I thought today would be quite fitting to review this classic film seeing as its main star, Kirk Douglas turns 100. Douglas had many great films but it is inarguable that his most memorable is in fact Spartacus, released in 1960 by Universal and directed by the legendary and controversial Stanley Kubrick.
The film is not solely notable for its quality but also for the political circumstances surrounding it. The film’s screenplay was written by Dalton Trumbo, a brilliant writer but also a noted communist and labour activist (the screenplay was also based off the novel that was based off the real Third Servile Revolt led by Spartacus written by Howard Fast, also a member of the American Communist Party).
Before 1947, Trumbo was one of the most sought-after writers in Hollywood but once he was put on trial by HUAC (the House Un-American Activities Committee) he became a pariah in Hollywood and started writing under various pseudonyms. Using a writer like him during McCarthy era America could pose several risks for Douglas, but he used him anyways.
Writing under the pseudonym Sam Jackson, Trumbo completed the film and delivered to Douglas a terrific screenplay. Back on the set, Douglas had fired the original director, Anthony Mann, replacing him with Stanley Kubrick, a notably adversarial and cold director.
Infuriated by Kubrick’s constant rewrites of the script, Trumbo promptly quit. In a courageous gesture, Douglas knew the only way to get him to return was to give Trumbo on-screen credit. Trumbo accepted and returned, knowing this would end the Hollywood blacklist that forced him and many other Hollywood writers into the shadows.
The movie did just that when it was released and attended by President Kennedy himself, who crossed the picket line of right-wing groups protesting the movie to go see it, effectively ending the blacklist. This story is immortalized by the 2015 film Trumbo, with Bryan Cranston playing Trumbo, I highly reccomend it; future movie review perhaps?
The film follows our title character, Spartacus (Douglas) and his slave revolt against the Roman empire in the first century BC. After having biting a guard, Spartacus is tied to a rock at the mine he works at and is sentenced to lay there until his death. Spotted by slimy Roman businessman Lanista Lentulus Batiatus (portrayed by Peter Ustinov), he is purchased and taken to Capua be trained in the art of killing to become a gladiator.
The story truly takes a turn when while fighting in the arena in front of Crassus (portrayed by Laurence Olivier), a sociopath Roman senator who is aiming to rise the ranks in Rome and become its dictator, Draba, a fellow gladiator and slave, decides to spare Spartacus upon having the opportunity to kill him and attacks Crassus instead. Draba is then killed by a guard and Crassus.
This brutal killing and disregard of human life prompts Spartacus to start his slave revolt against the massive Roman empire and the corrupt senators that are behind it.
For a 1960s film, the ending is very unconventional (Spolier!). Spartacus is left to be crucified after having been identified, denied victory with only the hope from Varinia (a slave and Spartacus’ love interest in the story) that his ideas will survive in the lives of his newborn son and fellow soldiers.
Throughout the picture, we can see glimpses of Trumbo and Fast’s ideologies. For one, there is the idea of Spartacus as the “people’s hero” and more notably, the famed “I am Spartacus” scene. During the McCarthy communist witch hunts both Fast and Trumbo refused to out their fellow communist comrades and this scene comes as an ode to that and a jab to those who so dogmatically ran the HUAC.
The film itself is relatively political as I have outlined and the first time I watched Spartacus it went way over my head. It was made in a tumultuous time of still rampant anti-communist rhetoric and a budding civil rights movement. In that context, the film’s social commentary is strong, latching onto concepts of slavery as a criticism of the treatment of African Americans.
Other than the politics surrounding the film, which I have abundantly touched upon, this film also mixes style with its substance with superb acting, set design and some meticulously choreographed fight scenes (all culminating with the climactic defeat of the slave army).
Despite some small flaws (like the length, which makes for poor pacing at times) and some undeveloped subplots, Spartacus is a film worth watching not only because of its aesthetic but also because of its themes and the history that surrounds it. That is the stuff of Hollywood legends. So to commemorate Mr. Douglas’ 100th birthday, I recommend you sit back and slap on this epic classic.
Feature Image courtesy of Univseral