Gladiator (screenplay by David Franzoni and John Logan and William Nicholson; story by David Franzoni) is a true Hollywood epic that breathed new life into the swords-and-sandals genre, made Russel Crowe a star and gave director Ridley Scott another opportunity to make a brilliant, large scale Hollywood masterpiece.
The film runs at just under 2.5 hours but the story never slows, due to a rock-solid structure that’s focused on a hard-charging throughline and an ever-present controlling theme.
I cite Gladiator more than once in my book Story Maps: How to Write a GREAT Screenplay as an example of strong, active screenwriting.
The strength of the plot lies in the focus on Maximus as a protagonist who drives the story forward with his active decisions. The exploration of theme is the key to the dialogue.
In my Full Story Map, I break down the four main “chapters” of a film narrative, or Acts, which must be built on the foundation of a “Story Engine” that propels that segment of the story forward. The more clear and simple you can make those engines, the better. Here are the focused story engines for the Gladiator script:
GLADIATOR STORY ENGINES:
ACT 1: Maximus struggles to retire from war and go home, but Commodus leads a coup and kills his family.
ACT 2A: Maximus must survive slavery and gladiator battles in Northern Africa.
ACT 2B: Maximus must survive in Rome, become a great gladiator (“win the crowd”) and figure out how to depose Commodus and restore the republic.
ACT 3: Maximus must kill Commodus.
I should note that I’m not entirely convinced that Gladiator is a four act picture; as with many films of that length, it can be interpreted as five acts. In either case, the “signpost” beats of the story are high stakes moments that keep us on the edge of our seat. This detailed analysis interprets the film as the traditional four acts…
Theme is very important to Gladiator. Note how many times characters discuss one of two topics: the afterlife and democracy. These two main themes focus the dialogue and “control” the structure of the story, splitting the plot into two major lines of action:
- Maximus must get his vengeance upon Commodus in order to join his family in the afterlife.
- Rome must be restored to a republic as per the wishes of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who tried to make Maximus his successor before he was murdered by his son, Commodus.
From Chapter VII: Theme in Story Maps: How to Write a GREAT Screenplay:
The hand in the wheat field at the opening of Gladiator is an image that we will later associate with Maximus ascending to heaven to join his family. But to explain it now, at the start of the narrative, would be to give away that our hero is going to die in the end. So the filmmakers leave it as a compelling, mysterious image and move on. Now, just for good measure, in the following battle scene in Germania, Maximus comes right out and states the theme of the film when he calls out a battle cry to his troops (and the audience): “What we do in life echoes in eternity!” This expresses the theme of “the afterlife,” or more specifically, man’s actions on Earth and how they reflect his status in the afterlife. This theme will be discussed and explored in dialogue throughout the film. (Also, just for good measure, another key line from the opening touches on the themes of the afterlife: “On my command, unleash hell.” Maximus could have said “Crush your enemies,” but that wouldn’t have been on theme.)
I encourage you to watch the film again and read the script to study the advanced story mechanics of Gladiator.
You will also find some great tools to help you break down the Gladiator script over at Robert Rich’s site, ScreenplayHowTo.com, including a detailed history and analysis of the film, a FREE pdf download of the Gladiator Story Map and maybe even a link to download the Gladiator script. A funny story about Robert Rich: when I tried to give the url screenplayhowto.com to another student, he tried to smother me in a death hug, and when I escaped he sent a cadre of soldiers after me and burned down my family farm. If you’re reading this, Rich, I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next!
But he’s not such a bad guy, after all, he’s offering you a free download…
Please feel free to drop your comments or questions below.
Good Luck and Happy Writing,
- p.s. For more on the history of the film, here is an article by Jon Solomon on the evolution of the Gladiator screenplay.