Ridley Scott's Gladiatorwas an enormous hit when it arrived back in 2000, earning close to half a billion dollars at the worldwide box office and sweeping that year's Academy Awards with a dozen nominations and five wins (Best Sound Mixing, Best Costume Design, Best Visual Effects, Best Actor for star Russell Crowe and a Best Picture win). This was Scott's biggest hit in years, reinvigorating a career that had been on the wane since the blockbuster success of 1991's Thelma And Louise, and popular enough to give Crowe a final push up onto the A-list. It was a monster hit.
Needless to say, Dreamworks wanted a sequel. The trouble with that, of course, was that the film's titular hero didn't survive the first film: Crowe's Maximus Decimus Meridius is mortally wounded in a (somewhat fixed) final battle with the evil Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix, another actor who got a major boost from the film's success), and is dead and buried by the time Gladiator's credits roll. This was a problem, to be sure, but not an unsolvable one. All Dreamworks had to do was find a particularly crafty screenwriter and let them do the heavy lifting.
And so, pitches were made. Maybe, one writer suggested, Gladiator 2 could be a prequel, one focusing on the years Maximus spent as a General for the Roman army. Or maybe, another team of writers offered, it could be a spin-off focusing on the post-Gladiatoradventures of the Emperor's grandson, Lucius, who we'd later find out was actually Maximus' son all along! Or what about a multi-generational thing a la The Godfather Part II, with Maximus appearing in flashbacks and his son, Marius, getting into...I dunno, some sort of gladiatorial hijinks? Or hey, Russell Crowe and Ridley Scott suggested: what if we really swung for the fences and hired Nick Cave to write a sequel that'd tackle Crowe's death head-on, something supernatural that'd find Maximus overcoming a new series of obstacles in the afterlife?
As crazy as that last idea sounds, it wasn't dismissed on the spot. Perhaps Dreamworks was just humoring Scott, Crowe and their newly re-established box office clout. Maybe they actually liked the ballsiness of the concept, and were excited at the prospect of delivering something so unexpected. Or maybe the other pitches were just so boring by comparison, they were willing to try anything at that point and didn't see the harm in letting Cave take a run at it. Whatever the case may be, Nick Cave's Gladiator 2 actually got written, and lemme tell ya: it is totally fucking bananas.
Buckle up. We're going through the whole goddamn thing. Trust me, it's worth it.
Cave's script begins, as promised, with Maximus dead. His body lies in a dense forest, rain pouring down from above, and his well-armored corpse is soon set upon by a pair of wandering looters. A shadowy figure emerges from the gloom, killing one of the bandits and chasing off the other. The figure approaches Maximus, who suddenly sits up, wide awake and extremely confused. Where is he? What happened? And who's this weird dude beckoning him to follow him back through the forest?
This is Mordecai, who responds to Maximus' litany of questions with a simple, "I keep the peace." The two adjourn to a small encampment, and Mordecai explains that he just came from seeing Maximus killed in the Coliseum, a bit of news that goes over about as well as you'd expect it to. That night, Maximus is haunted by a vision, the same one we saw him struck by throughout the first Gladiator: a rolling wheat field, a large tree, his wife and child waiting for him next to a humble dwelling. This time, the vision is interrupted by rolling thunder and terrifying bolts of lightning. Wherever his family's at, bad things are afoot. Maximus wakes up, vowing to find them.
Mordecai seems to expect this turn of events. He walks Maximus up a hill and shows him a hellish scene:
Below them, on a vast plateau, a multitude of people are camped by the edge of a flat, black sea: a massive refugee camp that stretches on endlessly. Fires burn amongst the improvised shelters and thousands of people sit forlorn and hopeless in their squalor. A fog hangs lifelessly over the dark, motionless water of the sea. MAXIMUS stares down.
The two set off down the hill and into the encampment (which is surely purgatory itself), and it's even uglier up close: people are trudging through the mud in rags, fighting one another and going mad with boredom. Suddenly, the teeming mass of people swarm towards the beach, jostling Maximus away from Mordecai in their attempts to reach a small boat that has appeared in the distance. An old man tells Maximus the boat is traveling to Elysium - hence the frenzy - and Maximus watches as it drifts out of sight, into the fog and away from the countless people trapped at the water's edge.
