Urban Cinefile
"I never believed that life and farce are mutually exclusive - they're much the same in fact. "  -- P.J. Hogan, on his film Muriel's Wedding
 The World of Film in Australia - on the Internet Updated Tuesday September 15, 2020 

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Starring in as Maximus, Russell Crowe has gone from playing a paunchy, middle-aged man in The Insider to a Roman gladiator; "not bad," quips director Ridley Scott. "In other words, he's a real actor. Russell has an uncanny way of internalising a role, and he's naturally very physical, which was a perfect combination for the part."

For Crowe, Gladiator presented the prospect of helping to re-establish a film genre, while collaborating with a director he had long admired. "It's been a long time since a film has been made on this subject matter. It's an incredible period. The achievements of the Roman Empire were remarkable, but they were underscored by absolute brutality, which fascinates people to this day. The film was also an extraordinary opportunity to work with Ridley Scott, one of the great visual artists of our time, and to play a character who undergoes such a remarkable journey," he says.

"I never really consider the physical hardships"

"He's a general in the army, who, when we meet him, has been away from his family for three years, but he's done his duty and he's had enough. He wants nothing more than to go home, but the story changes for him when the emperor he loves and serves dies. Maximus goes from being a great general to being shackled and sold into slavery as a gladiator - a slight change in lifestyle," he grins wryly. "He was a military man who fought for honor and the glory of Rome, but now he has to bring himself to kill on a much more base level. For a while, he lives only to stand in front of the new emperor and exact his revenge, but he is again caught up in the political turmoil of the day, and can't help but become involved. For want of a better expression, he's a good man."

Good, yes - and active. "You know, I never really consider the physical hardships I'm going to put myself through when I take a role, so in the middle of this, I started thinking, 'Maybe I should have taken the one where I was a bus conductor,"' he adds laughing.

"aching in every muscle and bone"

Director Ridley Scott recognised the demands on Crowe: "I would try to give Russell a few days in a row of just walking and talking, so to speak, but it didn't always work out that way. There were some days with battle scenes end on end, so he was aching in every muscle and bone. "

But Crowe still found the energy to play soccer - which caused the producers some concern. "They sent me a memo asking me not to play soccer because I might get hurt. At that point, I'd been doing one massive fight scene after another, so I sent a memo back saying, 'I can wrestle with four tigers, but I can't play a game of soccer? Get over it. Love, Russell."

In contrast to modern war epics, the battle sequences in Gladiator involved close sword fighting, requiring intricate staging and long rehearsals to ensure everyone's safety. Fight master Nicholas Powell, who had previously worked on Braveheart, was responsible for choreographing the film's myriad sword fights. He also had to train all the actors and stuntmen, as well as the 1,000 extras who took part in the opening battle. His first priority was Russell Crowe, so weeks ahead of principal photography, Powell spent endless days in Australia working with Crowe.

"All the actors had a lot to learn in terms of this kind of fighting. There was a tremendous amount of swordplay, which required everyone to remember exact movement and placement to avoid anyone getting something broken . . . or their head taken off," says Scott.

"The gladiatorial games were such a distraction"

Entertainment, as Scott points out, has frequently been "a tool of leaders as a means to distract an abused citizenry. The most tyrannical ruler must still beguile his people even as he brutalises them. The gladiatorial games were such a distraction. Our story suggests that, should a hero arise out of the carnage of the arena, his popularity would give him tremendous power; and were he to be a genuine champion of the people, he might threaten even the most absolute tyrant."

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