This week we’re analyzing the 2000 movie Gladiator, screenplay by David Franzoni, John Logan, and William Nicholson (though additions were made by others, including Russell Crowe), and directed by Ridley Scott.
You can find the Foolscap Global Story Grid here (sheet 4).
You can find the movie via Amazon.
From a story editor’s point of view, one thing that is interesting about this film is that the screenplay went through several writers and revisions. Shooting began with only thirty-two pages of screenplay, and they wrote or ad libbed the rest on the fly. In fact, Crowe wrote one of his character’s speeches and came up with the line “strength and honour.” Here’s a synopsis from Wikipedia.
In AD 180, General Maximus Decimus Meridius intends to go home after he leads the Roman army to victory. However, the Emperor believing that his own son, Commodus, is unfit to rule, asks Maximus to succeed him. Commodus murders his father when he is told about the plan and asks Maximus for his allegiance. When he refuses, Commodus sentences him to death and also orders the death of Maximus’s family.
Maximus kills his captors and rides for home, but he’s too late — his estate is burning and his family has been murdered. He buries his wife and son; then collapses. He is eventually found by slavers who sell him to a gladiator trainer.
Heartbroken, Maximus seeks revenge for the slaughter of his family. Although he is initially reluctant to be a gladiator, in time he begins to fight in local tournaments. When he learns that Commodus is holding a tournament, he agrees to fight in the Colosseum. Once in Rome, he can kill Commodus and get the retribution he desires. There, in a battle re-enactment, he leads fellow gladiators to victory and becomes a crowd favourite. Commodus, who believed he had been executed, discovers that he is still alive and spends the rest of the film trying to figure out how to destroy him without incurring the wrath of the masses.
Commodus’s sister loves Maximus and is his ally. She arranges for him to escape Rome and meet his army outside the city where he will organize his troops and mount an attack on Commodus. When Commodus threatens to kill her 7-year-old son, she reveals the plan and Maximus is captured and imprisoned.
In a final battle, Commodus challenges Maximus to a duel. He stabs Maximus before the match to gain an advantage, but to no avail. Maximus slaughters Commodus, and before he succumbs to his own wounds he tells the people the former Emperor’s vision for a new Rome.
The Six Core Questions
1. What’s the Global Genre? Performance
Gladiator’s Global Genre is the internal genre: Status > Admiration. The Global Value is Success and Failure. The range of value is Success > Compromise > Failure > Selling Out.
Despite the high degree of external action, including a huge battle scene and a number of bloody fight scenes, the story begins and ends on the internal values of a man whose principles can’t be compromised even when he’s physically enslaved and forced to act against those principles.
It is really tempting to tag this movie’s secondary genre as Action—again because of all the ACTION. Maximus’s desire for revenge keeps him going, but the Action Revenge plot technically requires the Hero to be chasing the Villain, whereas Maximus has no hope of any independent action. His opportunity for revenge is more or less coincidental. When it comes, free people who knew and admired him are willing to sacrifice themselves to aid his cause, and without them he’d have been powerless to act.
So I’d argue for the secondary genre being Society >Political. There, “We gain power when we expose the hypocrisy of tyrants”. And in this case, the power the hero gains isn’t in this world, but the next—a sort of heavenly reward. And the only hypocrisy he exposes, he exposes to the tyrant alone.
But it was a fine line for me between Society and Action/Epic/Savior, with the deciding vote going to Society because the hero is motivated by an honorable desire to uphold the large social and political vision of an honorable leader, and because of the ironic win but lose, lose but win ending.
2. What are the Obligatory Scenes and Conventions?
Because we are looking at an internal genre, these were trickier to identify for me. The moments seemed more subtle than I was used to for the external genre obligatory scenes.
- An Inciting opportunity or challenge. Maximus arrives too late to save his family and finds them crucified and burned. He buries them and collapses on their grave…what is left now for him to live for? This is the inciting challenge for Maximus to overcome internally.
- Protagonist leaves home to seek fortune. Maximus hears they are going back to Rome for the young emperor’s games. Proximo tell his story of being a gladiator and winning his freedom—standing before the emperor and being touched on the shoulder—he tells Proximo he too wants to go to Rome and stand before the emperor. Now has committed to succeeding as a gladiator and winning the crowd, all for the opportunity to stand face to face with Commodus.
