Cast: Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen, Oliver Reed, Richard Harris, Derek Jacobi, Djimon Hounsou, David Schofield, John Shrapnel, Tomas Arana, Ralf Moeller, Spencer Treat Clark, David Hemmings, Tommy Flanagan, Sven-Ole Thorsen, Omid Djalili, Nicholas McGaughey, Chris Kell, Tony Curran, Mark Lewis, John Quinn, Alun Raglan, David Bailie, Chick Allen, Dave Nicholls, Al Hunter Ashton, Billy Dowd, Ray Calleja, Giannina Facio, Giorgio Cantarini.
In the winter of 180 A.D., Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius’ (Harris) campaign against the barbarian tribes in Germania was drawing to an end. General Maximus Decimus Meridius (Crowe), clad in full battle gear, reviews his Legionnaires before a final battle. A horse comes out of the forest nearby and runs toward the soldiers. As it approaches, the headless corpse of the Roman negotiator is seen strapped to its back. A German warrior shouts threateningly and tosses the negotiator’s severed head toward the Romans. A horde of German warriors begins to emerge from the forest. Maximus exchanges a declaration, “strength and honor,” with his aide, Quintus (Arana), and then tells him, “At my signal, unleash hell.” Quintus prepares archers, catapults and infantry for battle as Maximus rallies his cavalry. When Maximus orders it, Quintus’ men launch flame-tipped arrows and incendiary missiles toward the circling Germans, and fire engulfs the edge of the forest. Thousands of German warriors rush at the Roman infantry, shooting arrows of their own. Then Maximus’ cavalry charges the German flank. From a hilltop, Marcus Aurelius watches the battle. Swords swing, lances are thrown, and heavy axes take their toll, as Roman and German forces fight at close quarters. The Romans prevail, and Maximus shouts “Roma victor!” The Emperor’s son, Commodus (Phoenix), and his daughter, Lucilla (Nielsen), summoned from Rome, arrive at the Roman camp. Commodus expects to be named his father’s successor, but Marcus Aurelius has other plans. At night, while the Roman legion celebrates its victory, Marcus Aurelius tells Maximus that he is dying. He wants Maximus to be the protector of Rome when he is gone, and reform Rome’s government into the Republic it once was. His own son, Commodus, must not rule—he’s not a moral man. Commodus does not take it well when Marcus Aurelius explains his plans to him. He suffocates his father. Commodus announces that Marcus Aurelius has died of natural causes, declares himself Emperor, and orders that Maximus and his family be killed. Lucilla knows that Commodus is a murderer, but she is a survivor and must protect her son, Lucius Verus (Clark). She reluctantly gives Commodus her allegiance. Maximus kills his would-be executioners and escapes. He rides day and night back to his farm in Spain, but finds his wife (Facio) and son (Cantarini) dead, crucified on Commodus’ orders. Devastated by his loss, Maximus buries them and collapses. Slave traders capture Maximus and take him to Zucchabar, in North Africa, where he is sold to Proximo (Reed), a former gladiator that operates a gladiator school. Proximo trains Maximus, known only as “the Spaniard,” as a gladiator. At first refusing to fight, Maximus does well at preliminary trials. He bonds with other men at Proximo’s school, and befriends Hagen (Moeller) and Juba (Hounsou). Proximo takes his gladiators to Rome, where they are hired to participate in spectacular games organized by Commodus. At the arena in the Colosseum, Maximus fights with consummate skill and great courage and wins the admiration of the public. When Commodus discovers Maximus’ identity he wishes to have him killed, but cannot, because by then Maximus has become a hero to the Roman spectators. While Commodus seeks a way to dispose of Maximus, the former general plots with Lucilla and Senator Gracchus (Jacobi) to use his former Legion, still loyal to him, to overthrow Commodus. The vivid cinematography of John Mathieson underpins the wide span of the film, from the violence of hand-to-hand combat on the plains of Germania to the splendor of 2nd century Rome.