“What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun. Is there a thing of which it is said, ‘See, this is new’? It has been already in the ages before us.” So says King Solomon in Ecclesiastes 1:9-10. Whether it be history, human behavior, or art, that truth is plainly evident.
So then, when we say a movie ripped off another, are we being fair? Occasionally these things are blatant—one trying to capitalize off a former’s success. Like when Mac and Me premiered six years after E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial, much to the horror of moviegoers everywhere, and to the delight of Paul Rudd. Other times it’s more subtle than that, and no one seems to bat an eye. Call it deliberate stealing, or subconscious influence—maybe even parallel thinking. The fact is, movie twins are everywhere. That is, stories that unfold, beat for beat, in step with another.
2019 marks twenty years since a mega-hit Oscar winner had wrapped filming and was in post production. Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, a May 5, 2000 release, topped $460 million at the global box office. It was nominated for eleven Oscars, winning Best Picture and Best Actor for Russell Crowe, in what can only be explained away as a makeup award for his missing out the year before (The Insider). It’s a well made, exciting film—one you don’t mind revisiting. And if much of it feels familiar, that’s because it is.
Five years prior to Gladiator’s wrapping, in the summer of 1994, another film shot in the Scottish highlands and Ireland. It was a quarter century ago that Mel Gibson grew his hair out and adopted a Scottish brogue for the beloved Braveheart. Also a May release, the 1995 epic didn’t even make half of what Gladiator did at the box office. It was, however, a hit with the Academy, taking home Best Picture and Best Director Oscars for Gibson.
The two films don’t look a thing alike. While both are gruesome, bloody affairs, Gladiator is the more visually sanitized of the two—particularly the sequences depicting ancient Rome. This is a city of opulence, a pristine aesthetic, even in the Colosseum. Granted, some of that was created digitally. Braveheart, on the other hand, is grittier, muddier. It follows a band of rebels living off the land, looking for their next battle. You can practically smell these guys when you look at them. There are no digital effects here. Even the English castles come off as cold, dank, and uninviting. It’s all a far cry from the Italian bliss Scott and company present.
But observe the beats. Take a look at these protagonists—their arcs, their love interests, their nemeses. It’s the same tale, set a millennia apart.
When we first meet the adult William Wallace in Braveheart, it’s after he’s been away from home for some time. His father and other clansmen had been killed by the English, and young William taken off to be educated by his uncle (Brian Cox). Now returned, Wallace is a man of peace. He breathes the air in through his nostrils, as if to inhale the nostalgia, reminding him of the innocence before his family perished. He’s back, he later says, to raise crops and a family. Gladiator opens with introductory text, setting the historical scene (Braveheart does this by narration as the film begins). Then we meet our hero, General Maximus Decimus Meridius. A fox skin draped over his armored shoulders, he observes a European robin perched on a branch. He smirks at it, if only slightly. You can see, in this moment, despite the blood to be shed just minutes later, that Maximus values peace. And when this battle is through, he intends to head home to Spain to care for his wife and young son. Wallace and Maximus, highly trained men of war, desire tranquility above all else.
These things are short-lived, of course. Wallace marries in secret, only to see the wicked English provoke him, executing his new wife, and setting Wallace on a path of vengeance. He and his brothers in kilts slaughter their English overseers. Maximus, on the other hand, is framed for the murder of Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris), committed in the film by his son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix). Sending Maximus to his death isn’t enough, however. His wife and son are ordered killed. Maximus escapes execution and races from Germania to Spain on horseback, only to discover that he’s too late. Roman cohorts have been here, and they’ve slain everyone on the grounds, Maximus’ family included.
