MORE TITANIC THAN ANY STORY EVER TOLD!
This is a story about freedom. Our hero was born without it and died without it. It is easy to see what Dalton Trumbo saw in the titular character in Howard Fast’s novel. Trumbo’s own freedom was taken away from him when he was blacklisted during the dark McCarthy years. I bet he was itching to show the world how a strong and decent idea such as freedom or democracy survives no matter how many of its supporters totalitarian forces try to subjugate. That spirit is very much alive in this epic.
Director Stanley Kubrick reunited with Kirk Douglas after Paths of Glory (1957) for this film; Douglas executive-produced it and hired Kubrick after firing the original choice, Anthony Mann. It became Kubrick’s first and only huge Hollywood epic, an impersonal but slickly made slice of cinema.
It takes place a century before the birth of Christ and details the rise and fall of a slave rebellion against the Romans. A Thracian slave called Spartacus (Douglas) is saved from his own execution by a slave trader, Batiatus (Peter Ustinov), who sees gladiator potential in the fiercely proud and strong man. He brings Spartacus home to his gladiator school where he is trained to become one of the best. When Marcus Licinius Crassus (Laurence Olivier), a ruthless Roman senator, and his family visit Batiatus and demand to see two gladiators fight to the death, the incident sparks a rebellion among the gladiators that quickly spreads to other parts of the Roman hemisphere. Spartacus soon finds himself in command of a slave army headed for Rome.
At the same time, Crassus and his main rival in the senate, Gracchus (Charles Laughton), are competing for the power and glory of Rome. It’s rare to see a conservative Hollywood film like this opt for an ending that is deeply unhappy and realistic… and choose to include a bizarre bathing scene between Crassus and a slave, Antoninus (Tony Curtis), that has such an obvious gay subtext, with the senator declaring his lust for both “oysters and snails”. That scene is a classic and I guess it was included at the time to make Crassus look as immoral as possible.
Music is a key ingredient
There’s a romance of course. Spartacus has never had a woman until he meets Varinia (Jean Simmons) at the gladiator school and it’s love at first sight. When the rebellion begins, the couple makes sure to enjoy every minute of their doomed freedom before it’s too late. It becomes a reasonably engaging part of the film and Alex North’s beautiful love theme helps it immensely. His music is a key ingredient, adding powerful emotion to the story. The opening credits are grand; North’s music works in collaboration with Saul Bass’s design, which features imaginative close-ups of majestic statues. Russell Metty, the cinematographer, has done a good job of fusing on-location footage with scenes shot on a soundstage.
The actors are just as good as the crew. Douglas gives an unremarkable but reliable performance as the stubborn slave leader and Ustinov got an Oscar for his amusing portrayal of the slave trader who doesn’t mind groveling as long as there’s something in it for him. Olivier and Laughton are both terrific as two very different players in the Roman senate, one of them icy and incredibly dangerous, the other one more humane, not callous enough.
Having Tony Curtis as a half-naked slave who gives Laurence Olivier a sponge bath is a campy ingredient. But that scene is a quaint touch to a film that is technically very well made, features a few great performances and knows how to tell its story without outstaying its welcome.
Spartacus 1960-U.S. 184 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Edward Lewis. Directed by Stanley Kubrick. Screenplay: Dalton Trumbo. Novel: Howard Fast. Cinematography: Russell Metty. Music: Alex North. Cast: Kirk Douglas (Spartacus), Laurence Olivier (Marcus Licinius Crassus), Jean Simmons (Varinia), Tony Curtis, Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov… John Gavin, Nina Foch, Herbert Lom, John Ireland.
Trivia: Ingrid Bergman and Jeanne Moreau were allegedly considered for the part of Varinia. The film was restored in 1991, with Anthony Hopkins dubbing Olivier’s voice in the bathing scene. Remade in 2004 as a miniseries.
Oscars: Best Supporting Actor (Ustinov), Cinematography, Art Direction-Set Decoration, Costume Design. Golden Globe: Best Motion Picture (Drama).
Quote: “My taste includes both snails and oysters.” (Olivier declaring his bisexuality to Curtis)
Last word: “My company, Bryna, produced [‘Spartacus’] and I wanted to get the best writer. The best writer was Dalton Trumbo, who had served a sentence in jail and then moved to Mexico. But when he came back, he wrote the script in secret under the name Sam Jackson. He was a wonderful guy, and it was terrible that he had to hide his name. I think because I was young enough I had more guts – when you’re older, you have more to lose. I got a call from Otto Preminger, who said, ‘You’re working with a blacklisted writer!’ He was very mad at me. I said ‘I don’t care’, and he hung up.” (Douglas, Interview Magazine)