but will never be found.
Maximus refuses to listen and heads off. In the desert, he has a vision of his wife. He gives chase as she leads him to a bloodied, dying stag entangled in brambles. He attempts to free it, but the animal’s wounds are too severe. Maria’s voice pleads “help us” as the stag takes its final breath and dies in his arms.
Maximus locates Hephaestos’ camp to find it completely abandoned, save for the man himself. Left for dead by his followers, Hephaestos explains that the masses have lost faith in the Roman Gods. As result, they’re dying. There is only one true God and their time has rightfully passed. Maximus asks about his son. Hephaestos stresses that he is in great danger and needs his father’s assistance. As they lock eyes, the Gladiator is transported…
…back to the world of the living. Maximus rises out of the body of a dying Christian is the midst of a massacre in Lyons. It’s a mob scene, dozens of Christians being beaten/hacked to death by The Emperor’s forces. Seeing an elderly Bishop on the verge of being slaughtered, Maximus grabs a weapon and beings hacking away at the attackers. He’s overwhelmed by the crowd and restrained. Before the killing blow is delivered: an unseen voice orders a stay. 25-year-old LUCIUS (Connie Nielson’s son from the original) approaches. Lucius asks the rebel his name…he has seen him before. Maximus does not answer, but pleads for the Bishop’s life to be spared. Lucius responds by nonchalantly decapitating the old man. He orders the guards to kill Maximus, but he manages to escape.
Down the road, he encounters two men (PETER and MARCUS) who ask for his help. He follows them to a sanctuary where their leader (IRENAEUS) gives Maximus a brief history of their predicament: Lucius and the Emperor seek to put down Christianity…to wipe it from the world. The Christians need help in alerting their Rome-based leader (a schoolteacher named CASSIAN) that the Empire is on the verge of locating him. Maximus refuses and heads off in search of his son.
Along the path to the city, he finds a family of butchered Christians. He’s approached by the ghost of Mordecai who explains that his failure to kill Hephaestos has resulted in permanent banishment to Earth. Maximus seems unconcerned by this. After arriving in Rome, he checks into an inn where several folks seem to recognize him…
At the palace, Emperor DECIUS scolds Lucius regarding his bloodthirsty methods. Lucius defends himself by explaining that (in his mind) their empire is dying. Plague, famine, earthquakes, the great granaries of Rome destroyed by inundations…all result from the anger of the Gods. The Christians mock their divinity and must be destroyed. Their leader must be found. The Emperor reveals that a census is being taken. Anyone who is Christian will be arrested and be provided with an opportunity to recant. If not, they will be put to death in the Coliseum in a spectacular fashion. “The people will be entertained”.
Meanwhile, a large gathering of Roman Christians discuss aforementioned census. Several propose standing up and fighting back. Maximus enters: tells them its suicide. They ask who he is; he responds that he was once a Roman soldier. One of the men steps forward: “You served the devil himself”. It is MARIUS, who proposes killing the intruder. They share some heated words before the gathering is broken up. Maximus rages to Mordecai that his own son does not recognize him.
We find Lucius walking the halls of the palace. He passes the bust of certain famous Roman General and halts in his tracks. A haunted look crosses his face.
Maximus locates the Christian leader, Cassian and offers his help. Cassian apologizes for the actions of his student, Marius, last night. His adopted son has a hot temper on occasion. He relates a tale of how he found Marius alone in a sick ward as a little boy, no parents to speak of.
Maximus heads back to the inn to find a pack of groupies. “He walks!” they exclaim. One of the gathered is JUBA (Djimon Hounsou’s character). They embrace, drink and catch up…Juba listens, dumbfounded. He presents Maximus with a gift: the totemic figurines of Marius and Maria buried at the end of the first film. He recently retrieved them after learning that the Emperor will be flooding the Coliseum for a match involving alligators. Maximus thanks him. We cut to Lucius torturing a family to uncover Cassian’s identity.
The next morning: Marius walks through the city. He’s confronted by two young men who mock his faith. As the confrontation turns physical, Maximus steps from the shadows and beats the attackers to a pulp. Father and son have a nice conversation in which Marius compares Maximus to the Apostle Paul: a violent man who converted after hearing Christ’s voice, becoming God’s chosen instrument. The two speak of their families: Marius discusses his birth father’s constant absence. Maximus describes the pain of leaving his wife and child, particularly his son…Marius.
Marius arrives at school just in time to see Lucius and his men enter. They announce their intent to arrest the Christian leader. Seeing a fish necklace on Cassian, Lucius rips it away and delivers a nice bit of dialogue:
You are students, are you not? Scholars? Learned young men? Then, answer me this: Does Rome stand deep-fixed and deathless as in the time of the great Caesars? No. I think not. Does she prowl the world, hungry and fearless and all-power? Again…I think not. Do the Gods sit mighty and well-pleased in the Heavens and bestow on her, her just rewards? No and again, no…I think not. Rome weeps and this little fish swims in her tears. A fish…a little fish…hidden around an old man’s neck. The earthquakes that have ripped this mighty empire asunder…charge this little fish. The infernal plagues and disease? The hellish pestilence that ravages our land? Charge this little fish… The diabolical rage of the Gods? I say again…CHARGE THIS FISH. And charge the one that wears it! The man here spits n the eyes of the gods themselves! He is the enemy of us all!
