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SPARTACUS(director: Stanley Kubrick; screenwriters: Dalton Trumbo/from book by Howard Fast; cinematographers: Russell Metty/Clifford Stine; editors: Fred A. Chulack /Robert Lawrence/Robert Sculte; cast: Kirk Douglas (Spartacus), Jean Simmons (Varinia), Peter Ustinov (Batiatus), Laurence Olivier (Marcus Licinus Crassus), Charles Laughton (Gracchus), Tony Curtis(Antoninus), John Gavin (Julius Caesar), Nina Foch (Helena Glabrus), Woody Strode (Black Gladiator, Draba), Herbert Lom (Tigranes), John Ireland (Crixus), John Dall (Glabrus), Charles McGraw (Marcellus); Runtime: 187; Bryna / Universal; 1960)
“Meant to be seen on the big screen.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Stanley Kubrick took over directing at the request of Kirk Douglas, after Anthony Mann was fired. He redid most of blacklisted Dalton Trumbo’s script (this was the first time since his ban that his real name appeared on the credits) and fired his lead actress Sabina Bethmann, replacing her with the graceful Jean Simmons. Spartacus is based on the book by Howard Fast.

This was both a disappointing and exhilarating film experience for Kubrick, who had ongoing arguments with Kirk on how to film it. The story suffered from over sentimentalizing the slaves as being all good and virtuous and making the Romans into a one-dimensional hateful group, thereby taking away a sense of reality about each group.

It was the last time Kubrick made a Hollywood film. But at 31 Kubrick, according to the N.Y. Times, was the youngest director ever placed in charge of a $12,000,000 film. He at least got well compensated for his efforts — as a result moving to an estate in England and was able to hereafter make independent films the way he wanted to, without interference from studio heads.

Spartacus was both well received at the box-office and by many film critics who gave it a thumbs up review. But it is evident, in many of the scenes, that the film didn’t totally reflect Kubrick’s attitudes. Much of the film is made up of close-ups of the egomanical Kirk Douglas trying to look like a fearless leader burning inside with rage, plus there are scenes that drag down the middle part of the film; especially, the nauseating love fest and brotherhood shown among the new slave army. The tension is further taken out of this overlong but intelligent epic with uninspiring dramatics and slipshod dialogue amid pious speeches from Kirk and his opposing general, Laurence Olivier (despite his heavy lines the British stage actor still gave them authority).

The most sentimental mush is reserved for the last scenes, as the slave army is being crucified and Jean Simmons is holding up Kirk’s child and saying the child will remember you and he will be born free, in a scene that was so crude I couldn’t imagine Kubrick doing it unless he had a gun pointed at his wallet by the studio boss. But the characterizations and the lovable performances displayed by those two rascals, Peter Ustinov and Charles Laughton, were surprising effective for such an epic film. These blockbusters usually ignore character for grandeur.

“Spartacus” is a tale about the revolt of slaves in Ancient Rome and their eventual defeat as they are forced to attack Rome and its overwhelming army.

Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) was born in Thrace and has been a slave ever since he was 13 in the Libyan mines. He is sentenced to starve to death for biting a Roman guard. The corpulent and unscrupulous gladiator-school operator Batiatus (Ustinov) buys him while shopping for slaves in Libya so he can train him to be a slave-gladiator in his school in Italy and eventually have him sold for a high price to those in Rome who have the gladiators fight to their death in the arena. To keep his best gladiators spirits up after their rigorous training, they are rewarded the company of a woman slave to appease their sexual appetites. Spartacus falls in love with the beautiful and regal slave Varinia (Jean Simmons) on one such encounter. But he refuses to have sex with her and shouts out that he’s not an animal as Batiatus and the cruel ex-slave, gladiator trainer Marcellus (McGraw), observe the couple from a grating above them.

