David Franzoni, John Logan, and William Nicholson
From Humble Beginnings…
It took a few revisions—and a few screenwriters—to craft the inspirational saying-packed screenplay that we know and love as Gladiator.
But it all began with David Franzoni, a dude who picked up a book called (grimly enough) Those About to Die…a historical novel about gladiatorial combat in ancient Rome.
The book inspired Franzoni to draft, at the urging of one Steven Spielberg, what would become the first screenplay for Gladiator. You can check out that version right here.
Franzoni's first draft was super different than what ended up in the final film. In this initial version Maximus is named Narcissus, after a famous wrestler who some ancient sources say was the guy who assassinated the historical Commodus (yes, Commodus was really an emperor, and he was really Marcus Aurelius' son).
Furthermore, Marcus Aurelius' death isn't shown, and it's only rumored that Commodus was at fault. Proto-Maximus also survives to the end of the story, and quite literally sails away into the sunset…with his family.
Yep, in that first version, Maximus's fam makes it. But Ridley Scott wasn't buying this happy ending, so he called in screenwriter John Logan to make things just a tad bleaker.
…To Illustrious Middles…
The first two thirds or so of Logan's revision is substantially what ended up in the film, though the epic finale is a little different. (Source)
In Logan's version, Maximus actually is able to escape from Rome, reunite with his army, and rush back to Rome…only to discover that Commodus has killed his Lucilla.
Maximus chases Commodus, eventually killing him beneath the floor of the Colosseum. The two take the elevator back up to the arena, and Maximus' fulfills the task Marcus Aurelius originally gave him: he hands power to the Roman Senate.
Afterwards, Maximus takes Lucilla's son Lucius as a sort of surrogate child to replace the one who was killed by Commodus' men and returns to Spain.
But the saga doesn't end there. About two weeks before filming started Ridley Scott brought in another pal: William Nicholson.
Nicholson came aboard in order to make Maximus a little less revenge-obsessed. He brought out the friendship between Maximus and Juba, and introduced all the business about the afterlife strewn throughout the film.
However, even after Nicholson's revisions, Gladiator still didn't have the ending that we now know (remember, Maximus survives in both Franzoni's and Logan's versions). Where did this come from?
…To A Triumphant Ending.
It's hard to say, but Ridley Scott's known for making adjustments during filming. The consensus seems to be that Scott and/or the producers made that adjustment sometime during production.
While Maximus' death—a sacrifice that ultimately saves Rome—is certainly a more compelling "wrap-up" of the story, it is possible that Scott and co. had their eyes on the box office as well. As one scholar has pointed out, three then-recent films—Titanic (1997) Saving Private Ryan (1998) and Star Wars—Episode I (1999)—had killed off main characters. And all three of those films took home lots and lots of money.
Either way, despite all the work on the screenplay, Russell Crowe showed up for filming and found things in a state of disarray. In an interview on Inside the Actor's Studio, he noted that only thirty-two pages of the script were ready to go when he arrived on set.
On top of that, other sources have stated that Crowe was unhappy with many of Nicholson's lines, reportedly telling Ridley Scott after wrapping the famous "I will have my vengeance" sequence (which he didn't want to do): "It was sh*t, but I'm the greatest actor in the world and I can make even sh*t sound good." (Source)
Yikes. Crowe reportedly wanted to rewrite large sections of the film, and repeatedly walked off when he got annoyed.
A bit of healthy conflict never hurt anybody, however, and it seems that the contributions of all three writers, a masterful director, good producers, and a typically incorrigible Crowe succeeded.