Lucius stabs Cassian to death . Marius escapes and heads directly for Maximus, asking for his help in creating an army. Several short training/recruitment scenes follow. Later, Maximus and Lucius have a brief face to face meeting (short excerpt follows):
Forgive me, Maximus, but I am confused…about many things. As a boy…as a little boy…I watched a Roman General who became a gladiator bring down the very heavens upon his foes. When he died, I stood by my other and we wept, and all of Rome wept with us. He was a solider…a great warrior. Yet, he stands before me now. How can this be?
Do not despair. You will see the heavens some tumbling down again.
We cut to The Coliseum, teeming with thousands of cheering Romans. The grounds are completely flooded with several ships battling hundreds of alligators with fireballs and arrows (note: did Cave ask Michael Bay for guidance on this?) Lucius speaks with the Decius and informs him that the Christians are forming an army under a resurrected Maximus. The Emperor gives permission to crush them.
Maximus’ army heads for the forest. Father and son share a brief conversation: the truth of their relationship is unspoken, but seemingly recognized by both.
Lucius and an army of hundreds approach. A massive battle ensues. Lucius kills Juba. Enraged, Maximus cuts Lucius to pieces. As readies to deliver the killing stroke, Lucius drops his sword and seems to accept his fate: “Only at your hands, Maximus”. An arrow then explodes through Lucius’ neck, fired by Marius. A storm hits, the heavens explode with rage. Marius falls to knees and bellows: “Oh lord what have we done?” Maximus kneels as well, rubs dirt between his fingers.
We intercut the following with shots of the dying stag from earlier in the film:
- Middle Eastern Battlefield: Maximus stands surrounded by hundreds of Crusaders as they battle a Muslim army. Everyone dies around him, only Maximus remains untouched.
- Europe: Maximus battles tanks in World War 2.
- Vietnam: Maximus battles Vietcong with a flamethrower.
- The Pentagon, Present Day: Maximus washing his hands in a men’s room sink. He stars at himself in the mirror…reflecting. Mordecai stands behind him…whispers: “Until eternity itself has said it’s prayers.” Maximus exits; proceeds into a large war room containing a dozen men in suits.
- The edge of a black hole: Maximus commands a futuristic, 3-story tall space suit. The machine’s giant titanium claws grip the side of a planet-size starship. Maximus leans back, kicks off the hull and simultaneously opens fire on 10,000 amorphic creatures as they bear down on him. (ok, I made that last one up)
Fade to black.
After being prepared to write this off as some sort of misguided oddity, I’m surprised to say this is an absolutely exceptional script.
Once the initial “what the f**k am I reading?!” wore off, I really came to savor everything about it. Cave’s writing, the storyline, the dialogue…it’s Grade-A material through and through.
While there are DEEP, CRITICAL flaws with this as a sequel, nearly every problem I have with the story could be corrected by spinning it off as something stand-alone.
- Despite a sense that Maximus’ journey in this film repeats many of the same beats of the original: he’s still written to perfection. It’s very easy to imagine Crowe scoring another Oscar with what Cave gave him to work with.
- The idea of a damned Maximus paying for his transgressions against the Gods by serving as an eternal warrior is fantastic stuff. The final scene is particularly heartbreaking. It also opens things up for more sequels (kidding).
- From Cave’s descriptions of the vast netherworld to a highly-ambitious, crocodile-packed battle sequence: Ridley Scott would have had a blast shooting this.
What doesn’t work:
-This is not a reflection on the quality of the piece, but I’m not really interested in seeing a sequel to Gladiator featuring elements of mythology and the supernatural. They weren’t present in the first film and they simply feel out of place here.
It’s like making an action-packed follow-up to Schindler’s List with a cryogenically-frozen Liam Neeson helping to save a doomed alien species 10,000 years in the future. Sure, there might be an interesting story there…but it doesn’t make sense given the pre-established universe.
-The script renders most of the original film moot. Maximus’ struggles, quest for vengeance and ultimate (if hollow) victory were for nothing. It’s an Alien 3 redux. The idea of JUBA digging up the “graves” of Maximus’ wife and child seems to be a (deliberate?) metaphor for the sequel. The poignancy of the original’s ending is essentially desecrated.
- While I enjoyed Lucius’ dialogue, he’s essentially a carbon copy of Joaquin Phoenix’s character. He needs an identity of his own.
- To cut down on the sheer number of resurrections, I would have let Marius rest in peace, created a new villain and swapped Lucius in as a surrogate son for Maximus.
- Marius is a little underwritten. Outside his mysterious past and relationship with Maximus, there’s not much to him.
- Battle scenes seem a bit underwritten (example: the climax is literally 2-3 paragraphs in the script) although I attribute that more to this being a first draft than anything else. I’m sure they would have been more fleshed out in future revisions.
In a nutshell:
So wrong, yet so right. I love it as a standalone screenplay but hate it as a sequel to Gladiator.