IMDB #222 Spartacus

And now, after falling asleep during the middle four or five times and having to try again (what? It’s very long), it’s time for 1960’s Spartacus. It has something for everyone- romance, blood, epic battles, political machinations, and crucifixions. Exciting, right? If you have three hours and sixteen minutes to spare, grab a copy and follow along at home!

The Key Players:

Our director is a 30-year-old Stanley Kubrick- after churning out more accessible studio fare for most of the 50’s (most notably Paths Of Glory), Kubrick was brought on to replace Anthony Mann after star and producer Kirk Douglas didn’t like the cut of his jib. This would be Kubrick’s last, reportedly frustrating attempt to cowtow to the demands of a producing studio before embarking upon his twiceish-a-decade schedule of creating masterpieces with complete creative control. This is the first of a whopping EIGHT Kubrick films that we’ll be chit-chatting about on the countdown.

Douglas, meanwhile, has come a long way from his first countdown appearance. Legend has it that he decided to finance Spartacus himself after being passed over for Ben-Hur, in favor of Charlton Heston. A thrice-Oscar-nominated screen legend, Douglas played everything from a brooding Vincent Van Gogh (Lust For Life) to the plucky comic relief in a Disney film (20,000 Leagues Under The Sea) to our titular hero.

Laurence Olivier, one of the Greatest Actors of the Twentieth Century (or so they say), with fourteen Oscar nominations, two wins (for directing 1948’s Hamlet, and a best actor statue for taking his own direction so well), and two honorary little gold men to boot. With twice as many credits on the stage as on screen, he was generally regarded as the foremost authority on interpretations of his homeboy Shakespeare.

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The epic cast is rounded out by all-stars of the day, including Jean Simmons, Charles Laughton, Tony Curtis, and Peter Ustinov (who inexplicably, to this reviewer at least, won Best Supporting Actor for playing a hapless slave trader in this film, becoming the only actor in a Kubrick feature to win one).

The Story:

Spartacus (Douglas), a Thracian slave, is working in some Libyan mines at the film’s beginning. We see him stop to help an older slave that’s fallen, so naturally he’s whipped- but he’s got spirit, this one, and he ends up biting a guard in the leg. (A Roman guard. This is set in that part when the Roman Empire was sort of listlessly controlling everything with just the senate, not an emperor).

Anyway, he gets sold to Batiatus (Ustinov), who takes him to his camp that trains gladiators, where he generally does a whole bunch of silent brooding while I realize how many parts of Ridley Scott’s Gladiator were cribbed directly from this film. Eventually, a rich, powerful Roman senator named Crassus (Olivier) and his friend Glabrus stop by for a visit, and their wives are bored so they choose some gladiators to fight to the death and entertain them- naturally our stoic hero is among them. Spartacus actually loses his battle, but his opponent flips out and tries unsuccessfully to kill Crassus instead of finishing him off.

Now, this whole time Spartacus has been making gaga-eyes at a woman slave named Varinia (Simmons), even holding her hand when she came round to give him some soup. Aw. But when he sees her being taken away since she’s been sold to Crassus, he flips out, kills the head trainer, and the other gladiators join in and overthrow Batiatus’s entire estate. Now there’s an army of trained gladiators looting the countryside and living it up around Vesuvius. Oops.

The scene shifts to Rome, where Crassus’s main political rival, Gracchus (Laughton), manipulates things to get his buddy Caesar (hey, I know that guy!) in temporary command of the Roman Garrison, while Crassus’s teammate Glabrus leads six cohorts to stomp out Spartacus and co. Crassus is pissed about these developments, and also his favorite new boy slave Antonius (Curtis) has escaped, right when he was talking all menacingly yet seductively to him. What’s a crazy warlord to do?

Glabrus, it turns out, is not so up to snuff- the slave army destroys the entire six cohorts, burns their camp, and sends him back tied to a horse. Spartacus, after not talking for the entire first hour of the film, convinces the entire slave army that they need to organize, free and recruit other slaves, and bribe Sicilian Pirates into taking them out of Italy back to their homelands. Also, Varinia’s escaped from Batiatus and the lovers (who’ve hardly actually spoken to one another, really) are happily reunited.