Maximus spots a ruined temple off in the distance, and sets off for it. Along the way, he encounters the thief who stole his armor in the film's opening scene, and he snatches it back before resuming his march towards the temple. Upon arriving, he encounters a bloodied Mordecai, who tells Maximus that the people inside have been waiting for him...but that he should be cautious.
"Stay sharp," he says. "All is not as it seems."
MAXIMUS enters the dim confines of the temple. Rain leaks through the broken stonework and runs down the walls. A large torch-wheel hangs from the ceiling on a chain and it swings and creaks. SEVEN DISSOLUTE OLD MEN (JUPITER, APOLLO, PLUTO, NEPTUNE, MARS, MERCURY, BACCHUS) cluster around a makeshift table, their heads craned towards each other as they mumble amongst themselves. MAXIMUS stands before them. The OLD MEN grow silent. They look ill and diseased. The torch-wheel creaks. JUPITER, fat, eyes boiled and blood-shot, sits in the center.
Maximus tells the assembled "men" (a term they take issue with) that he seeks his wife and child. In response, the Gods tell him that they'd like a favor: Hephaestos, one of their own, has gone missing. Lighted off into "the wilderness, the great desert" with a head full of "devils and bad ideas." Turns out, Hephaestos believes in a one, true God, and has started rallying an ever-growing number of apostates around this idea. Jupiter tasks Maximus with tracking down and killing this rogue God, and promises that he'll be reunited with his family if he's successful.
The words are barely out of Jupiter's mouth, and already Maximus is charging out the temple door and off in search of the desert. Mordecai stops him, warning him that he's been lied to, that Maximus' wife is off in some other realm of the afterlife after sacrificing her spot in Elysium to spare the life of their child. Mordecai tells him there's nothing he can do about this, but Maximus ain't listening: he lurches off in the direction of the desert, Mordecai watching him go.
Upon arriving in the desert, Maximus is almost immediately overtaken by dehydration and delirium. The brutal sun, the endlessness of the desert itself, the complete lack of water all working in tandem against him. He has visions of his wife begging for help, he comes across a stag with its horns entangled in a thicket of brambles (it dies). He encounters a quintet of naked madmen in pagan masks and he passes by without engaging them in conversation. He struggles on, and just when he's about to give up, he spots a structure in the distance.
Maximus slogs on until he reaches the shelter. Inside, he discovers Hephaestos dying on the ground inside and clutching a makeshift crucifix. Maximus regretfully informs Hephaestos that he's been sent to kill him, and Hephaestos was worried that might happen. The Gods are dying, he tells Maximus, and his followers have deserted him. What's more, Hephaestos says, Maximus' son is in grave danger. With a skeletal hand, he grabs Maximus and sends him - across space and time - into the body of a dying Christian. A sword juts out of his chest, and all around him fellow Christians are being massacred "by a mob of civilians and guards."
Maximus "rises out of the body" of the dying Christian and gets attacked by the surrounding mob. He fights them off, but eventually he's overpowered. Just as he's about to lose the fight, a ranking officer steps forward - this is Lucius, who will turn out to be Gladiator 2's main antagonist. He recognizes Maximus, which brings the battle to a quick halt, but the reprieve is short-lived: when Maximus refuses to identify himself, Lucius commands the rest of the guards to kill him. He fights them off, flees on a horse, and rides his way out of town. That night, on the outskirts of Lyons, Maximus comes across an encampment of soldiers who inform him that Lucius and his "Roman idolaters" are snuffing out Christians left and right. Maximus tells them that this isn't really his concern and books it out of there, again in search of his son.