- Forced to adapt to a new environment, Protagonist relies on old habits and humiliates himself or herself.
- As a general and leader, whose motto is strength and honor, he refuses to fight/train as a gladiator and is beaten in front of the other gladiators.
- In the arena, he kills quick and fast, stunning the crowd, throws his sword at the rich, and yells at the crowd “Are you not entertained”, but in the end they still celebrate him.
- The Protagonist learns what his or her external Antagonist’s Object of Desire is and sets out to achieve it himself or herself. This one felt split between two moments in a sequence, an external turning point when Lucilla comes to visit Maximus, telling him “today I saw a slave become more powerful than the emperor of Rome….The mob is Rome and while Commodus controls them, he controls everything.” She tells him Commodus has enemies in the senate and asks him to meet with one, but he refuses and sends her away…until he sees his brother in arms Cicero in the crowd and sees his family again (his prayer statues)—this activates him, a reminder they are with him and watching him. And he agrees to meet with the senator, going beyond his pursuit of revenge to do all that he can to help Rome.
- Protagonist’s initial strategy to outmaneuver Antagonist fails.
- Maximus wants to kill Commodus in their first encounter in the coliseum but his nephew comes between them. Maximus also seeks to keep his identity secret but is forced to remove his helmet and declare his name. Caesar orders his guards to arms, BUT even though Caesar has the power to kill him, Maximus has won the crowd and they demand that he live
- Maximus, Lucilla, Senator Gracchus, Cicero, and even Proximo all scheme to sneak Maximus out of the city so he can reunite with his troops and march on Rome, killing Commodus and giving Rome over to the senate, BUT Commodus hears Lucius call Maximus the Savior of Rome and asks who he heard say that….he finds out about Lucilla’s disloyalty and holds her son hostage, forces her to tell him everything about the plan.
- During an All Is Lost Moment, Protagonist realizes he or she must change their definition of success or risk betraying their morality.
- Maximus’s all is lost moment (as far as the internal status/admiration plot) feels like in the scene with Lucilla when she tells him about the senator who wants to meet with him, and Maximus says he’s just a slave, what difference can he make? And then then later in the scene he yells “Then have him kill Commodus” — this is Maximus being tested. His heart is set on revenge here, rather than on following his code of honor and living up to his character. But after Juba says “You have a great name. He has to kill your name before he can kill you” he begins to believe he can make a difference. And then when he sees Cicero/gets his prayer statues, this activates him to do all in his power for the greatness of Rome, and to honor Marcus Aurelius’s wishes.
- [I wanted to note that this Status/Admiration All Is Lost feels different from the Society/Political All Is Lost. The Status/Admiration All Is Lost felt like a testing of his character and the Society/Political All Is Lost felt like when Cicero is killed/Maximus is captured and Commodus has him strung up in front of his men (hero at the mercy of the villain scene), because in this moment the power has shifted]
- The CORE event or big moment is when the Protagonist chooses to do what’s necessary to attain status or reject the world that he or she strived to join. Maximus chooses to fight Commodus even when he’s been sabotaged. His dedication to his cause convicts Quintus to support him and not give Commodus a second sword. He overpowers Commodus and kills him. And then even when the promise of seeing his family is so close, he holds on to ensure that his men are freed and Gracchus is reinstated. Ever the servant of Rome, he doesn’t give up the ghost until Lucilla releases him, telling him to “Go to them”
- The Protagonist saves himself or herself or loses himself or herself based on their big moment action. He fulfills the wishes of Marcus Aurelius, and wins the honor and love of Rome. A hero and servant of Rome even unto death. And there he is rewarded with his family.
These are the “conventional conventions” of the Status Genre:
- Strong Mentor Figure (e.g., Fagan, Daddy Warbucks). – Marcus Aurelius in the beginning hook, Proximo in the middle build
- Big Social Problem subtext (Racism, Misogyny, Class) – Slavery, enormous class divide, plague, big power struggle between Senate and Emperor
- Shapeshifters as Hypocrites (secondary characters say one thing and do another) – Quintas and Lucilla both change their tune in relation to Maximum.
