Morocco is home to the oldest existing casbah in that part of the world, which is known to have stood for about 500 years, but whose foundations probably date back to the time of the Roman Empire. Production designer Arthur Max offers, "In some ways, Morocco designed itself. It was magic. You come up over a hill, and you're in another time. It was heavenly to find this ancient casbah, and, conveniently enough, there was an empty field at the foot of the town where the locals played football. It was the ideal spot for us to erect a small, provincial arena where our hero is introduced to the life and death existence of a gladiator."
It was important that the newly built amphitheatre be indistinguishable from the ancient architecture surrounding it. Using only indigenous materials and rudimentary methods that had not changed in generations, the construction team produced more than 30,000 mud bricks with which to build the structure. "The bricks were made of simple mud, mixed with straw, cast in a mold and baked in the sun," Max says. "When the arena took shape on the existing landscape, it looked like it had been there for centuries."
The production also employed local citizens as extras in the arena and in the bazaar, where both slaves and animals were purchased. As befit the setting, the weathered faces of the Moroccans gave no hint that they would return to the 20th century when Ridley Scott called "cut." Leaving Morocco, the company journeyed to the "fortress island" of Malta, where the most daunting task still lay ahead. Malta, which holds pre-Phoenician ruins dating back some 6,000 years, had become part of the Roman Empire in 218 B.C. Where better to reconstruct the very center of civilization in 180 A.D.-Rome and its magnificent Colosseum.
Scott notes, "Every film has its own inherent challenges, but how often do you get to rebuild the Roman Empire?"
Arthur Max reveals that he had a head start on the research for this crucial aspect of the production. "I had the advantage of having lived and worked in Rome and done some of my architectural training there. I knew the actual locations firsthand and had a sense of place. For me, the greatest challenge was how to achieve the scale and convey the vastness of the empire." Max accompanied Ridley Scott to scout historic Fort Ricasoli, a 17th-century Spanish fort that had later been converted to a barracks by Napoleon's invading forces. Scott remembers, "Technically, it didn't date back as far as our story, but the prevailing winds and blowing sands had aged it nicely. There was also a giant parade ground that would fit our Colosseum perfectly. Arthur and I figured that the existing buildings had already provided some of the pieces, so if we built our sets amidst the real thing, we'd complete a fantastic jigsaw puzzle."
Over a period of 19 weeks, more than 100 British technicians and 200 Maltese tradesfolk labored to recreate the heart of Roman Empire. Their efforts were constantly hampered by high winds and storms in what was reported to be Malta's worst winter in 30 years.
The centerpiece of the construction was the Colosseum, which was a faithful recreation of the original. Time constraints and area limitations made it impossible to build a full-scale replica of the massive three-tiered architectural marvel that has been the center of Roman myth and culture for 2,000 years. Therefore, Max's construction team built a fragment of the first tier that measured approximately one-third of the circumference of the original and 52 feet high. They also fabricated the bowels of the Colosseum, which included a technologically crude but elaborate system of elevators to lift the gladiators onto the field of combat, and the entrance to the arena itself.
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