Thursday, October 07, 2010


Original G

By Matt Maul
Today marks the 50th anniversary of Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus. The 1960 epic set in ancient Rome boasts an all-star cast led by Kirk Douglas and includes: Tony Curtis, Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov, Jean Simmons and John Gavin. Kubrick was called in to direct replacing Anthony Mann when creative differences with Douglas (who also was producing) caused him to be removed from the project. This may certainly explain why Spartacus doesn’t seem like a traditional Kubrick film. Unlike Kubrick’s other efforts (especially his later films) which tend to observe characters from a dispassionate distance, in Spartacus there's a stronger feeling of being ensconced in the narrative.

It’s interesting to ponder how the film would have turned out had Mann stayed on the project. 1964’s Fall of the Roman Empire, helmed by Mann, may provide some insight to that question. While certainly worth a look, Fall of the Roman Empire drags on and musters no more emotion than a boring history lecture as opposed to Spartacus which successfully drawings viewers into the drama.

Ironically, even though its storyline more closely follows that of the Mann film, Gladiator (2000) is often compared to Spartacus. While Spartacus may be dated with action scenes (though elaborate for their day) that are tame by today’s CGI generated standards, Gladiator suffers, in part, by seeming blissfully unaware that it asks the audience to root for a questionable status quo. Both Spartacus and Russell Crowe’s Maximus are martyrs to their cause. However, Spartacus dies trying to lead his army of followers in a futile effort to flee Roman oppression whereas Maximus gives his life to restore a Roman order that functions to buttress that oppression (but who cares, there’s a lot of blood, some neat decapitations, and lions).

Spartacus starts with its title character, a slave, about to be killed for attacking one of his captors when the owner of a gladiator school, Lentulus Batiatus (played with appropriately craven sycophantism by Oscar winner Peter Ustinov) happens by. Batiatus has an eye for talent and purchases Spartacus as the latest addition to his “portfolio.” Meanwhile, Marcus Licinius Crassus (Laurence Olivier) is locked in a bitter political battle with Sempronius Gracchus (Charles Laughton) for control of the Roman Senate. This contest heats up when Spartacus leads a slave revolt at the gladiator school that spills out onto the surrounding countryside and presents a potential threat to Rome. The film makes it clear that the Rome is never in serious danger. But this doesn’t stop Crassus and Gracchus from using the fear of a slave revolt, like pieces on a chess board, to advance their own respective political ambitions. Olivier and Laughton bring a matter-of-fact air to their scenes which give the film a contemporary feel that other period pieces often lack. Kubrick should receive a share of the credit for that as well.

Producer Douglas made it possible for screenwriter Dalton Trumbo to receive his first on-screen credit in Spartacus since before his original blacklisting. Thus, the motives of the major antagonists in the film would seem partly informed by Trumbo’s worldview based on his own past experiences.

Along with the geo-political struggle is a love triangle involving Spartacus, Crassus and slave Varinia (Jean Simmons). Of course, “love” may not be the right word for Varina and Crassus — who purchases Varina for his collection. On the other hand, Varinia’s affection for Spartacus is given voluntarily. This is a revelation for both of them as “free will” was a term not previously listed in their personal lexicons. To Crassus, Spartacus, Varinia and Antonisus are symbolic of Rome itself — something that must be conquered and controlled.

Widely known is the omission of the scene in Spartacus where Crassus delivers his infamous “snails and oysters” speech, implying bisexuality, as an overture to another of his slaves, Antoninus (Tony Curtis). It was added to the restored version. Because no sound track was saved from the original shoot (indicating that there was probably no serious intention of including it in the finished film) the scene was redubbed with Tony Curtis and Anthony Hopkins — who spoke Crassus's lines as Laurence Olivier had died.

In that vein, it’s notable that Crassus "loses" Antoninus to Spartacus as well. While many cinematic discussions have explored the homosexual undertones of Ben-Hur and Messala in the film Ben-Hur, it’s worth asking if there is a similar dynamic to the relationship between Spartacus and Antoninus as well. During their final fight to the death (staged by Crassus) Antoninus tells Spartacus, “I love you, Spartacus, as I loved my own father.” To which Spartacus relies, “I love my son that I'll never see.” These qualifiers seem extraneous given the grave circumstances under which they're uttered. One wonders if the writers, almost as an afterthought, added “my own father” and “like my son" so as to prevent any other possible interpretation (which may mean that there is).

Just as the chariot race is to Ben Hur, the fight between Spartacus and Draba (Woody Strode) is the centerpiece of Spartacus. Ralphie Cifaretto’s (of The Sopranos) complaints about inaccurate Roman hairstyles aside, the scene rightfully ranks as one of the best remembered cinematic battles. It’s hard to imagine any such scene from Gladiator that audiences might specifically look out for upon subsequent viewings.

As stated earlier, this isn’t a traditional Kubrick film. In fact, Kubrick himself never really thought of it as his own and reportedly wasn’t happy with some of its more melodramatic elements. To be sure, there are moments of heavy-handed sentimentality, such as when the captured slaves all stand up and proclaim “I am Spartacus” to Crassus, which one doesn’t find in Paths of Glory or Full Metal Jacket.

On the other hand, a freed Varinia looking up at Spartacus, sentenced to crucifixion and tied to a cross (bookending his posture from the film's first scene), showing him their son, and praying that he “please die soon,” is a bombshell of an emotional ending which one won’t find in Paths of Glory or Full Metal Jacket either.


NOTE: Because the timing of this write-up coincides with the recent death of Tony Curtis, I thought I’d include one of my all-time favorite film exchanges. It's from Sweet Smell of Success starring Burt Lancaster (playing Hunsecker) and Tony Curtis (who played Falco). This dialogue could very well be describing the character Curtis played in Spartacus and may unintentionally hit on why he never got the all the accolades as an actor he deserved:
SENATOR: Are you an actor, Mr. Falco?
GIRL: That’s what I was thinking. Are you, Mr. Falco?
Hunsecker half-turns in Sidney’s direction, amused.
HUNSECKER: How did you guess it, Miss James?
GIRL: He’s so pretty, that’s how.

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I feel so fortunate that when I saw Spartacus for the first time it was in a theater on a huge screen when they re-released after its restoration. I wished they still did that more with older films like they used to instead of restricting those revivals to major cities only. Beats the hell out of wasting screens on the chance to see another Jackass movie, this time in 3-D.
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