SPARTACUS (1960)

  • Director: Stanley Kubrick
  • Writers: Dalton Trumbo, based on the novel by Howard Fast
  • Starring: Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Jean Simmons, Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov, Tony Curtis, John Gavin, John Dall, John Ireland, Herbert Lom, and Woody Strode
  • Accolades: AFI 2007 Top 100 list (#81), 4 Oscars (Best Supporting Actor – Peter Ustinov, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, and Best Costume Design), 2 additional Oscar nominations (Best Film Editing, Best Original Score)
  • Where to Watch: Free streaming with ads on Peacock, Rent or buy on YouTube or AppleTV

One of the joys of watching older movies for this site is finding movies that I maybe heard about and knew existed but never gave much thought, that turn out to be a new favorite. Spartacus is definitely one of these. It is certainly an “epic” in terms of length and subject matter, but it feels far lighter on its feet than many other movies to which it might be compared. It also feels both more personal and more complex, mostly because there are numerous, beautifully drawn characters. Spartacus himself is not the paragon one might have expected; far more so than Ben-Hur, or even Maximus in Gladiator. He’s just a normal guy forced into an extraordinary situation. Even more surprisingly (though not if you know the actual history), he loses in the end. After three hours the final shot of this movie is Spartacus and all his friends, crucified along the side of the road, stretching off into the distance. This is the only movie I know of that ends with a crucifixion that’s not either about Jesus or is The Life of Brian (which one could make the argument is sort of about Jesus).

Spartacus is based (very loosely) on an actual historical event during the latter days of the Roman Republic, known by the Romans as the “Servile War.” It was one of the largest slave revolts in history, led by, among others, a former gladiator named Spartacus from Thrace (about where modern day Bulgaria is). The movie opens with Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) sold to a gladiator school run by Batiatus (Peter Ustinov), where he meets another slave named Varinia (Jean Simmons) after she is basically thrown into his cell so he can have sex with her (“here, go ahead and screw her, we’re gonna watch” is a take on the romantic meet cute I haven’t seen before). After Crassus (Laurence Olivier) and his entourage force the gladiators to fight to the death for their amusement, a revolt ensues. Spartacus marries Varinia, goes on to defeat the Roman garrison in a night raid on their camp, and comes up with a plan to march to the sea and get all the slaves out of Italy with the help of pirates. 

In desperation, the Romans hand over the keys to their republic to Crassus as dictator. He surrounds Spartacus with the entire Roman army and defeats him in the one big pitched battle actually shown in the movie. He offers to spare the lives of all the slaves if they just point out Spartacus to him (this was before Instagram so he doesn’t know what Spartacus looks like). In the movie’s most famous scene, all the slaves start yelling “I am Spartacus!” rather than identify the real one. Crassus tries to take Varinia and Spartacus’ infant son for himself, but, as a final act of revenge by his political opponent Gracchus (Charles Laughton), they are spirited out of the city and given their freedom by Batiatus. The movie ends with Varinia holding up Spartacus’ son to him (while Spartacus is being crucified) and announcing that he will live free, but it’s just that one baby, slavery is still a thing, Crassus is dictator, and Spartacus is dead.

The story of Spartacus the movie is sometimes eclipsed by Spartacus the production, and everything that surrounded it. The movie’s background is inextricably linked with a very different series of historical events, the Red Scare and the Hollywood Blacklist. Howard Fast was a successful novelist, but refused to testify before Joe McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and spent three months in jail for Contempt of Congress. During that time he discovered the story of Spartacus and wrote most of a novel about the subject. Of course, the story ended up paralleling that of Fast’s own life, especially the heroic climax in which Spartacus’ friends refuse to give him up in exchange for their lives. Fast then found that, despite his previous fame, no publishing house would now take his book, so he self-published it. In a time before Amazon, this was very difficult and involved him and his wife setting up a printing press in their basement. Kirk Douglas, apparently upset that Charlton Heston was chosen over him for the lead in Ben-Hur, was able to option the movie rights for only $100.

