The Hero’s Journey: Part II


The Point Of No Return: The Catalytic Event in Gladiator

By Daniel Dercksen



The Catalytic Event (also known as the Inciting Incident or The Point of Engagement) happens mostly in stories once we have set up the ordinary world of the protagonist.

  • It is an event that radically upsets the balance of forces in the protagonist’s life; throws the protagonist’s life out of balance; and sends the protagonist on a quest that reaches the limits of his or her being.
  • What calls your protagonist to adventure/ changes the character’s life forever?
  • This single event must either happen directly to or is caused by the protagonist.

It can happen:

  1. Randomly – by coincidence: In Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore it happens by coincidence, when an accident kills the protagonist’s husband. In Gladiator it happens randomly when the antagonist murders Caesar.
  2. Causally – by decision: In Leaving Las Vegas it is decision of the protagonist to drink himself to death; in Titanic it happens when the Young Rose decided to kill herself and jump off the ocean liner.
  • This incident must happen on screen. The presence of the audience is crucial: in Hollywood terms this is the “big hook”, the event that incites and captures the audience’s curiosity.
  • It is vital for the Protagonist to react to the Catalytic Evetn.
  • By looking into the heart of the protagonist and discovering his desire, the writer begins to see the arc of the story, the quest on which the inciting incident sends the protagonist.
  • The Catalytic Event projects an ultimate payoff, the Obligatory Scene (Climax) where the protagonist will confront the most powerful forces of Antagonism.

In The Hero’s Journey: Part I, we explored the opening scene and Ordinary World of Maximus in Gladiator.

The Catalytic Event in Gladiator dramatically upsets the balance of the protagonist’s life, and forces Maximus to take action.

There are three important scenes that initiate the catalytic event in Gladiator:

  • a scene between Aurelius and Commodus
  • a scene between Lucilla and Commodus
  • Maximus praying in his tent.

It is important to note that the second draft of the screenplay changes drastically from the first draft after the battle scene. Following the battle scene in the first draft we go directly to Rome, where Narcissus (Maximus) is praised by the Senators. Here we meet Juba and his wife Mela and encounter a major confrontation between our hero and Commudus.

In the first draft Commodus sits at the bedside of his ill father and witnesses the affection between Aurelius and Narcissus (Maximus). In the second draft the sequence begins with a private and intimate discussion between Aurelius and Maximus. Look at the beautiful description of the setting in the second draft of the script.


Maximus enters Marcus’ darkened tent. Flickering braziers provide the only light in the enormous Imperial tent. Heavy beams support the canopy and they creak like the timbers of a ship as the tent sways slightly in the wind.

Aurelius wishes for Maximus to become the Protector of Rome. To give the power back to the people of Rome and end the corruption. Rome is to be a Republic once again. He also confesses that Maximus is the son he should have had and heavily criticises Commodus’ immoral behaviour. In the final draft of the script

He cares about Maximus’ well-being, he asks Maximus to tell him about his home and family, and then to bring an old man a blanket. Scott does not show us what Maximus tells Aurelius about his family and home. He allows the audience to form a picture in their own minds. Maximus has until sunset to decide.

As Maximus’ leaves the tent he is stalked by Lucilla. In the first draft it is suggested that she is a drunkard and has no son, but in the second draft she is compassionate and understanding. There are slight hints of a past love affair, but more important, they have a deep-rooted bonding: they both have a son.

Maximus returns to his tent. In the first draft he is woken by his wife and two daughters; there is a scene between him and his daughters in which he discusses politics, and there is a tender love scene between him and his wife. Commodus arrives with news that Aurelius is dead and arrests Narcissus (Maximus) when he protests, and imprisons him, sending him to Rome where he will be tried for insubordination.

The second draft is much closer to the final product. In the silence of his tent Maximus kneels before a small altar, facing six small figures that represent his dead ancestors. It reveals his devotion to his family. Now for the first time, Scott gives us a visual picture of his wife and son in a brief flashback, of the home he softly prays to return to.

The catalytic event is a powerful and dramatic scene between Aurelius and Commodus, reflecting directly on Maximus, it is time to pull the protagonist out of his comfort zone and call him to adventure. When Commodus enters Aurelius’ tent he does not address his father directly. He first admires a statue of the previous Caesar and gently caresses it. Aurelius asks his son if he is willing to serve Rome and then adds a twist, like a knife wound. Is Commodus willing to serve Maximus? Is the Antagonist willing to give in to the Protagonist?

An intense and heartbreaking conflict ensues between father and son. It is clear they haven’t been close and have only communicated through correspondence. Commodus states that he has always been true to the four virtues demanded by his father; wisdom, justice, fortitude and temperance; but that he had none of them. There are other virtues that are more important to him; ambition, resourcefulness, courage and devotion.

And then, a brilliant bit of dialogue which was added by actor Richard Harris.


Your faults as a son is my failure as a father.

Here’s the Catalytic Event in Gladiator:

In Part III of The Hero’s Journey we will look at what happens when the hero is called to adventure: The Dilemma.

Copyright © 2001–2007 Excerps from screenplays: Dreamworks/ Analysis Daniel E. Dercksen