Spartacus (1960)

Spartacus (1960)

written by Dalton Trumbo

based on the novel Spartacus by Howard Fast

directed by Stanley Kubrick

I had never gotten around to watching director Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus, even though he’s one of my favorite filmmakers. Perhaps it’s because Spartacus is the only one of his movies where he couldn’t exercise complete creative control, so I was somewhat indifferent to it. Big mistake (again).

The real-life story of a slave (Kirk Douglas in the titular role) who commands a revolution against Rome in the 1st century BCE, Spartacus indeed ended up belonging not only to Kubrick but to Douglas – upset and not having been cast in Ben-Hur (1959) and wanting to star in his very own swords-and-sandals epic – and to blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, who adapted the novel by Howard Fast (also blacklisted) and saw his own struggle with the House Committee on Un-American Activities as a reflection of Spartacus’ fight against oppression. 

How these three disparate approaches came together in a production fraught with difficulties – Douglas fired original director Anthony Mann after the first week of production, hiring Kubrick instead; Kubrick became director and director of photography after fighting with cinematographer Russell Metty over the veteran’s approach – is the stuff of legend. But watching Spartacus you can’t deny the tension worked to the film’s benefit. This is great cinema, with impeccable production values, fine acting, exciting set pieces, and a wonderful modernist score by Alex North.

Kubrick’s approach to realism within the confines of a big-budget Hollywood film is key to Spartacus‘ impact. When Spartacus and another gladiator battle for the amusement of Roman senator Crassus (Laurence Olivier) and his guests, the scene is filmed from two perspectives: Above, the elite observes the spectacle with little interest, talking amongst themselves; below, the fighters face a bloody fate in which one will have to kill the other. Later, Spartacus kills slave driver Marcellus (Charles McGraw) by drowning him in a vat of stew (McGraw even hits his face on the pot, in a moment that looks unplanned), and then leads his fellow prisoners in a violent riot. It’s visceral and chaotic, setting the stage for a final showdown in which Spartacus and his followers face off against the Roman legions in a sequence that employed about 8,000 Spanish army troops. Nope, no CG here.

Crassus demands that the survivors identify the rebel instigator, but they refuse, instead shouting “I am Spartacus!”  in solidarity. It is well known that Kubrick thought this scene to be “stupid.” Perhaps he was referring to its obvious allusion to McCarthyism and the witch-hunt which identified Trumbo and Fast as communist sympathizers. Kubrick probably felt that such overt sentimentality was beneath him. But sixty-two years later, one can’t deny Spartacus’ powerful message of human dignity triumphing over injustice (as I write this, Russia is waging war on Ukraine, and the smaller nation is still holding strong). Maybe Kubrick would’ve made a more Kubrickian film had he not been just a director-for-hire… but the final motion picture is still an unforgettable ode to resistance.

Rating: ***½

Carlos I. Cuevas

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