Musician Nick Cave wrote a time-travel saga in which Maximus is not a gladiator – and an emperor laments his lightning-struck giraffe, writes Nicholas Barber.

Two hours into Ridley Scott’s swords-and-sandals epic, Gladiator, the evil Emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) recaps the plot for us: “The general who became a slave. The slave who became a gladiator. The gladiator who defied an emperor. Striking story. Now the people want to know how the story ends.” Happily, the people soon find out. The film’s gruff general-slave-gladiator, Maximus (Russell Crowe), kills Commodus in the Colosseum, thus avenging the murder of his wife and son, liberating his ex-lover Lucilla (Connie Nielson) and his fellow gladiators, fulfilling the last wishes of the former emperor, Marcus Aurelius, and allowing democracy to flourish in Rome. There is literally nothing more for Maximus to achieve – which is lucky, because he dies just before the credits roll.

Gladiator leaves no questions unanswered, no plot lines unresolved – how could there be a sequel?

In short, if ever there was a film that didn’t cry out for a sequel, it’s Gladiator. In 2001, it won five Oscars, including best picture and best actor, and it took $457m (£355m) at the box office, so you can’t blame its director and star for wanting another taste of that astounding success. But Gladiator leaves no questions unanswered, no plot lines unresolved, no logical way for its striking story to continue. How could Scott and Crowe make Gladiator 2? Only by thinking outside the box – several miles outside the box.

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Scott’s plan was to commission John Logan, one of the screenwriters of Gladiator, to write a sequel which would be set in ancient Rome, but which wouldn’t feature either Crowe or gladiators. So... not really a sequel at all, then. Understandably, Crowe was keener on a film that he could actually be in, and so he hired another screenwriter, Nick Cave. Yes, the theatrical singer-songwriter.

At the time, Cave had written just one produced screenplay, John Hillcoat’s Ghosts... of the Civil Dead, and he was concentrating on his music career. But he couldn’t resist when Crowe offered him the Gladiator 2 job, despite one obvious misgiving. “Didn’t you die in Gladiator 1?” he asked. “Yeah, you sort that out,” replied Crowe.

I enjoyed writing it very much because I knew on every level that it was never going to get made – Nick Cave

And that’s what he did. Cave’s Gladiator 2 screenplay opens with Maximus waking up in the afterlife. To his disappointment, it isn’t the sun-kissed Elysium he dreamt of in Gladiator, but an endless rain-sodden netherworld where wretched refugees huddle on the shores of a black ocean. With the help of a ghostly guide, Mordecai, Maximus treks to a ruined temple where he meets Jupiter, Mars and five other diseased and decrepit Roman deities. Jupiter explains that one of their number, Hephaestus, has betrayed them, and is now preaching the gospel of another god who is more powerful than all of them. Just to quibble for a moment, Hephaestus is a Greek god, not a Roman one, so Cave should really have named him Vulcan. But the screenplay compensates for this slip with some writing to relish.

“He is an agitator,” say Jupiter of Hephaestus. “He squeezes the bellows of dissent... a little wind... a mere puff... but within it the presage of pandemonium. Am I making myself clear?”

“No,” says Maximus.

Jupiter offers him a deal: if he kills Hephaestus, then he will be reunited with his wife and son in the golden wheat fields of Elysium. It may sound like the premise of a Terry Gilliam film or a Neil Gaiman graphic novel, rather than a blockbuster sequel, but Cave’s Orphean adventure sort of makes sense. All through Gladiator, Maximus longs to see his family again, so there is a certain logic to a plot which keeps that longing alive, even when the person doing the longing isn’t. Once you adjust your expectations, you can settle in and enjoy Gladiator 2 for the supernatural quest movie that it is.

To hell and back

But then, suddenly, it isn’t. No sooner has Maximus tracked down Hephaestus than he is zapped out of the stygian gloom and into the world of flesh and blood, a decade or two after his death. Human again, he travels to Rome in search of his son Marius: did I mention that Marius, who was crucified and burnt to death in Gladiator, is alive and kicking in Gladiator 2?

At this stage, the script focuses on a band of early Christians dodging the Roman authorities, just as they did in the recent Mary Magdalene biopic which co-starred Phoenix. But these scenes also bring back some of the characters and political intrigue from Gladiator. As well as meeting his now-adult son, Maximus bumps into his old sidekick Juba (who was played in the original film by Djimon Hounsou). And the screenplay’s villain is none other than Commodus’s mild-mannered nephew, Lucius, now grown up to be as evil as his uncle. More importantly, Gladiator 2 revisits the Colosseum, where the emperor watches a mock naval battle in an amphitheatre which is flooded with water and stocked with 100 alligators: a comment, perhaps, on the need for sequels to be bigger and more spectacular than their predecessors.

Don’t like it, mate – Russell Crowe, on Nick Cave’s script

Everything leads to a showdown between Lucius’s Roman enforcers and the Christian resistance army which Maximus and Juba have been training in secret. And then what? Another chat with the Roman Gods? A family reunion in sunny Elysium? Well, no. Instead, Cave has Maximus striding into battle through the centuries: in the Crusades, in the World Wars, in Vietnam, and finally in the Pentagon, in a grander version of the opening montage of X-Men Origins: Wolverine. The message is that by choosing armed combat over non-violent resistance, Maximus has condemned humanity to an eternal cycle of bloodshed, which is a thought-provoking conclusion, but maybe not a crowd-pleasing one. Crowe’s reaction, according to Cave, was simple: “Don’t like it, mate.”

Cave wasn’t too bothered. Years later, he told an interviewer, “I enjoyed writing it very much because I knew on every level that it was never going to get made.” And maybe this was the most sensible attitude to have. Maybe Gladiator 2 was never going to happen, and so Cave was right to indulge his own enthusiasm for theological debate along with the kind of millennia-spanning outrageousness that would suit a Darren Aronofsky film more than a Ridley Scott one. Certainly, you have to suspect that Cave was chuckling to himself when he had an emperor complaining, “My giraffe was struck by lightning.”

On the other hand, perhaps his bonkers yet ingenious screenplay wasn’t too far off the mark. Scott demonstrated an interest in Greco-Roman mythology in his Alien prequel, Prometheus, and he put historic battles between Christian soldiers and their enemies in both Kingdom of Heaven and the Crowe-starring Robin Hood, so there is a lot in Cave’s script which must have appealed to him. But it has one glaring, fatal flaw: at no point does Maximus ever step inside the Colosseum. Time-travelling, dimension-hopping and anti-war philosophising are all very well. But would audiences have paid to see a Gladiator sequel in which the hero isn’t a gladiator?

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