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
"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
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
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
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.