Ridley Scott‘s swords-and-sandals epic Gladiator became the rarest sort of Hollywood beast after it was released 20 years ago, on May 5, 2000: A cleverly conceived clash of popcorn vs. prestige — a summer blockbuster hit that would go on to win five Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Russell Crowe. It was a swashbuckling sensation, a Ben-Hur for the brand new millennium.
And it wasn’t nearly as meticulously planned out as you might have expected.
“We went into that film without a completed script,” Crowe told Yahoo Entertainment during a 2015 Role Recall interview (watch above, with Gladiator starting at 3:05).
“There was a script that existed, but the first meeting I had with Ridley, he said, ‘Don’t worry about the script because I’m going to change it.’ I’m like, ‘Well I’m the actor, at some point I need to know what we’re doing.'”
Written by David Franzoni, John Logan and William Nicholson (who shared the film’s Oscar nomination despite whatever tweaks Scott and eventually Crowe made to the screenplay) and inspired by the 1958 novel Those About to Die, Gladiator follows the quest of the bruising Roman general Maximus (Crowe), who sets out for vengeance against the despot (Joaquin Phoenix) who murdered his family and forced him into slavery.
Budgeted at $103 million, Gladiator was filmed in England, Morocco and Malta between January and May of 1999. As Crowe said on Inside the Actor’s Studio, they arrived in Morocco with a crew of 200 people and cast of almost 100, and he didn’t know what scenes they were going to shoot. At the start of production, they only had 32 pages of the script. “So we were in a situation where, from that point on, we were kind of hand to mouth, deciding things the day before we shot them, stuff like that,” Crowe told us. “So it was a real ‘by the seat of the pants’ thing.”
It lead to some on-set drama, with Crowe reportedly questioning every aspect of the ever-evolving script, and charging off set when he didn’t get sufficient answers. A DreamWorks executive once said the actor “tried to rewrite the entire script on the spot,” and initially refused certain lines like “In this life or the next, I will have my vengeance.” But Crowe also added much of the film’s now-iconic dialogue, lines like “At my signal, unleash hell.”
After kicking off 2000’s summer movie season, the DreamWorks release would ultimately put a feather in the cap of everyone involved, earning $187 million in the U.S. and $457 million worldwide, Top 3 numbers in both categories for the year. Eleven months later, it mopped up at the Oscars, and has been incessantly quoted ever since its release.
“For the movie to come out and be as successful as it was, get the critical response it got, win the awards that it won, including best film, it was quite an incredible ride,” Crowe said. “And it still goes on today.”