The following day, Maximus finds himself on a road bordered by a seemingly endless series of wheat fields. As he's taking it all in, a six-year-old girl covered in blood bursts out of the wheat and into his path. Upon seeing what appears to be an armored soldier astride a Roman horse, she turns and flees back in the other direction, and Maximus gives chase. He follows her back to the scene of a brutal massacre alongside a small river:
Besides the river lies a slaughtered family. MAXIMUS moves down among them. A small farmhouse smolders. A MAN and A WOMAN lie, half in the river, half out, and the water runs red. An INFANT lies butchered by a tree. A YOUNG GIRL, legs streaked in blood, kneels by the river, her hands clasped together, bruised face heavenward. She prays.
Nearby, sheets have been strung on a clothesline. One has a fish painted on it in blood. Maximus ducks between the sheets and sees a figure standing before him - it's Mordecai! Good ol' "just here to keep the peace" Mordecai drops a few vital piece of information in Maximus' lap: for one thing, the Gods are pissed - Maximus is now persona non grata in the afterlife. For another, Maximus' son is now fully grown and living in Rome...and seems to have developed a taste for Christian blood. Maximus isn't buying it, and figures he can get the truth for himself when he arrives in Rome.
Lucius, meanwhile, has returned to Rome, and we see that his arrival has spooked a schoolteacher (and Christian sympathizer) by the name of Cassian. While Cassian's spreading the word about Lucius' return, we learn that Lucius is even more ruthless than we thought: he'd been sent to arrest the Christians in Lyons, not slaughter them, and the Emperor is not amused. Lucius explains that all of Rome's problems - the plagues, the earthquakes, the famine, what have you - are surely being caused by Christian rhetoric: the Gods are pissed that they're being sidelined by a higher power, and this is how they've chosen to respond. Rome, in turn, cannot go easy on these troublemakers. The Emperor informs him that he's just issued a new edict: very soon, every Christian family will be called upon to make a sacrifice in deference to the Gods. Anyone who refuses to participate will be arrested and imprisoned, and that punishment will hold unless they choose to recant. Lucius feels this ain't enough - it's only a matter of time before the Christians declare war on non-believers - but the Emperor ain't having it: that's his call, and that's that.
Around this time, Maximus - who's been told to seek out Cassian upon arriving in Rome - shows up and crashes a secret gathering of Christians who've met to discuss Lucius' return. He finds Cassian leading the meeting, and is shocked to discover that his son, Marius, is sitting in the crowd. Maximus tells Marius that going up against the Romans is a surefire way to get himself killed, and when he refuses to identify as Christian he's booted out of the meeting. Soon thereafter, however, Cassian tracks Maximus down and explains that Marius is now his adopted son, and he wants Maximus to fight alongside him in their rebellion against the Romans. Maximus is reluctant to get involved in all this religious tomfoolery, but decides to give it some thought: if he wants to protect his son, well, surely this is the best way to go about doing it.
While thinking it over, Maximus crosses paths with Juba, the slave he fought alongside in the original Gladiator. Juba (played by Djimon Hounsou in the first film) is shocked to see Maximus, to say the least, but soon warms up to the idea of having his old friend back from the dead. He tells Maximus that Rome has grown tired of the wholesale slaughter of Christians, that the Emperor's been flooding the Coliseum with water and feeding Christ's followers to alligators for the entertainment of the masses. Shit's gotten out of hand, and something needs to be done about it. Slowly but surely, Maximus is coming around to this whole "joining forces with the Christians" idea.
From there, pieces start falling into place: Lucius finds out that Cassian is a leader in the Christian resistance and sets out to kill him; Maximus has a heart-to-heart with his former son (who, as of yet, does not realize that Maximus is his true father); Juba reveals that the Romans are planning to imprison a great number of Christians on the back of the Emperor's edict, which spells trouble for Maximus and his new friends. Eventually, Lucius catches up with Cassian, and kills him in front of a number of his followers (stabbing him in the neck with a pen; get it?). Marius goes on the run, hides out with Maximus, and starts planning an official revolt against the Romans.
We then transition to a spectacular sequence at the Coliseum. Here's how Cave sets the scene:
The Coliseum teems with PEOPLE. The PEOPLE scream and cheer and shout at the carnage they witness in the arena. The grounds of the arena have been flooded, an in four feet of water, a naval battle ensues. The water rolls with one hundred alligators that have been released in the water. GLADIATORS fire arrows, throw spears, launch fireballs as the two vessels approach each other. Some CHRISTIANS, impaled on spears and arrows, fall from the vessels and are torn apart by the alligators. (THE EMPEROR) and his RETINUE watch the proceedings with blood-hungry delight.
