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.


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