Inside the gruelling filming of Gladiator 20 years on – from deadly drinking games to dangerous tiger attacks – The Sun

IT IS one of the greatest action films of all time — and while the fight sequences in Ridley Scott’s epic movie, Gladiator, took audiences breath away, the behaviour behind the scenes was equally as vicious.

Gladiator won five Oscars — one for best picture and Russell Crowe won best actor — but on-set behaviour was anything but award winning, with abuse, threats and a even a sudden death.

GARTH PEARCE, who interviewed the cast and crew of the film 20 years ago, writes on the stars at war.

'I'll go back to Hollywood and bury him'

Russell Crowe would not stop complaining as he stood in his Gladiator’s uniform under the harsh sunshine of Morocco.

He was unhappy with the script, the costume, the sunshine and being kept waiting around.

Top director Ridley Scott was having none of it. “That f****r,” he declared.

“He thinks he can pull that s**t with me? I’ll go back to Hollywood and bury him.”

If there was no action in front of the camera after a slow start on that hot morning in March, 1999, then there was plenty behind it.

It was carnage among the mostly British crew who had built up a resentment towards their star.

Even the Croatian-American executive producer Branko Lang, who was later to receive an Oscar when Gladiator was chosen as best picture, described Crowe as “a bit of an arsehole.”

Scott had taken a risk by hiring Crowe, then a little known 35 year-old New Zealand-born actor with just one hit film to his name, L.A. Confidential.

He had already hired talented — but demanding — actors in Richard Harris, David Hemmings and Oliver Reed.

With Crowe, the director had described them to me as like “the four horsemen of the apocalypse.”

'We had a lot of problems'

But his star was proving more difficult than any of them. He had already thrown the script across the room, declaring it a piece of 's**t' and stormed out of a meeting saying 'don’t waste my time.'

The experienced Scott, then 61, director of top films like Alien and Blade Runner, had been prepared to overlook such behaviour, hiring him for his level of performance rather than high-profile fame.

But enough was enough. “I wanted to wring his neck,” he reflected on the confrontation in Morocco after filming was over.

“He had to learn there was only one person in charge — and that was the director.

“Did he learn? Yes — but he kept on forgetting. It was that level of energy and tension which kept the whole thing going and delivered the kind of results which you eventually saw on screen.”

Crowe was also aware that he had upset many people. “We had a lot of problems, to be honest,” he told me.

“We were making a $103million dollar movie with just 35 pages of script.

“It made my job very difficult. I thought: 'F**k me, how are we going to swing this?’ I had to learn scenes, learn about my character, learn the dialogue, put on the ‘frock’ and remember not to bump into things.”

Crossing swords

What he did do, however, was bump into a lot of experienced film crew who were angry at his behaviour.

Costume designer Janty Yates, who was also to win an Oscar for her work, was the first to have a run-in over her designs.

There was a stand-off after Crowe slammed his fist on a table and yelled.
After this Janty vowed she would “never speak to that **** again.”

She assigned one of her staff to handle all future dealings with Crowe’s personal dresser, Michael Castellano.

Armourer Simon Atherton, a one-time gunsmith who was weapons expert on Raiders of the Lost Ark, fared no better when he presented Crowe with Maximus’s sword.

“‘The sword is long because Maximus is probably a cavalry officer,’” said Simon, pointing out the grip of a solid lion’s head.

Crowe responded: “That’s not the kind of character I play. Haven’t you seen any of my movies?”

Simon looked him straight in the eye and said: “To tell you the truth, I’ve never heard of you.”

Sound mixer Ken Weston was next in line. Crowe had refused to wear a radio microphone under his armour and Ken described him as a “f**king p***k.”

“He wants us to get a bloody boom (microphone) in there,” he said. “Let him do the f**king movie without dialogue. Probably be better off anyway.”

Ken solved the problem by attaching a mike to the armour of the soldier to whom Russell was talking.

Terrifying tiger swipe

But Crowe has a history of always behaving like the character he’s playing. And here he was, playing a general.

In his own mind, HE was supposed to be giving the orders.

There were also problems with Crowe’s stuntmen. “As usual,” says Rob Harris, who was the unit publicist on the film, “he put up resistance to his stunt doubles claiming any of his glory.

“However, he was not a stuntman. He was an actor. The stuntman is trained to make the action LOOK dangerous — not actually BE dangerous.”

The key scene in the Coliseum was not going well. The American-trained tigers could not be motivated to pounce and “Russell paced and fumed as if their reluctance to attack him was a personal affront.”

So the tigers were substituted with those that had been French trained. This time, a tiger took a swipe and missed the star by a couple of feet.

Russell was checked for wounds and summarily removed from the game. So were the French tigers. The day proceeded with stunt doubles and the tamer American tigers.

“The tiger was a big boy from nose to tail, about eleven feet,” reflected Scott afterwards.

“Russell said: 'F**k me, that was close.' And I said to him: 'We were there as well. You were two feet, I was like four feet.’”

'Don't make me do this'

Meanwhile, there were disputes with other actors.

Richard Harris, who played Emperor Marcus and later played Dumbledore in the Harry Potter movies, spelt out his feelings on his second day of filming.

“I’ve read that I am in a movie ‘starring Oliver Reed,’” he said. “Can I make one thing clear… I would never be caught dead in a movie STARRING Oliver Reed. Are we understood?”

Scott had also taken a chance on hiring the eccentric Joaquin Phoenix, then aged 25, for the role of treacherous emperor Commodus.

He picked him rather than Jude Law, who had been recommended by the film company.

But Phoenix, who won an Oscar for best actor in The Joker last year, refused to leave his dressing room to do the screen test.

“Don’t make me do this,” he pleaded. “I will give you back the money for the plane ticket. I’m just a kid from Florida.”

Scott forced him in front of a camera and signed him up.

Deadly drinking games

Then there was notorious 1960’s British star and hellraiser Reed himself, playing gladiator trainer Proximo.

He was enjoying heavy drinking sessions between filming days.

It all proved too much for those at the five-star Phoenicia Hotel in Valetta, Malta, where he was staying with second wife Josephine, 26 years his junior, and he was banned from the bar.

The night before his death of a heart attack at the age of 61 he held court at his new favourite drinking place, called The Pub, in Valetta.

He had consumed eight pints of lager, 12 double rums and half a bottle of whisky.

He had also won an arm-wrestling contest with several crew members of the British ship, HMS Cumberland, who were drinking in the bar.

The following morning of Sunday, May 2nd, 1999 he arrived at 10 a.m. for his first drink of the day and had been loudly snoring by 1.30 p.m.

His wife then noticed he had changed colour and called an ambulance.

Rob Harris had been alerted by producer’s assistant Amina Townshend, daughter of Who guitarist Pete Townshend, that Josephine wanted to see him at the Phoenicia Hotel.

“The door was open six inches in anticipation of my arrival. Her eyes were red but she forced a smile and asked straight away: 'Have you heard? He’s dead.'”

'It was a case of Into the Valley of Death'

The reaction from those in charge of the film was typically hard-headed.

Producer Branko Lang immediately declared: 'We should tell everyone his part in the movie was almost finished — there was only one small scene he didn’t do.'

When the film crew gathered to continue filming there was a moment of silence. “But we all waited for words from Ridley Scott — which never came,” says Harris.

“What he didn’t say sent a lonely chill through the ranks, as the brief ceremony ended without even mentioning Oliver’s name.

“It was a case of Into the Valley of Death — forward march.”

Some extracts from Unexposed Film: A Year on Location by Rob Harris.

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