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Spartacus

Directed by Anthony Mann and Stanley Kubrick, starring Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Peter Ustinov, Jean Simmons, Charles Laughton, Tony Curtis, John Ireland and Woody Strode, 196 minutes (restored version), color, 1960

A Defiant, Unhappy but Uplifting Epic

Cover of Spartacus DVD

DVD cover for "Spartacus"

By Carter B. Horsley

Epics are supposed to be stirring dramas that evolve over many years and stages in the lives of their lead characters and in the process provide a good sense of history and a few dollops of morality.

"Spartacus" succeeds on all these counts and more. It has memorable performances by Kirk Douglas, Peter Ustinov, Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton, and Woody Strode, a lyrical score by Alex North (which was nominated for an Oscar and whose theme was most beautifully rhapsodized by legendary jazz pianist Bill Evans in his great album, "Conversations with Myself,"), and a truly spectacular and enormous battle scene.

Spartacus was a gladiator who led a major slave revolt in pre-Christian Rome. (Some critics have rightfully noted that this film is one of the few major epics about the Roman Empire that was not centered on the beginnings of Christianity.) The movie gives a good sense of the grandeur and sweep of the Roman Empire with Laurence Olivier playing the role of Marcus Licinius Crassus, who would become Emperor, with great malevolence, and Charles Laughton playing the role of Sempronius Gracchus, a rather liberal Senator with his usual and wonderful rhetorical flourishes.

Peter Ustinov as Lentulus Batiatus, the owner of a gladiator training camp and academy, won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. His unctuous, toadying demeanor is rather over-the-top, and quite humorous, but also helps establish the business and social climate of the Empire. (His charm was actually put to greater use in his role as Nero, the emperor who burns Rome, in the 1951 epic, "Quo Vadis")

Kirk Douglas, of course, plays the title role, which is one of his very best, if not his best.

In the sound era of films, Clark Gable, Cary Grant, Gary Cooper, Errol Flynn, and John Wayne were the first generation of super-heroes and Douglas, Burt Lancaster and Gregory Peck would become the second generation's super-heroes. The next generation's super-heroes are Sean Connery, Roger Moore, Clint Eastwood, Bruce Willis, Mel Gibson, Harrison Ford, and, of course, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sly Stallone. Many other fine actors such as James Stewart, William Holden, Michael Caine, Steve McQueen and Denzel Washington also easily shouldered heroic mantles at times, but never quite achieved the legendary status of the others. The special and extraordinary talents of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, of course, would place them in their own special category of stunt-stars. It is interesting to note that all of these superstars had quite different screen personas. Some were mischievously amusing. Some were taciturn. Some were stolid. Some were brazen and some were carefree and one-dimensional. John Wayne, of course, was the most famous, but would become something of a caricature of himself.

Kirk Douglas, on the other hand, brought an intensity to his roles that would only be rivaled by Mel Gibson, but Gibson's roles have had more of a flashy, devil-may-care attitude while Douglas's have been more riveting and visceral. Douglas is perfect as the defiant and courageous Spartacus. He is fit and forceful and his heroics still are in the human domain and his leadership abilities are not based on intellectuality but deep, moral outrage and concerns.

The "love interest" in the movie is filled by Jean Simmons, who never looked lovelier and while romantic diversions often slow some epic/action films down they do not in "Spartacus" and the ending of the movie is particularly heart-wrenching.

Above all, however, "Spartacus" is a movie about revolution and the forces of good and evil and the noble potential of man, as well as his potential for cruelty, and the difference that an individual can make in society. Rome's grandeur and power are in evidence, though not as much as in "Quo Vadis," or "The Fall of the Roman Empire," at least in terms of spectacular architectural sets. "Spartacus," nonetheless, is very much a visually exciting film. While "Spartacus" takes some liberties with history, it does convey a fine sense of its historical period and imparts a good sense of why the "empire" would eventually fall.

Douglas was not only the star, but also the producer of the movie and Stanley Kubrick, who had directed Douglas three years previously in the great World War I movie, "Paths of Glory" (see The City Review article), was the director. Kubrick joined the project after Anthony Mann left it and Kubrick, but the mid-stream switch in directors does not affect the flow of the quite long movie. Kubrick has been reported as having not taken much pride about the film because it was not under his total control as were his famous subsequent films. Douglas, to his great credit, hired Dalton Trumbo, who had been "blacklisted," to write the screenplay based on Howard Fast's novel of the same name.

The highlights of this exhilarating film are a fight-to-the-death between Douglas and Woody Strode, who as always is excellent, for the entertainment of Graccus and his lady friend, played with great coquettishness by Nina Foch, and the great, final battle scene. The latter is spectacular not only for its staging but for moment when Spartacus's forces are defeated and Crassus demands that Spartacus identify himself in return for sparing the lives of his remaining troops. Before Spartacus can rise, another rebel stands up and shouts, "I am Spartacus," followed by another and another. It is one of the great scenes in film history and very, very moving.

Much has been made by some critics of a restored version of the film that includes a scene between Crassus and one of Spartacus's men, played by Tony Curtis, that had been cut from the original release, presumably because it suggested to some that Crassus's reference to oysters indicated he might be bisexual. The restored scene is not explicit, or very shocking, or even very obvious, and it merely adds a bit more complexity to Crassus's character, which has already been well and impressively defined as ambitious, full of intrigue and ruthlessness. It is one of many roles that displayed how fabulous an actor Olivier was at adopting many wildly different guises.

Some of the plot is a bit contrived and Ustinov's buffoonery is a bit too diverting, but all in all the movie is immensely engrossing and impressive. In the end, however, it is great because of the "I am Spartacus" anthemic scene and Woody Strode's character, and its theme of sacrifice for the good of the group and history, and its strong emphasis on morality and friendship.

The movie's lasting impact is that it does not mock sacrifice and idealism with pompous reverence or grandiose dreams but thrusts it against harsh realities. Made during the Cold War, it managed to both extol "freedom" while also taking the side of the common man. Douglas's performance remains within human bounds and frailties and much of the film's strength is in its presentation of "leadership" as something that is not destined, or infallible. Leadership/power can often corrupt and also can accomplish great things. It is not inexorable and not without its setbacks and failures.

Life takes unexpected and quirky turns and individuals can make a difference.

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This film ranks 20th in Carter B. Horsley's Top 500 Sound Films

Click here to order a DVD of the movie from Amazon.com for 15 percent off its $26.98 list price.

Click here to go to the film's entry in the Internet Movie Data Base where it was ranked 155 in its Top 250 Films as of December 27, 2000.

 

 

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