Cuts We Love – Gladiator

Ridley Scott’s Roman-era epic, Gladiator, won five 2001 Oscars® including best picture and earned an additional seven nominations, including one for film editing. Rather than selecting one of the film’s many signature moments, such as a gladiatorial battle in the Colosseum, editor Pietro Scalia, ACE, chooses to focus on the very first shot of the first scene.

Scott’s longtime collaborator explains how the image of Russell Crowe’s hand caressing ears of wheat became the touchstone for  the entire picture. “I came upon this image really late,” explains Scalia. “It was shot on the last day of principal photography in Tuscany and was intended by Ridley as material to show the afterlife, when Maximus joins his family after his death.”

To recap: Roman general Maximus Decimus Meridius (Russell Crowe), is forced into becoming a slave after the murder of his family and vows vengeance against Emperor Commodus. “I had been working with [director Bernardo] Bertolucci [on Stealing Beauty] and he impressed upon me the idea of the power of images,” says Scalia. “This chimed with my own feeling that the first image the audience sees when they enter the theater to watch your film should be a strong one. The audience brings with them all their expectation and the power of this interaction should not be ignored.”

The initial cut of the scene opened with a close-up on Crowe’s face. “This is a great way to make your audience identify with your main character. You can see Russell deep in thought and then we pull out and he is revealed as a leader weary with war in the middle of a battlefield. As we expand the shot he is depicted at the center of this world.”

However, by placing the image of the hand in the wheat field before the close-up “everything you now experience connects you to that character,” Scalia says. “The image could be a memory or a desire or some premonition. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that the audience brings their own interpretation of the image to the scene and to the character.”

He continues, “In essence, Gladiator is a story about a man wanting to go back home. But this image also relates to how Romans thought of the afterlife – that life after death was in many ways more important than life itself. It establishes the idea that we are about to embark on a classical hero’s journey which is about the transcendence of that character. Ridley and I both realized that this shot was key to the themes resonant throughout the story.”

Also in the first scene, Scalia retained a shot of Crowe’s character picking up dirt from the ground. “It is a tactile moment and suggests that he is a farmer with a connection to the soil and to land. More than that, earth is symbolic of transformation of change and growth – all this to illustrate the hero’s internal journey.”

Adds Scalia, “This is the strength of the cut. With the simple placement of one image next to another you create something new – in this case the concept that runs throughout the film. It is an example of how, as an editor, we are rewriting the last stage of a film.”