WolfmanOz at the Movies #67


Those who about to die salute you

With the introduction of cinemascope/widescreen in 1953 starting with The Robe, cinema saw a growing popularity of Biblical/historical epics throughout the 1950s and 1960s. One of the best, and, certainly one of the most discussed was Stanley Kubrick’s 1960 film Spartacus.

The film was inspired by the life story of Spartacus the leader of a gladiator and slave revolt against the Roman Empire in 73-71BC. It starred Kirk Douglas in the title role, Laurence Olivier as the Roman general and politician Marcus Licinius Crassus, Charles Laughton as Senator Gracchus, Peter Ustinov as a slave trader, John Gavin as a young Julius Caesar, Jean Simmons as Spartacus’ love interest, and Tony Curtis as a runaway slave..

Spartacus was also one of those films where the back-story of it’s making was almost as interesting as the story told on the screen. With star and producer Kirk Douglas providing doctored scripts to each major cast member emphasising their role to be greater than it actually was. The intense dislike that Laurence Olivier and Charles Laughton had for each other. The script which was written (and ultimately credited to) by blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo which Douglas triumphed in breaking the Hollywood blacklist; and the firing of director Anthony Mann after one weeks filming (the opening mining pit scene was filmed by him). Mann was replaced by a very young and inexperienced Stanley Kubrick who had impressed Douglas immensely with their working together on Paths Of Glory (1957) and which Douglas assumed he would be able to manage him – this did not transpire.

Kubrick quickly fell out with veteran cinematographer Russell Metty who complained about Kubrick’s unusually precise and detailed instructions for the film’s camerawork, whilst also disagreeing with Kubrick’s use of light. On one occasion, he threatened to quit, to which Kubrick told him: “You can do your job by sitting in your chair and shutting up. I’ll be the director of photography.” Metty won the Academy Award for Best Cinematography for this film !

Kubrick also antagonised Douglas by removing most of his dialogue in the first 40 minutes where Spartacus was being trained in the gladiator school. Douglas was considering firing Kubrick but the rushes being produced were of an exceptional quality although Douglas did remark that Kubrick was “a talented shit”.

Kubrick would later distance himself from the film. Although his personal mark is distinct in the final picture, his contract did not give him complete control over the filming, the only occasion he did not exercise such control over any of his films.

But despite all this, the end result was a historical epic that ranks with the best of them in its telling of an inspiring story.

The film does have its weaknesses ie. the romance between Spartacus and Varinia is very cliched in a very typical Hollywood fashion and the character of Spartacus is almost saintly in its depiction. But the production and cinematography is magnificent and the political manoeuvrings of the Roman senators Crassus and Gracchus (no doubt helped by the actors antipathy towards each other) is endlessly fascinating.

I do not know, in the climatic battle scene, if this is how the Roman legions were deployed when on advancement, but the depiction here is superbly staged.

Following Spartacus’s utter defeat by the legions of Crassus the surviving slaves are given the offer of pardon (and a return to enslavement) if they identify Spartacus, living or dead. Every surviving man responds by shouting “I’m Spartacus !”. 

As a result, Crassus has them all sentenced to death by cruxifixction along the way between Capua and Rome, including Spartacus as the last slave to be crucified.

Over the years, the strength of some of the performances – especially Olivier’s fire, Douglas’ strength, and Laughton’s mild amusement at the foibles of humankind continue to stand out. Plus there’s a delightful supporting performance by Peter Ustinov, who upstages everybody when he is onscreen (he won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor).

Kubrick in a sense out-DeMilled, the old master in spectacle, without ever permitting the story or the people who are at the core of the drama to become lost in the epic narrative.

Enjoy.

and the tease for next weeks post . . . Hope is a good thing.


15 responses to “WolfmanOz at the Movies #67”

  1. caveman Avatar
    caveman

    Just want to settle it now…….I am Spartacus!….hmmm ok.

  2. Boambee John Avatar
    Boambee John

    Wolfman

    Bob Hope?

  3. WolfmanOz Avatar
    WolfmanOz

    Boambee John says:
    April 20, 2023 at 1:00 pm Edit
    Wolfman

    Bob Hope?

    Not even close.

  4. Boambee John Avatar
    Boambee John

    Oh, well, wait and see!

  5. NFA Avatar
    NFA

    A great review of a great film WolfmanOz.

  6. Alamak! Avatar
    Alamak!

    “Its a Wonderful Shawshank Life Redemption”

  7. johanna Avatar
    johanna

    Having studied both ancient history and Latin for a few years, sword and sandal movies are not favourites of mine. They are absurdly wrong about almost everything, more like sci fi than history. The costumes and props are usually ludicrous, for one thing.

