Director Ridley Scott and cinematographer John Mathieson forge an epic vision of ancient Rome with Gladiator.

"According to legend, Romulus and Remus, the twin sons of the war god Mars, laid the foundation of Rome in the Seven Hills near the Tiber River. True to mythological form, Romulus built his own city wall, killed his jealous brother and assumed dominion over the settlement. Thus began the steady rise in power of the remaining brother’s namesake city and the Roman Empire an empire that lasted more than 1,200 years and ruled much of the known world while surviving maniacal rulers, barbarian invasions and internal upheaval.

The rich history of Rome has been the perfect proving ground for motion picture studios determined to create lavish spectacles. MGM visited this period several times with epics such as Ben Hur (two versions, in both 1926 and 1959), Quo Vadis (1951) and Julius Caesar (1953). Paramount Pictures produced The Sign of the Cross (1932), Cleopatra (1934), and, many years later, The Fall of the Roman Empire (with Rank in 1964). Rank also produced Antony and Cleopatra in 1973. In 1963, 20th Century Fox put its own version of the Egyptian queen’s life on the big screen with Cleopatra, a decade after the religious-flavored feature The Robe. RKO Pictures laced up the sandals for Last Days of Pompeii in 1935 (which was remade in 1960 by an Italian production company and released by United Artists). Universal also traveled back in time with the 1960 slave-revolt drama Spartacus.

Now, after a drought of more than 25 years, Rome’s brutality and hedonistic delights will be showcased in theaters once again as DreamWorks SKG (with Universal Pictures) takes an epic stab at the genre with the aptly named Gladiator. Following in the historic footsteps of previous studios and their large-scale productions, DreamWorks turned to a reliably masterful director, Ridley Scott, to convincingly re-create the grandeur of ancient Rome.

Gladiator begins as General Maximus (Russell Crowe) leads the Roman legions to victory over hordes of Germanic tribes. A favorite of Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris), Maximus is asked by the dying ruler to succeed him in power. In a fit of jealous rage, the unbalanced heir to the throne, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), orders the execution of Maximus and his family. Maximus escapes, but he is caught, enslaved and forced into gladiator training where he must survive a number of savage bouts while plotting his revenge. (Interestingly, the character of Commodus is based on a real historical figure who did lapse into insanity. The unstable emperor renamed Rome the Colony of Commodus Colonia Commodiana and actually fought in the gladiator arena himself, imagining that he was the god Hercules.)

For this colossal undertaking, Scott selected British cinematographer John Mathieson, who hadphotographed several projects for the director’s production houses. Mathieson came up through the traditional camera ranks and worked as an assistant to director of photography Gabriel Beristáin for a number of years before the latter relocated to the United States. Mathieson first garnered notice as a cinematographer with a Mardi Gras-seasoned music video for the song "Peekaboo" by Siouxsie and the Banshees. In 1994, he photographed the video 3 Chains o’ Gold for the artist then known as Prince, the French verité films Pigalle, and Remembrance of Things Fast: True Stories Visual Lies (directed by John Maybury, with whom he paired again on the experimental Francis Bacon biopic Love Is the Devil; see AC Sept. ’98). For his 1995 French film Bye Bye, he was awarded France’s Legion D’Or and given chevalier status. He has continued to shoot commercials and music videos, including the BMW X5 commercials and No Doubt’s "Ex-Girlfriend" video. He also shot two episodes of the 1997 television series The Hunger, which was produced by Ridley and Tony Scott and starred David Bowie.

Ironically, it was Mathieson’s work with Scott’s son, Jake, on the 18th-century period film Plunkett and Macleane (1999) that caught the keen eye of the elder director. Mathieson and the senior Scott then tried out their synergy on a starkly lit, 1930s-type commercial for the British telephone company Orange. Scott had rewritten the spot for the advertising agency to fit specific locations. "Ridley’s very particular about the way things are, so I had to find my way with him," says Mathieson. "The standard of craftsmanship that he maintains is very high."

The duo carried that standard into Gladiator, which was shot en-tirely on location for 18 weeks. The film opens with the massive battle campaign that the Romans wage against the Germans. Though the filmmakers originally planned to stage this sequence in Slovakia, the production had a stroke of good luck when the British Forestry Commission allocated them an area of forest near Farnham, in southern England; shooting in the forest, which was scheduled for replantation, spared the company a massive move.

Mathieson’s approach to such a large-scale project was to keep the photography as simple as possible. Though Scott initially wanted to film in anamorphic, the Super 35 format was chosen because valuable setup time could be saved by using fewer lights. "Shooting in Super 35 made life so much easier," Mathieson remarks. "You don’t want a camera kit the size of a room. Working in Super 35, you’ve got a zoom lens and the camera. You can just go."

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