Directed by: Stanley Kubrick.
Written by: Dalton Trumbo based on the novel by Howard Fast
Starring: Kirk Douglas (Spartacus), Laurence Olivier (Crassus), Jean Simmons (Varinia), Charles Laughton (Gracchus), Peter Ustinov (Batiatus), John Gavin (Julius Caesar), Nina Foch (Helena Glabrus), John Ireland (Crixus), Herbert Lom (Tigranes Levantus), John Dall (Marcus Publius Glabrus), Charles McGraw (Marcellus), Joanna Barnes (Claudia Marius), Harold J. Stone (David), Woody Strode (Draba), Peter Brocco (Ramon), Paul Lambert (Gannicus), Robert J. Wilke (Guard Captain), Nick Dennis (Dionysius), John Hoyt (Caius), Frederick Worlock (Laelius), Tony Curtis (Antoninus).
Stanley Kubrick never really liked Spartacus. He didn’t really like the screenplay – which he had no control over, and felt had too much moralizing in it. He had conflicts with both his cinematographer – who was frustrated that Kubrick didn’t let him set up the shots the way he wanted to – and star/producer Kirk Douglas. But Kubrick couldn’t very well quit the big budget movie – he had already been fired from One Eyed Jacks – a Western with Marlon Brando (which Brando ended up directing himself) so he couldn’t really afford to get fired or quit another high profile movie over more conflicts with a major star. So Kubrick directed Spartacus – and made one of the better sword and sandals epics of its time. But the film doesn’t really bare much resemblance to Kubrick’s other work. It is the only feature in which you could say that Kubrick was simply a director-for-hire. He more than ably directs this epic – but from an auteur point-of-view it’s the least interesting of Kubrick’s major films (which is all of them, save for Fear & Desire and Killer’s Kiss). As an old school, Hollywood epic Spartacus is fine entertainment. As a Kubrick film, it’s sadly lacking.
The film tells the story of Spartacus (Douglas) – a slave in the Roman Empire before the time of Christ. When the film opens, Spartacus fights back against one of his slave drivers, and is going to be starved to death to serve as an example to the rest of the slaves. But he is “saved” by Batiatus (Peter Ustinov) – a man who runs a “gladiator” school. Spartacus will still be a slave – and when he graduates from school, he will be a gladiator who will have to fight to death against other slaves for the amusement of his “betters”. He meets one of these betters first hand when Crassus (Laurence Olivier) shows up at the school, and demands an exposition of the gladiators for his and his guests, amusement. Spartacus has to fight against Draba (Woody Strode) – who beats Spartacus – but refuses to kill him, leading to his own execution. It is not long after that Spartacus leads a slave uprising – breaking him and Batiatus’ other slaves out of captivity. The go across the Roman countryside, picking up more slaves. They know they will eventually be confronted by the Roman army, but are willing to fight their way to freedom if necessary. Meanwhile, Crassus is involved in his own power struggle against Gracchus (Charles Laughton) – the leader of the Roman Senate. And Spartacus also finds time to fall in love with Variana (Jean Simmons) – a slave woman the bi-sexual Crassus also lusts after.
As a Roman epic, Spartacus is well done. The photography is spectacular – for Kubrick, this was his first color feature, and he uses colors like an old master. The epic fight sequences – both inside the gladiator ring, and on the fields – are exciting, and as well done as anything of its kind. The movie more than holds its own against other epics of the time – like Quo Vadis, Ben-Hur or El Cid – and is in fact, slightly better than them. It benefits greatly from its cast. Douglas is the square jawed, and if we’re being honest rather dull hero. But the rest of the cast – especially Olivier, Laughton and Ustinov (in an Oscar winning role) are having so much fun that is rather contagious. All of them were great actors – capable of delivering remarkable and subtle performances – but all three were also much more fun when they go over the top – and they’re smart enough to know that is what is required of them here. Jean Simmons on the other hand is used as little more than window dressing – as sadly, seemed to happen far too often in her career.
I’ve seen Spartacus three times now – twice in high school, the first time as I made my way through Kubrick’s films the first time, and then as part of an ancient civilizations class. In the 15 years since, I haven’t really felt the urge to revisit the film – which is unusual for a Kubrick film. Now that I’ve seen it for a third time, I feel that I had it right way back in high school. It isn’t that Spartacus isn’t a good film – it is in fact a very good film. It’s just that it isn’t really much of a Kubrick film. It’s the only one of his major works that I don’t think I could identify him as the director of the film. It’s a fine epic – entertaining, well made with some great supporting performances. It’s also overlong, and Kubrick was right in complaining about too much moralizing in the speeches. Spartacus is a fine epic to be sure – the kind that Hollywood has sadly forgotten how to make. Having said that, it’s also the type of film that if I hadn’t been directed by Kubrick, I probably would have watched once, enjoyed, and then forgotten about.