    But, one or two of them transcend the schlock, and Spartacus is not at all bad.

    It’s a pity that Hollywood didn’t seriously engage with ancient history, as there is a ton of great material there. It sure beats the umpteenth, ‘woke’ version of some superhero franchise.

    Despite mountains of copyright-free material to work with, the money laundering machine has no interest in content any more.

  8. Bruce of Newcastle Avatar
    Bruce of Newcastle

    Marvellous fillum, although I’ve only watched it once. Kubrick is one of those guys who could whip his peons to glory and they’d hate him for it (but then gratuitously accept their Academy Awards).

    I’m amused that Hollywood writers are going on strike again.

    Hollywood Writers Vote to Authorize Strike, Threatening to Walk Off the Job Over Compensation Dispute with Studios (18 Apr)

    Given how much woke rubbish these creatures have been producing lately I can only think this is an improvement.

  9. WolfmanOz Avatar
    WolfmanOz

    Maybe with all the furore re Netflix’s Cleopatra they could remake Spartacus with a black lead – and then have some tie-in to the slave trade to the Americas to give it a contemporary woke vision.

  10. jupes Avatar
    jupes

    Watched this movie earlier this year as an afternoon matinee. Great way to see this fantastic movie. Thanks Wolfie!

  11. Louis Litt Avatar

    Craking movie
    Now for the real drama – Olivier V Laughton – Olivier – hmmm – I do not know much about Laughton – So do give me the info – Laughton cracking actor – especially as capt bligh and the hunchback – best version of Mutiny and Hunch of Notr Dame (To the Statue) – Oh to be made of stone like you – Oh the Suffering the suffering – its too much for me.

  12. Elizabeth (Lizzie) Beare Avatar
    Elizabeth (Lizzie) Beare

    Spartacus had a lot of charismatic verve and could readily gain followers. At the end, as he roved around Italy, he proved himself to be not much of a tactician. Of course, all cards were stacked against him no matter what he did.

    Romanitas, the love of things Roman to the point of a false representation of them, was part of the story of Rome, and this movie engages in a 1950’s version of that. The ‘we who are about to die’ fight was superb in its humanity. Get a load of Kirk Douglas’ deep chin cleft and other attributes of solid masculinity as the unspoken tension builds between the two opponents as the start. Trying to get one’s head around how a crowd could watch with indifference such brutality is difficult – less difficult though if you attend a Saturday arvo bullfight in Seville. People munch their way through some awful cruelty there from plastic packs of chips, just as the Romans used to do gobbling lark’s tongues while watching humans killing each other as bull-warriors.

    Overall, the movie is a noble and civilising effort. Well done to Kubrick and the cast.

  13. Morsie Avatar
    Morsie

    Read a story once about one of Douglas’ sons trying to establish a career as a standup comic.At one gig it wasnt going well and he tried the “dont you know who I am ?shtick.
    Apparently all the audience responded with teh I am Spartacus line.

  14. Muddy Avatar
    Muddy

    I’m a touch late to the the thread, but for what it’s worth, I’ll add my thoughts:

    I do not know, in the climatic battle scene, if this is how the Roman legions were deployed when on advancement, but the depiction here is superbly staged.

    While this is not my forte, it is an interest of mine. The question of Roman tactics depends upon the time period: Later in the Empire, the Roman armies had a greater dependence on local auxiliaries and mercenaries, both of which would have been committed first, prior to expending the more ‘valuable’ trained legionaries. These auxiliaries were generally lighter armed, and were often specialised light cavalry, slingers, or light skirmishers. The point being these type of troops would not have advanced frontally to stand and fight. The Romans themselves initially had spearmen and dart throwers, both of which would have thrown their weapons from protection behind the front ranks into the front ranks of the enemy at roughly the final range we see in the film, and then filter back to the rear before the files close.

    One wonders why the Romans chose to approach uphill (ceding the command and missile advantage), why they did not extend their line (to the sides; they had plenty of troops in infantry squares), and where the Roman cavalry on the flanks was? (I’ve only watched the clip featured here, so perhaps I’m jumping the gun).

    The approach of the Roman front ranks is extraordinarily loose, and unless my eyes are deceiving me, the Romans are armed with short swords (something like Hispaniola Gladiensis? Spelling?), which is designed to be used in a close formation, in conjunction with their shields and pilae (spears).

  15. Muddy Avatar
    Muddy

    Off-topic, but a quick research scan suggests that one reason the slave revolt was able to gain momentum was that the veteran Roman legions were away from Italy at the time, and that in the final battle, in 71 B.C., the slaves had both Germanic and Gallic allies on the battlefield with them.

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