Dalton Trumbo, the screenwriter of Spartacus, was also heavily affected by the Blacklist. He had been the highest paid screenwriter in Hollywood, and showed up at the HUAC hearings confident that he would show that he was right and Joe McCarthy was wrong. At one point he shouted back at the committee, in response to a demand he just answer yes or no, that “Yes or no questions are for morons and slaves!” Embarrassed by Trumbo and other screenwriters in the “Hollywood Ten,” the studios instituted the Blacklist shortly thereafter. Trumbo had to spend the next decade scraping by doing cheap work for hire under pseudonyms. Douglas insisted he actually be involved in the production of Spartacus, which included sneaking him onto set under a blanket so he could watch dailies, then went on to threaten to quit if Trumbo wasn’t given full screenwriting credit under his own name. This was highly controversial, and screenings of the movie were picketed by various “patriotic” groups such as the American Legion. John F. Kennedy, President-elect at the time, actually crossed one such picket line, bought a ticket, watched the movie in a theater, then came out and told the press “it was fine.” With this ringing endorsement, the era of the Blacklist was basically over. It didn’t end the controversy right away, however. John Wayne called the movie “marxist propaganda,” (I guess because… it thinks Fascism is bad?) and Hollywood in general remained wary. This led to the film being mostly shut out (with the exception of Ustinov winning Best Supporting Actor) of major categories that year’s Oscars, in favor of several movies no one remembers anymore, including Wayne’s The Alamo

Spartacus also marked the first really big studio film for a thirty-year-old up and coming director named Stanley Kubrick. He was only hired after the first director, Anthony Mann (primarily known for his Westerns), was fired under mysterious circumstances. Universal gave Kubrick a $12 million budget (by contrast, his prior World War I movie Paths of Glory, also starring Douglas, had a budget of $950,000) and a cast of over 10,000, with which he shot for months and months. One might attribute the movie’s success to a variety of creative voices, each getting some but not all of what they wanted. But “variety of creative voices” turned out to not be something Kubrick could actually handle. Spartacus ended up as the only movie of his career where he did not negotiate for complete creative control, and when asked about his movies later in his career he generally left it out. It’s true that, for good or ill, Spartacus doesn’t especially feel like a Kubrick movie (outside of maybe a few moments of the camera floating around Crassus’ villa). But you can see his hand in many of the absolutely stunning shots in this movie. Ben-Hur may have had more spectacular sequences, but William Wyler and his crew on that movie, for all their many virtues, lacked Kubrick’s eye.

The performances in this movie are both on a much higher level and very different from what you might expect. Perhaps influenced by Douglas and his chin dimple (oh lord, his chin dimple, it looks painful), most of the actors feel more like guys they pulled off the LA street in the 1950s and put in togas (which is of course what they did) and less like the aristocratic British people you’d be more likely to see in a movie about the Roman empire today. Your instinct might be that this is a bad thing, but it actually works very well at bringing matters down to the level of the viewer, so to speak. This is a movie set thousands of years ago, but I think it’s very relatable to a modern viewer. Take the scene where the slave army raids the Roman camp and Spartacus confronts their commander, Marcus Glabrus (John Dall). Imagine while you’re watching this what, say, Ridley Scott would do with this scene. It’s very different.

The two big exceptions to this are the two famous English actors Douglas roped into the movie, Olivier and Ustinov. The latter’s performance as the owner of a gladiatorial school who sees these human slaves solely in terms of dollars and cents is very hard to describe, but it’s the most interesting thing in a movie full of interesting things, and Ustinov steals every scene he’s in. Olivier was best known for his traditional declamations of Shakespearean roles (he won his only Oscars 12 years earlier, for producing, directing, and starring in the 1948 film Hamlet). He is absolutely perfect as Crassus in this movie, a rich Senator scheming to become Dictator. It’s a quiet, complicated performance, which was not what I would have expected from him. Unusually for a movie from 1960, Crassus is fairly explicitly portrayed as bisexual, particularly in one infamous scene where his slave Antoninus (Tony Curtis, of all people) ladles water over him in a steamy bath while both men are dressed in tiny loincloths. Crassus’ line that he “prefers both oysters and snails” (which I have to admit went completely over my head the first time I heard it) was cut by censors at the time (over whose head it did not go). It was re-added in the restoration you can currently stream on Peacock, apparently with Anthony Hopkins voicing Crassus because the original vocal track had been lost.

Anyway, I loved this movie. There are scenes, like in a dialogue-free montage where the slave army marches to the sea, where the way Kubrick frames this mass of humanity is truly breathtaking in scope. This is especially true given that you know that every person seen on screen is actually there. To get a huge crowd all yelling “I am Spartacus!,” they didn’t create it digitally, they went to a Michigan State/Notre Dame football game and got 70,000 people to actually yell it. In the lead-up to the climactic battle, when thousands of soldiers march toward the slaves in strict formation, they didn’t have CGI, so they hired 8,000 trained soldiers from the Spanish army (under Franco, who didn’t seem to understand the movie’s basic anti-fascist message) to actually do it. And yet, as in Lawrence of Arabia, another favorite “epic” of mine, Spartacus shows that you don’t have to sacrifice a movie engaging you mentally for a movie that gives you big spectacle. You can have both.

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