That leaves us with two empty men, each having suffered the loss of their loved ones at the hands of a more powerful authority. Wallace had no intention to fight, but now he’s seen as a leader of men. He turns his vengeance into a cause, making liberty his mission. And after Maximus is sold into slavery and forced to battle in lesser gladiator arenas, becoming a fan favorite to the bloodthirsty crowds, he and his sword-swinging buddies Juba and Hagen (Djimon Hounsou and Ralf Moeller, respectively) reach the Colosseum, where the true tests begin. Likewise, Wallace has a pair of colorful pals that accompany him on the warpath: Hamish and Stephen (Brendan Gleeson and David O’Hara, respectively). Additionally, in an apt stroke of casting, actor Tommy Flanagan plays a similar role in both films as a devoted comrade to the hero. But, at the core of the films, is a trio of affable men with the odds stacked against them, contending for the freedom they believe is rightfully theirs. If leaders Wallace and Maximus were honest, however, they’d confess their murdered wives to be the truest of motivating factors in the fight.
Like any story told on the grand scale, an adversary is necessary. And, with any good fortune, that villain will be just as deliciously repulsive as the heroes are virtuous. The films are nearly identical in this sense. Patrick McGoohan’s King Edward I (aka Longshanks) and Phoenix’s Commodus are irredeemable baddies whose wickedness knows no bounds. There is almost no complexity to either man. Both burn with hatred for whomever stands against them, the only sliver of depth belonging to Commodus, whose motivation for loathing Maximus is clearer: his father, Marcus Aurelius, preferred the general to his own son.
Longshanks and Commodus are two of the more heinous antagonists in the history of historical cinema. Edward, at one point, orders archers to fire on the Scots despite his own men being in the way. He simply does not care for their well being so long as Scots are killed. He also hurls his son’s lover out a window to his demise. Not to be outdone, Commodus not only kills his own father, but makes sexual passes at his sister. In the end, he does the only thing he can do to defeat Maximus in battle: he cheats, piercing him with a blade to the chest, a mortal wound the result. These two dastardly fellows are one-note to the extreme. The lone thing separating them is this: every Englishman under Longshanks’ rule is a despicable human being. Look no further than the hideous soldier who tries to have his fun with Wallace’s betrothed, Murron (Catherine McCormack), which is his rightful duty, according to the imposed English law. There is not a soul on that side we feel even ambivalent about; we hate them all. The Scots are good, the English are bad. It’s that simple. While this works in manipulating the audience’s response, it’s a short-sighted, lazy storytelling approach to heroes and villains. At least Gladiator offers some conflicted characters under Commodus’ rule who are not wholly corrupted. The English are to Braveheart as Commodus is to Gladiator.
As the stories charge forward, Wallace revealed as Public Enemy No. 1 to King Edward, Maximus as the gladiator back from the dead, in a sense, in the eyes of an enraged Commodus, war is waged. For Wallace, that means sacking fortified castles and implementing innovative battle tactics in expansive fields. For Maximus, it’s transferring military strategy to the sandy arena, winning the crowd, and staying alive long enough to matter in the eyes of the people. It’s the same goal, gone about the same way. It’s win the war, win your freedom.
But that love of a dead woman—that just won’t go away.
Each story backs itself into a corner when the love interests of these rough and tumble men perish at the hands of their enemies. So how do you write yourself out of that predicament? Easy, you slide a princess in to take the place of the more modest, girl-next-door of antiquity. In Braveheart, that’s Princess Isabelle—daughter-in-law of the king—played by Sophie Marceau. In Gladiator, it’s Connie Nielsen’s Lucilla—sister of the new Emperor. Each woman falls for the hero, and each is very closely associated with the hero’s great foe. Wallace does a little more romancing of his princess than does Maximus of his, but the plot device is there, serving the same purpose. We even find both female characters defying their respective countries to make desperate attempts for the protagonists’ salvation.
The stories reach a point where it appears the good guys may turn the tide. Wallace loses at Falkirk, but his vengeance on those who betrayed him propels his legend into the annals of history. His guerrilla warfare has run its course, though public opinion may have swayed to his side. Aligned for the second time with Robert the Bruce (Angus Macfadyen), Wallace sees great hope in this fight. But enter the third act. The Bruce’s father has submitted to the English, unbeknownst to his son, arranging for Wallace’s capture. Mirroring that, we find Maximus having won the approval of the people, and word reaching him that his former legions are still loyal. A plot is hatched for his escape from captivity, Lucilla and Roman senator Gracchus (Derek Jacobi) at the center of it. When it’s upended, Maximus’ fate is sealed.