Lucius shows up and informs the Emperor that the Christians are on the verge of revolt. Oh, and that Maximus Meridius - the once great general who became a slave who became a gladiator who died while killing the former Emperor in battle - has returned from the dead to lead them. As you might expect, the Emperor is displeased by this development. Maximus, meanwhile, is training the Christians to fight, bonding with his son, and receiving regular visits from his annoying ghost-buddy, Mordecai.
Things reach a boiling point on the day the edict takes effect: altars have been set up all over the city, and people are lining up to present their sacrifice to the old Gods. The streets run red with blood as animal after animals is slaughtered under Roman watch. On the outskirts of the city, Maximus has amassed a force of several hundred Christians, and Lucius is enraged when he discovers all of these rebels missing from their homes. He amasses his troops and heads into the forest at the edge of Rome, where a great battles ensues. Many Romans and Christians die in the fight, but eventually the Romans begin to retreat. The battle draws to a close, but Maximus warns that "they will be back." He bends, scoops up a handful of dirt...
...and when he rises, he's wearing chain mail and a white uniform emblazoned with a giant red cross. Suddenly, we're in the Middle East, and Maximus is leading an army of Crusaders against an army of Muslims. Another flash, and we're watching Maximus lead another battalion of soldiers during the second World War. Another flash, and Maximus stands amongst flamethrowers and helicopters in a flaming jungle as the Vietnam War rages around him. One more flash, and we're in the modern-day. The Pentagon, to be precise:
MAXIMUS rubs a cake of soap between his hands under a streaming tap. MAXIMUS looks up. He is in a clean, sterile men's room. He washes his hands in a basin. The basin is one of three, in a row. As he does so, he stares into the mirror above the basin. MAXIMUS looks at himself for a long time...He is dressed in a crisp black suit and wears a tie.
He looks back into the mirror. MORDECAI is standing behind him.
Yes, Maximus. Until eternity itself has said its prayers.
Maximus leaves the restroom, enters the Pentagon's war room (described much like the one that appears in Dr. Strangelove), and sits in front of a bank of laptops. He looks up at the men sitting around the table and asks, "Now, gentlemen...where were we?"
So, first of all: bonkers, right? The entire hallucinatory first act, the alligators wolfing down Christians in the Coliseum, the holy shit Twilight Zone-esque ending that confirms Maximus has been doomed to experience the futile cycle of war throughout eternity...it's crazy, wholly unlike anything we experienced in the first Gladiator. Picture your standard moviegoing audience - the audience that's currently flooding theaters for screenings of American Sniper, for instance - and just try to imagine how they'd react to all this. You can see why Crowe and Scott would've been excited about the idea, just as you can understand why the studio would've rejected it completely.
Nick Cave would go on to write The Proposition and the 2012 Prohibition thriller, Lawless, but he's made it clear that his primary interest remains in music (side note: see the incredible Nick Cave doc 20,000 Days On Earth immediately). Asked by Variety if he'd be interested in pursuing a full-time screenwriting career, Cave said:
I'm very comfortable in my day job as a musician. 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.
One gathers that the experience of working on Gladiator 2 - and any other number of Cave-written scripts that didn't get made over the years - may have soured him on the studio experience, and that's a real shame: The Proposition is gorgeously written (and, from where I'm standing, one of the best westerns of the past few decades), and his Gladiator 2 script rings with the same greasy poetry that made that film such a pleasure to listen to. He's got a real knack for the weird, for lyrical dialogue and disturbing, evocative imagery... though I suppose that's as much a blessing as a curse. But, hey, if Nick Cave continues writing the occasional film that's as jaw-dropping and hypnotic as The Proposition or as delightfully bananas as Gladiator 2 would've been, I'm all for giving him his space. Let's let this man do his thing, and enjoy the fruits of that labor whenever they roll around.