- The Herald or Threshold Guardian is a fellow striver who sold out – Commodus and Lucilla both serve to “explain reality” to Maximus, and both have sold out.
- A clear Point of No Return/Truth Will Out moment, when Protagonist knows they can never go back to the way things used to be – When Cicero tells Maximus that the army is outside the city and loyal to him, he has no excuse not to try to fulfill Marcus Aurelius’s dream.
- Ironic Win-But-Lose or Lose-But-Win bittersweet ending. Maximus dies, but he fulfills his duty and will be reunited with his family in the afterlife
Not on the official cheat sheet but come as a result of consuming many of these stories.
- The antagonist appears to be of high character
- The protagonist will not compromise at any cost
- The antagonist offers the protagonist a way to join them and is refused
- The protagonist appears to be of low character or status
- The protagonist has lost everything that matters to them
- A quest for honor that appears impossible
- The truth is suppressed multiple times
- The protagonist always serves a higher calling
- Denies the call — Maximus gets multiple times to “help Rome” but it goes against his values so he declines.
- Multiple betrayals
- The protagonist doesn’t really change his approach much, but changes those around him or her.
- Best Bad Choices are a given. An ordinary person would be sorely tested, but the Admiration character seems to have no choice but to follow his values.
External Genre Conventions (Society > Political)
- One Central Character with offshoot characters: Maximus and his Gladiator friends. Also, Commodus is a perfect foil for Maximus.
- Tour of the current world—rules, norms, and punishments: life as a Gladiator
- The protagonist is constantly reminded that they cannot win: At every turn, Maximus is reminded that he is a slave.
- Big Canvas: Roman Empire
- A clear revolutionary “point of no return”: When Maximus is supposed to die but )escapes.
- Vanquished are doomed to exile: Maximus is condemned to be a Gladiator
- Clear power divide: Maximus is a slave, while Commodus is the emperor.
- Ironic ending: Win then lose. Maximus defeats evil then dies, but he welcomed death because he wanted to join his family in the afterlife.
3. What is the POV? What is the Narrative device?
- The POV for Gladiator clearly favors Maximus, the protagonist, but in all it is quite varied, shifting to scenes and locations Maximus is completely absent from, namely Commodus, our antagonist, but also his sister Lucilla (a shapeshifter), Proximo (a mentor of sorts), the senators, Maximus’s loyal man Cicero, even Maximus’s wife and son.
- This shifting of POV supports the external Society genre by illustrating the various players, levels of society, and shifts in power. We can translate this to our editing world by asking ourselves: if this were book, what scenes and POVs would be required to tell the story in the most compelling way? Certainly without the Commodus and Lucilla POV scenes, we would lose a lot of the narrative drive.
- Lucilla, who acts as a shapeshifter, contributed much of our narrative drive. A few examples:
- Mystery – when Lucilla knows more than we do, about her own plans and intentions, how she seems to be playing both sides, and certainly about her past with Maximus.
- Suspense – when we know as much as she does. The moment when Commodus takes her son hostage for her loyalty, this scene actually shifts from mystery to suspense, because at first we do not know who Commodus is speaking to, and then we see it Lucilla.
- Dramatic Irony – Once we know that know that Commodus has discovered the plan but Maximus does not.
- Also in regards to Narrative device: Note the use of foreshadowing. At the beginning of the movie Maximus daydreams about being back home with his wife and son, believing at that point that it would be literal/physical. At the end he finally joins them in death, but by using the same footage, the filmmaker provides a prophetic feeling, creating the surprising yet inevitable ending.
4. What are the Objects of Desire–The wants and needs?
Maximus wants to return to his normal family life (afterlife), but he needs to be the honorable son to Marcus Aurelius.
Commodus wants power, but he needs admiration that is far outside the reach of his character.
5. What is the Controlling Idea / Theme?
Status stories are about success, and Status Admiration stories are about success in the face of external forces that would like the hero to abandon their principles. This one seems to say
“Success—at least in the afterlife—will be the reward of the hero who lives and is willing to die for his principles.”
6. What is the Beginning Hook, Middle Build, Ending Payoff?
The story events could be assigned in several different ways, but I think this breakdown best represents Maximus’s Status Admiration journey.