We’re left, in the end, with two stubborn men still refusing to yield to authority, facing death at the hands of the diabolical rulers they’ve offended. And if the films weren’t similar enough before, the final ten to fifteen minutes of Gladiator is virtually a carbon copy of the one that preceded it five years earlier.
In Braveheart, a graphic execution of Wallace as Longshanks simultaneously suffers in his bedroom quarters. In Gladiator, a final one-on-one fight to the death between Maximus and Commodus. Only, as already noted, Commodus has pre-wounded his rival. Should Wallace die with a whimper, perhaps this nonsensical Scottish rebellion will be quelled once and for all. Should Commodus defeat the powerful Maximus before thousands of screaming Romans, perhaps the young emperor will win their praises going forward. But, for both antagonists, it is not to be. Wallace cries “Freedom!” for all the world to hear, essentially plunging a dagger into the heart of Longshanks, who perishes the moment the valiant Scot’s proclamation echoes through all the land. The frenzied crowd falls silent, stunned by this man’s persistence and courage, even in the face of excruciating torment. Peace falls over Wallace’s face as he sees visions of Murron flickering through the crowd. His head is removed from his body, William Wallace finally dead and gone. Similarly, Maximus gradually bleeds out as he pounds Commodus to a pulp for all of Rome to see, ultimately inserting a blade into the emperor’s throat, doing him in. Maximus falters, visions of his home and his family just beyond reach. And then he falls, succumbing once and for all just moments later, Lucilla at his side. Both men are killed by their enemies while at the same time killing their enemies and seeing their dead wives in the process! What’s more, the replacement lovers play a role in taking one final shot at the antagonists. Princess Isabelle informs a suffering Longshanks that she’s pregnant with Wallace’s child. And Lucilla insists the dead Maximus’ wishes be honored, the defiant Gracchus reinstated, the slaves set free.
Oh, but it doesn’t end there. A brief epilogue wraps up each film. In Braveheart, we flash ahead nine years (though the film doesn’t tell us how long it is). We find Robert the Bruce now leading the Scots in a show of submission to the English on the Bannockburn battlefield. Inspired by Wallace, Robert changes his mind, instead opting to lead this army in battle. Hamish agrees, hurling Wallace’s sword a country mile before the Scots, whilst chanting Wallace’s name, charge at the unsuspecting English ranks. Closing voiceover from Wallace tells us this field is where the Scots finally won their much coveted freedom. Gladiator plays things a little more intimately, but hits the same emotional and dramatic beats nonetheless. We find Juba in the Colosseum, burying Maximus’ lucky figurines in the sand. He speaks to the sky—to his perished brother in arms, informing him that they are now free, and he will see him again. Both films, after the death of its lead, find the closest confidant of said lead, honoring his friend, leaving the viewer satisfied that freedom has been achieved thanks to the efforts of that lead.
So, are writers David Franzoni, John Logan, and William Nicholson thieves of the most celebrated variety? Or is it possible that Scott’s film just happened to naturally unfold in the same way Gibson’s did, and would have, regardless of whether or not Randall Wallace, in his travels, ever spotted a statue of Sir William Wallace and decided to pen what would become the apex of Gibson’s career? Yes, it’s possible. Gladiator merely dressed up Randall’s script in a more ancient costume, marketed it as a sports actioner (TV spots) and wound up tricking Academy voters into believing they’d seen the best movie of the year. And it happens all the time. Would we have Braveheart without Lawrence of Arabia? Or Gladiator, ultimately, without Spartacus? Maybe, just maybe, Scott and company went about their jobs with the utmost sincerity, unwittingly crafting a story whose twin roused audiences only a few years prior.
Truthfully, Braveheart and Gladiator are tales as old as time, because there is nothing new under the sun, as Solomon tells us. There are, however, new ways of doing old things. For admirers of both films, myself included, it’s better to see them as that—familiar stories saturated in all the things that make the cinema special—spun afresh for our optimum enjoyment.
Oh, and both films are woefully inaccurate, historically speaking.