Sword Play and Horse Play

Like their characters, Crowe and Hounsou also shared the tremendous physical demands of being gladiators, along with former bodybuilding champion Ralf Moeller, who appears as the imposing gladiator Hagen. Together with a group of highly skilled stuntmen, led by stunt coordinator Phil Neilson, the actors executed fight scenes that would have rivaled the training at Proximo's gladiator school.

"I've done some pretty physical stuff before, but this was unrelenting," Crowe attests. "You know, I never really consider the physical hardships I'm going to put myself through when I take a role, so in the middle of this, I started thinking, 'Maybe I should have taken the one where I was a bus conductor,'" he adds laughing.

Scott concurs, "I would try to give Russell a few days in a row of just walking and talking, so to speak, but it didn't always work out that way. There were some days with battle scenes end on end, so he was aching in every muscle and bone."

That being said, Crowe got a laugh from a directive he received during filming. "They sent me a memo asking me not to play soccer because I might get hurt. At that point, I'd been doing one massive fight scene after another, so I sent a memo back saying, 'I can wrestle with four tigers, but I can't play a game of soccer? Get over it. Love, Russell.'"

In contrast to modern war epics, the battle sequences in "Gladiator" involved close sword fighting, requiring intricate staging and long rehearsals to ensure everyone's safety. Fight master Nicholas Powell, who had previously worked on "Braveheart," was responsible for choreographing the film's myriad sword fights. He also had to train all the actors and stuntmen, as well as the 1,000 extras who took part in the opening battle. His first priority was Russell Crowe, so weeks ahead of principal photography, Powell went to Australia to work one-on-one with the actor.

"All the actors had a lot to learn in terms of this kind of fighting. There was a tremendous amount of swordplay, which required everyone to remember exact movement and placement to avoid anyone getting something brokenor their head taken off," Scott says, only half kidding.

Powell explains, "Ridley wanted close fighting, which looks better on screen, but has slightly more intrinsic risk, especially since we were primarily using metal weapons. It's really a matter of getting the choreography down perfectly and keeping the guys on the ball all the time. They could never think, 'Well, we've done it ten times, so we're okay.' All you need is someone in the wrong place, someone to hit your arm and your hand moves. They had to concentrate every single time they did it, or there was a potential for someone to get hurt."

One particular group of fighters proved particularly unpredictable in the arena: the tigers, who were handled by chief animal trainer Paul "Sled" Reynolds and animal trainer Thierry Le Portier. Producer Branko Lustig notes, "Tiger are just big cats; you can tell them what to do, but they don't always listen."

Reynolds affirms, "These tigers were raised in captivity and are as tame as tigers can be, but guys running around in front of them are like toys to them, so we had to be careful."

Similarly, the actors had to respect the strength and power of the stunt horses used in the opening battle, as well as in the arena. Crowe expounds, "A horse can sense when you're not totally in control of what you're doing. If he senses fear, he's likely to respond, 'Well, if you're scared, get off my back, 'cause I can do this stunt just fine and dandy without you."

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