• Spartacus

    By Stephen Farber

    Of all the actors to try their hand at producing, Kirk Douglas may have been the most audacious. Spartacus illustrates his taste for unorthodox material, and the story behind the making of the movie reveals a great deal about Douglas’ feisty, combative spirit. The movie actually came into being because of a part he didn’t get to play. Douglas craved the title role in Ben Hur, but director William Wyler wanted Charlton Heston as the stalwart hero and offered Douglas the choice role of Ben Hur’s enemy, the villainous Messala. Refusing to play second banana, Douglas decided to make his own Roman epic to show up Wyler and company. As he admitted, “that was what spurred me to do it, in a childish way—the ‘I’ll-show-them’ sort of thing.”

    Douglas’ answer to Ben Hur, made under the aegis of his Bryna Production Company, was unlike any other biblical epic of the decade. For one thing, it had no religious overtones at all. Douglas purchased the rights to Howard Fast’s controversial 1952 novel, which was popular reading in Communist circles. To adapt Fast’s story of an early Roman slave revolt, Douglas hired Dalton Trumbo, one of the members of the Hollywood Ten, who had gone to jail for refusing to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee and had been forced to write scripts under a pseudonym for a decade afterwards. Douglas helped to destroy the Hollywood blacklist by allowing Trumbo to use his own name in the credits for Spartacus. (The screenwriter introduced one sly touch tweaking the McCarthy-era watchdogs. Near the end of the movie, after the revolt is crushed, the tyrannical general, Crassus, announces ominously, “In every city and province, lists of the disloyal have been compiled.”) Hedda Hopper denounced Douglas for hiring Trumbo, and the American Legion picketed the movie’s Los Angeles premiere. Douglas’ cheeky response was to hire Trumbo to write two more movies.

    At $12 million Spartacus was one of the costliest movies of that period. The budget began to escalate when director Anthony Mann was fired after shooting had already begun and replaced by 31-year-old-Stanley Kubrick, who had directed Douglas’ production of Paths of Glory two years earlier. Kubrick was a hired gun on the movie, not an auteur, but he showed his talent in a number of inventive sequences. The gladiatorial bouts, sometimes shockingly violent, have a vivid immediacy, and the climactic battle between slaves and Roman legions—with some 10,000 extras filling the scene—has a truly breathtaking grandeur.

    Kubrick worked well with the high-powered cast. Douglas has often been underrated as an actor. Subtlety was not his strong suit, but his no-holds-barred intensity gives a genuine emotional charge to Spartacus’ impassioned tirades. However, the real vitality in the moive comes from the three British actors—Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton, and Peter Ustinov—playing characters far more conniving than the noble Spartacus. Aided by Trumbo’s sharp dialogue, these three old pros capture the down-and-dirty machinations of power politics in ancient Rome—or contemporary Washington, for that matter.

    Ustinov won an Academy Award for his polished portrayal of the obsequious, cowardly, wily slave-trader Batiatus, but he is matched by Olivier as the haughty Crassus and Laughton as the pragmatic Republican Senator, Gracchus. (The scene in which Ustinov and Laughton discuss the virtues of corpulence is a witty gem.) The film was also honored for its spectacular cinematography, art direction, and costumes, though Alex North’s marvelously varied score was regrettably overlooked.

    In 1991, Robert A. Harris, who had also supervised the restoration of Lawrence of Arabia, brought out a fully restored Spartacus. A few moments of graphic violence were retrieved, along with a suggestive homosexual scene, in which Olivier’s Crassus is bathed by one of his slaves (Tony Curtis) and hints at his Catholic sexual tastes by explaining that a gentleman may harbor a yen for both snails and oysters. (The censors considered the innuendoes too racy but did suggest changing the comparison to “artichokes and truffles.”) The daring ventures into eroticism and violence both prefigured and paved the way for later epics like Lawrence of Arabia and Gladiator, films that would be inconceivable had Spartacus not brought an adult sensibility and genuine filmmaking flair to a genre previously steeped in piety and puerility.

    Stephen Farber is a Senior Editor at Movieline and author of several books on film, including Hollywood Dynasties (with Marc Green) and Outrageous Conduct: Art, Ego, and the Twilight Zone Case.

10 comments

  • By Casey Winn
    June 27, 2009
    04:45 PM

    I enjoyed your essay immensely. Well written and very informative. I have this Criterion Collection Version on DVD and think it is the utmost best one to get. The only correctional comment I would to say is that the aspect ration is 2.20 Super 70. The same favorite aspect ration David Lean used in many of his films. Sincerely, Casey Winn, Composer
    Reply
    • By A.L. Hern
      February 22, 2014
      03:55 AM

      Ratio, not "ration," and you mean Super Technirama 70.
  • By Chris Corcoran
    March 12, 2010
    08:56 PM

    I love Spartacus and show it to my sixth graders every year. I just noticed a Blu-ray edition of Spartacus is coming out in May. Will Criterion offer their own Blu-ray version?
    Reply
  • By David Greene
    May 29, 2010
    04:37 PM

    Having read numerous critiques of the recent Blu Ray release of "Spartacus", I wanted to add my voice to the call for a Criterion Blu Ray of this film. The superb quality of the Criterion "Spartacus" regular DVD edition suggests that the company's well-known attention to quality would make their HD version highly desirable.
    Reply
  • By Paul Fuller
    November 08, 2010
    12:00 AM

    It should go without saying. Criterion really MUST consider releasing it's own BLURAY version of "Spartacus". I have seen glimpses of the recently-released Universal BluRay version. Not a patch on the Criterion DVD which remains the benchmark. PLEASE, Criterion ! Even customers from Down Under ( yes, many of us have region compatible players ) are breathlessly waiting.
    Reply
  • By Vince
    November 23, 2010
    03:40 AM

    Count me in as another fan of the film who would love to see a Criterion Blu-ray version released for it. Please make it happen sooner rather than later!
    Reply
  • By Dan
    September 18, 2011
    01:38 AM

    I too think it would be superbly swell if you re-released Spartacus on blu ray. You have one unsatisfied customer until you release Kubrick's first epic on blu ray. :)
    Reply
  • By Mike
    October 15, 2011
    03:52 PM

    Unspeakably beautiful film.
    Reply
  • By Cristina
    March 02, 2013
    09:47 AM

    Why is it that unbelievably talented actresses are often still overlooked in essays and commentaries? Much of the film's beautiful delicacy comes from the scenes in which Jean Simmons appears. Through Simmons' portrayal of Varinia, not only does she balance the film from becoming an overwhelming testosterone party, the male characters become multi-layered and are permitted to adopt a sensitivity which only strengthens their already powerful perfomances. I love this film and I enjoyed the article but come on now. Every major actor is mentioned except THE 4TH British actor in this film who happens to be a woman as well as one of the true talents to ever appear onscreen. This article confirms, once again, how ridiculously underrated Simmons was.
    Reply
  • By lacanic
    November 30, 2013
    04:13 AM

    So....are: getting Spartacus soon...
    Reply