If only the movie ended there…

The Artisticness:

Did I mention before that this movie is long? Always a curse and a blessing for Kubrick, his films are deliberately paced, which certainly gave Olivier and company plenty of time to flesh characters out, but makes for a long movie, especially when we all kind of know how the slave rebellion is going to end- maybe not specifically, but we’re pretty sure they don’t destroy Rome or anything.

The sets and battle-scenes are certainly pretty impressive for the time- this is even after an entire host of battle-footage was cut out of the finished film because it didn’t test well with audiences.

Douglas’s curious and resolved Spartacus is an all right hero, but you kind of wish he had some sort of flaw to round him out (this was apparently also a source of friction between Kubrick and Douglas as well). I loved Olivier’s Crassus, and I sort of found the Roman senate more intriguing than the war aspects.
And the “I am Spartacus!” scene- yeah, it worked for me. Call me a sap.


Where were we? Oh yeah, the slave army, having grown, destroys an entire legion and makes it to one day’s journey from the very end of Italy- but the Sicilian Pirates have been bought off by Crassus, and they have no where to go, with large armies converging on them from the east and the south.

Spartacus sees that the only viable option is to march on Rome itself, which is exactly what Crassus wants, since the Senate has to basically hand him a dictatorship to get him to lead his legions in defense of the city. It all ends in a big, epic showdown with giant flaming logs rolling down hills and lots of people getting stabbed. The battle’s kind of even until those other two armies show up, and the slaves lose.

Then, of course, the survivors are rounded up and told that they will be allowed to live and sold back into slavery if they just turn over Spartacus to be crucified. But they all claim to be Spartacus. So they ALL GET CRUCIFIED. Wow. Way to go.

Also Crassus buys and tries to woo Varinia because he’s sort of got a Spartacus complex now. Plus he forces Antonius (who had joined the slave army and taught them about poetry and stuff) and Spartacus (who he’s pretty sure is Spartacus, but still is frustratingly unsure about) to fight to the death. Since the winner will be painfully crucified, they both try earnestly to kill the other and spare them, but Spartacus of course “wins.”

Finally Varinia, freed by Gracchus to spite Crassus gets to travel with Batiatus (who’s now anti-Crassus because he had been promised the right to auction off the slave army survivors who instead got crucified) and she gets to see nearly dead Spartacus (and show him his son) on her way out of Rome.


Overall: Should It Be Higher, Lower?

Whoo. What a downer. Personally, I still haven’t seen Ben-Hur or Gone With The Wind or many other historical epic type things, so Spartacus is pretty impressive to me as a technical achievement, and the cast is winning enough to stick out the run-time. So, higher-ish.

The Legacy:

Well, it’s somehow the only Golden Globe Best Picture, Drama winner to not be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, but it won four of ‘em anyway (Ustinov, Art Direction, Costumes, and Cinematography).

Plus the famous scene gets parodied all the time, including a soullessly annoying Pepsi commercial from 2005. Please see a whole list of parodies and homages here (but be warned, TV tropes is a hellish time-vortex that will destroy your brain).

The Best Video Of It On YouTube:

Whole thing starting here (it had to be split into 18 parts!), or you know, the Scene of Scenes:

I bet a lot of dudes in Hollywood at the time said they were extras in that scene. “You know that eighth dude that’s all like ‘I’m Spartacus!’? That was me.”

Leftover Thoughts:

-It’s not as prevalent as his later work, but you can still see Kubrick being Kubrick from time to time in the film. Like when Spartacus drowns his trainer in a giant pot of soup, we get to watch the entire 45 seconds of it in one long take.

-Oh yeah, this is the verbatim voice-over narration that opens the film: “In the last century before the birth of the new faith called Christianity, which was destined to overthrow the pagan tyranny of Rome and bring about a new society…” ‘Cause we all know Christianity turned out to be infallibly awesome, at all times.

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