On a visit from Rome Marcus Licinus Crassus (Olivier) and his youthful brother-in-law Glabrus (Dall) who has just been made the Roman commander of the garrisons by Crassus’ connivings with the senate, come to Batiatus’ school with their women to celebrate Glabrus’ wedding. They request two gladiator fights as an honor to their spoiled women. The women choose the gladiators and in this fight unto death the trident carrying Negro slave Draba (Strode), refuses to kill Spartacus even though he has the advantage. He is killed by the guard who throws a spear into his back as he attacks the aristocratic Senator Crassus. Afterwards in the mess hall a prison riot breaks out, as Spartacus angered by all of the following: the sale of Varinia to Crassus, Draba’s death, and the tauntings of Marcellus. Spartacus strangles and then drowns Marcellus in a pot of boiling soup and all the slaves escape by overwhelming Batiatus’ guards. These scenes are superbly done, carefully showing the de-humanizing experience of how a slave is selected and how hard is their life, and how the slaves feel the only thing they have to lose by dying is their pain. The escape scene is exciting, as the trained killers easily overpower the guards.

The middle part of the film switches back and forth between Spartacus going on a seven month rampage of looting the southern Italian countryside from his base camp in Mt.Vesuvius and planning to buy ships from the pirates so that they can all get out of the country. The other part is about the intrigues and power struggle in the senate. The sly Senator Gracchus (Laughton) favoring the republican form of government is the longtime enemy of the ‘law and order’ Crassus, who favors a patrician dictatorship for Rome with him in charge. Crassus defends slavery by thinking it advanced civilization because those taken from vanquished countries are now allowed to live as slaves, whereas before they used to be all killed.

Gracchus trickily gets Glabrus to take charge of putting down the slave revolt with an army of just six cohorts and thereby gets him out of Rome, while he proposes that his ally Julius Caesar (Gavin) take charge of the remaining Rome garrisons while the rest of the army is waging war. Crassus sees through this plan to get Glabrus out of the way and maneuvers to force the slave army to fight in Rome so that he can make a name for himself by defeating them. He does this by buying off the pirates and preventing the slaves from escaping by sea. And, he does this after Glabrus’ forces are routed in a surprise attack and is humiliated and forced to return to Rome and explain his defeat to the senate, which results in Crassus punishing him by making him an exile.

In the final scenes Crassus becomes the general that defeats the slave army and crucifies the few hundred survivors of the battle on the Appian Way, including Spartacus. The last cunning trick the womanizing Republican Senator Gracchus does, is to give the greedy Batiatus a bundle of money to overcome his fear and get him to smuggle out in a cart Varinia with her baby son. He also supplies her with papers for freedom. The only thing he could do to get back at the victorious Crassus–is wound his pride. Crassus took the captured Varinia as a slave and planned to possess her to mock Spartacus and satisfy his vanity. For Spartacus, his only solace is that he has given his life in the hope that his son can have a better life than he did and that the seeds of freedom will spread after his death because of his actions.

It’s one of the better such epics Hollywood has turned out from that period. It captures the mindset of how callous the Romans were in regard to slavery (probably somehow connected with the civil rights movement going on at the time of filming). The one theme it carries over from other Kubrick films, is that the outsider is the one who feels most the pains of society’s slings and is in the best position to change things. He can do that by being a Jesus figure, a poet, the one who pulls off a perfect robbery, or is just a plain madman, but he is the hero in the film who voices Kubrick’s concerns about a restrictive society and acts in a rebellious way to make society feel uncomfortable.

Tony Curtis distinguishes himself as a magician manservant and the love interest of the bisexual Crassus (the undertones of this homoerotic relationship is most clearly seen in the infamous ‘snails and oysters’ scene). Tony runs away to join Spartacus’ revolt rather than to submit to Crassus’ cravings. Then there is one of my favorite noir tough guys, Charles McGraw, who is the sinister grinning Marcellus, hating the slave-gladiators he has risen from. It is not uncommon to find such types as Marcellus, who have the most hatred reserved for their own kind of people, as they act as the enforcers for their former oppressors.

The version I saw, was the letter-box restored version of 1991. The film received 4 Academy Awards, including Best Supporting Actor for Ustinov. This is a film that loses some of its graphic power on video, as it is meant to be seen on the big screen.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”