Beginning Hook: Maximus wants to go home after defeating the German tribes for the emperor, and he declines when Marcus Aurelius asks him to be the protector of Rome and return it to the people, but when Commodus kills the emperor, seizes his father’s position, and requests Maximus’s loyalty, the general declines and narrowly escapes execution in the forest. (Success to Failure)
- Inciting Incident: Marcus Aurelius asks Maximus what reward he wants: To go home.
- Progressive Complication/Turning Point: The emperor asks Maximus to become the protector of Rome and return the Empire to its citizens. TP: Commodus kills Marcus Aurelius.
- Crisis: Will Maximus promise loyalty or risk death?
- Climax: Maximus walks out and seeks to contact the senators.
- Resolution: Quintus tells Maximus, your family will see you in the afterlife (in other words, soldiers are on their way to kill your family); guards with shiny armor who didn’t participate in the battle take Maximus into the forest to kill him, but he outwits them and escapes. He finds his family and buries them.
Middle Build: Proximo tells Maximus that as a successful gladiator he could be freed by the emperor, and when he goes to Rome with the purpose of seeking revenge, he declines to help Lucilla and the Senators get rid of Commodus. But when Cicero tells Maximus that his men are outside the city and still loyal to him, he must decide whether to continue to seek revenge or fulfill Marcus Aurelius’s request. He decides he must fight for Rome. (Compromise to Success)
- Inciting Incident: Proximo tells Maximus about how he could be freed by the emperor if he performs well.
- Progressive Complication/Turning Point: Lucilla wants him to work with the senators to overthrow Commodus. TP: Cicero tells him that the army is outside the city and is loyal to him.
- Crisis: Will he continue to seek revenge or fulfill Marcus Aurelius’s request and free Rome?
- Climax: He will give up the opportunity to seek personal revenge for the chance to defeat Commodus with his army.
- Resolution: Maximus meets with the senators.
Ending Payoff: Maximus agrees to lead the army against Commodus, but Commodus holds Lucius hostage and gets Lucilla to reveal the plans, and when Commodus injures Maximus into a trap, he must decide again whether to seek revenge and kill Commodus quickly or risk dying before he can gain the favor of the mob, so that power can be given to the senate. Maximus fights Commodus. [Failure to Success]
- Inciting Incident: Maximus meets with Senator Gracchus and agrees to lead the army against Commodus.
- Progressive Complication/Turning Point: Commodus compels Lucilla to reveal the plan, and Maximus is captured. TP: Commodus stabs Maximus and orders Quintas to strap on his armor.
- Crisis: On a basic level, Maximus must decide how to define success because killing Commodus quickly and then joining his family in the afterlife looks pretty good. But if he has the opportunity to hand Rome over to the senators (according to the original plan), then he must do that, even if he risks failure. Failure is better than selling out. So, more specifically, Maximus must decide to seek revenge and risk another tyrant taking over Rome or earn the favor of the masses so they will welcome a senate takeover of Rome but risk dying before he can kill Commodus.
- Climax: He takes the high road and lets Commodus reveal his poor character in front of the people of Rome (e.g., demands that Quintas give him his sword when he’s lost it fair and square).
- Resolution: Maximus wins over the people and, with the ability to sway them, orders that power over Rome be transferred to the senate and his men freed. He dies and joins his family in the afterlife.
7. Bonus Question: Good Examples of Scene Types, Outstanding Tropes, and Clear Tie-Ins to Other Genres
- [Leslie] Commodus is a great tragic antagonist compared to Maximus’s Admiration hero, and the CORE EVENT, the battle between the two is a great matchup of honor vs. dishonor
- [Leslie] Maximus is successful in saving Rome (or at least in creating the possibility for Rome to save itself from a tyrant) and he gets to join his family after completing his mission/Marcus Aurelius’s quest for him.
- [Valerie] A Surprising but Inevitable Ending: Surprising because Maximus dies, but inevitable because what he’s wanted all along is to reunite with his family. The audience expects him to live and be Caesar and marry Lucilla, but the ending as presented is much more satisfying.
[Jarie] Here is a good example of a story that is ostensibly about Action/War that’s not an Action or War story. It’s more driven by his internal struggle to keep his honor. A lot of action does not mean it’s an action movie. If you look a little deeper, you can see it. Serpico is like that as well.