#466) Spartacus (1960)

#466) Spartacus (1960)

OR “Gladiator Salvation”

Directed by Stanley Kubrick

Written by Dalton Trumbo…wait he’s actually credited? Oh, well then…

Written by Dalton Trumbo. Based on the novel by Howard Fast.

Class of 2017

NOTE: The only widely available version of “Spartacus” is the 1991 restoration by Robert Harris, which reinstates sequences cut after the film’s premiere, as well as some of Kubrick’s more epic battles scenes cut after previews.

The Plot: It’s the 1st Century BC, and Rome has become a collapsing empire in danger of becoming a dictatorship (sound familiar?). A slave named Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) is recruited by Lentulus Batiatus (Peter Ustinov) to train as a gladiator and eventually be sold to the Roman elite. After a fight staged for visiting Roman Senator Marcus Crassus (Laurence Olivier), Spartacus incites a riot and helps his fellow gladiators escape. With a growing army of former slaves, including servant girl Varinia (Jean Simmons) and Crassus’ slave Antoninus (Tony Curtis), Spartacus vows to end slavery and restore glory to the Roman Empire. Good luck with that.

Why It Matters: The NFR praises Kubrick’s “masterful direction”, as well as the film’s “sheer grandeur and remarkable cast”. The writeup also singles out the film’s efforts to end the Hollywood Blacklist of the ’50s by crediting blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo.

But Does It Really?: “Spartacus” is definitely a classic, but not quite one of the untouchables of American films. “Spartacus” differentiates itself from the era’s religious epics (“Ben-Hur“, “The Ten Commandments“, etc.) by being more political and emphasizing character over spectacle. In addition to its talented cast, the storytelling skills of Stanley Kubrick and Dalton Trumbo help this film’s 200 minutes clip along better than most shorter films. Despite its current status as Kubrick’s outlier film, “Spartacus” is still worth a view, and deserves a spot on the NFR.

Everybody Gets One: Producer Edward Lewis spent most of the ’60s backing movies for Kirk Douglas and John Frankenheimer (and both for “Seven Days in May”). Lewis’ career continued into the ’80s, with Best Picture Oscar nominee “Missing” and Emmy winning miniseries “The Thorn Birds”. Also making their sole NFR appearance is prolific actor Jean Simmons, appearing in “Spartacus” the same year she starred in “Elmer Gantry” with Burt Lancaster.

Wow, That’s Dated: HD transfers of old movies are great, but they definitely let you know where the real location ends and the matte painting begins.

Seriously, Oscars?:  The biggest hit of 1960 (and Universal Pictures’ biggest hit to date), “Spartacus” received six Oscar nominations, and won four: Art Direction, Cinematography, Costume Design, and Supporting Actor for Peter Ustinov. Despite winning the Golden Globe for Best Drama, “Spartacus” failed to receive a Best Picture nomination, one of the rare Globe winners to do so.

Other notes 

  • Kirk Douglas is the first to admit that he optioned “Spartacus” out of spite for not getting the lead role in “Ben-Hur”. He bought the rights to the Fast novel, producing the film under his company Bryna Productions (named after his mother), and convinced Universal to back the film after signing on Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton, and Peter Ustinov.
  • Douglas essentially tricked Olivier, Laughton, and Ustinov to join the film by showing each of them a different version of the script that emphasized their respective characters. The final script favored Olivier’s Crassus, which upset Laughton, who remained prickly and difficult throughout the shoot. Ustinov, an acclaimed playwright himself, volunteered to rewrite Laughton’s dialogue to his satisfaction.
  • Anthony Mann was originally announced to direct, and filmed the opening sequences seen in the final film. Douglas, however, felt that Mann was intimidated by the scope of the film, and replaced him after two weeks of shooting with Stanley Kubrick, whom Douglas had worked with on “Paths of Glory“. “Spartacus” is notable for being the only film Kubrick ever made without complete creative control, which he vowed never to do again after his tense working relationship with Kirk Douglas on this film.
  • Although Dalton Trumbo had been blacklisted since 1947, he continued penning screenplays under various pseudonyms and fronts (most notably “Roman Holiday“). Trumbo was brought in to replace author Howard Fast, and planned on using the alias “Sam Jackson”, but Kirk Douglas insisted that Trumbo receive the credit himself. This occurred the same year that Trumbo received on-screen credit for Otto Preminger’s “Exodus”, although it’s unclear which film made this groundbreaking decision first.
  • Peter Ustinov is definitely this movie’s MVP. Sure, he’s the comic relief, but Batiatus gets the most complex characterization: he’s essentially middle management; authoritarian to his gladiators, cowardly towards his superiors.
  • The first fight sequence between Kirk Douglas and Woody Strode is very impressive. The fight choreography brings out the characters, and it has a wonderful tension throughout, plus a surprise ending.
  • Despite the backstage drama, Charles Laughton is a delight as Senator Gracchus. It’s nice to see that Laughton wasn’t completely disillusioned by his “Night of the Hunter” experience.
  • No offense to John Gavin, but this is now the third NFR film that I’ve forgotten he’s in. And he’s playing Julius Caesar for god sakes! Et tu, “Spartacus”?
  • The most infamous of the restored footage is a scene in which Crassus subtly seduces Antoninus while being given a bath. I could see how The Code wouldn’t be open to a discussion of “eating oysters” vs. “eating snails”. The scene’s original audio went missing, so Tony Curtis redubbed his own dialogue, while Anthony Hopkins filled in for the late Laurence Olivier. Hopkins’ spot-on impression of Larry bumps his NFR standing to .
  • The battle sequences were filmed in Spain, Kubrick’s only win in his desire to shoot overseas (Universal wanted to prove they could make an epic without leaving Hollywood). The battle itself is an impressive undertaking, though the restored footage makes it all a bit more gruesome (Spartacus cuts a guy’s arm off! Is this where “Anchorman” got that from?).
  • “Spartacus” is filled with allusions to the blacklist, the “I’m Spartacus” scene being a prime example. Watching a ragtag group of former slaves refuse to “name names” adds to the power of this iconic sequence. Side Note: I’m pretty sure that’s Paul Frees dubbing the soldier who announces Crassus’ offer.
  • This is the second movie where Laurence Olivier chastises Jean Simmons for not loving him. The first was when Olivier played Hamlet to Simmons’ Ophelia. What a fun reunion this must have been.
  • We have to wait until the end, but Kirk Douglas finally gets one of his famous clenched-teeth outbursts. This is preceded by a similar outburst from Olivier, apparently channeling Al Pacino.
  • Fact: My Tony Curtis impression stems from his line “I love you, Spartacus”.
  • Ultimately, Spartacus has the same message as “Hamilton”: Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?
  • I’m confused: I thought this movie was about Agador Spartacus.

Legacy 

  • As previously stated, Stanley Kubrick went on to only direct films in which he had total control over the production. His follow-up to “Spartacus” is the significantly less epic, but significantly more Kubrick “Lolita”. Although Kubrick distanced himself from “Spartacus” for the rest of his life, he did give the 1991 restoration his blessing and even gave a few directorial notes.
  • “Spartacus” doesn’t get the parody treatment too often, but when it does, it always involves someone shouting “I’m Spartacus!”
  • This film (along with “Exodus”) helped end the Hollywood Blacklist, and restored Dalton Trumbo’s career. And Hollywood never ostracized a creative type due to their political beliefs ever again…
  • Shortly after my last post about a Kirk Douglas film, Douglas passed away at the age of 103. Looking back on his career in 2014, he considered “Spartacus” one of his best films.

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