Movie Review: Spartacus (1960)

“They trained him to kill for their pleasure. . .but they trained him a little too well. . .”

2 Stars
Spartacus (1960)

Spartacus (1960)


Director: Stanley Kubrick

Cast: Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Jean Simmons

Synopsis: The story of Spartacus, a lowly slave who led a revolt against his Roman masters.

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Kirk Douglas was so aggrieved at losing the part of Ben-Hur in MGM’s monumental epic of 1959 that he decided he would make his own semi-religious sword-and-sandals saga to show MGM just how big a blunder they committed by passing him over for Charlton Heston.   That sop to the bruised ego of a Hollywood superstar was Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus, a three-hour marathon charting the rise and fall of a Thracian slave who led a revolt that, for a brief period of time, threatened to uproot the very foundations of the Roman Empire.   Douglas was also the film’s producer, and while Spartacus could hardly be accused of being a vanity project for its star, his influence over the film is undeniable.   There’s not one frame of Spartacus that bears the stamp of Kubrick, one of the finest directors of his generation, but plentiful evidence of shots chosen to accentuate its star’s biggest selling points.

The shoot was a miserable one for the 31-year-old director who, after being fired from the set of One-Eyed Jacks by Marlon Brando, stepped in to replace Anthony Mann, whom Douglas dismissed for what he considered to be a style too passive for such an epic-scale movie.   Although Kubrick and Douglas had collaborated well together on Paths of Glory in 1957, they clashed repeatedly on the set of Spartacus.   In addition to creative differences with Douglas, Kubrick also had to contend with various senior members of the cast re-writing their lines to give themselves a higher profile.   He never went so far as to disown Spartacus, but Kubrick never really considered it to be one of his movies, and he was right to not do so.

Screenwriter Dalton Trumbo – whose first credited screenwriting job this was since he was blacklisted by the HUAC – sprinkled his work of fiction with a few verifiable facts, and while the Hollywood touches overwhelm the factual content, it’s fair to say that Spartacus’s most memorable moments are derived from such fictional embellishments as the famous ‘I’m Spartacus’ moment and the crucifix scene.   Without these Hollywood moments, Spartacus would be nothing more than a worthy but dry history lesson.

Spared from death as a slave, and trained as a gladiator at the school of Lentulus Batiatus (Peter Ustinov), Spartacus suffers defeat in the only gladiatorial combat we witness to a black gladiator (Woody Strode – Once Upon a Time in the West, Posse) who loses his own life in an unsuccessful attack on Senator Marcus Crassus (Laurence Olivier – Rebecca, 49th Parallel), for whose two frivolous female companions he and Spartacus had been forced to fight to the death.  His sacrifice stirs something in Spartacus, and ultimately results in his killing the school’s sadistic mentor (Charles McGraw – Roadblock, The Birds), an act which prompts a spontaneous rebellion amongst the other gladiator slaves.

Spartacus follows the rise of its subject with dutiful reverence, never showing him in anything less than a noble and positive light.   He and his lover, a British slave named Varinia (Jean Simmons – So Long at the Fair, The Robe), resemble royalty as they ride together on horseback amongst an ever-growing legion of foot soldiers.   They head for the coast, hoping to gain passage to another country, but, betrayed by the pirate, Tigranes Levantus (Herbert Lom – The Ladykillers, The Phantom of the Opera), they’re forced to turn back to avoid the pincer movement of two legions marshalled by Crassus, for whom the rebel slave holds a strange fascination.

Despite the flattering amount of attention paid to Douglas in the title role, the dimpled one repeatedly finds himself providing filler for the far more engaging power struggle between the elegantly decadent Crassus and his rival, the wily old senator Sempronius Gracchus (a performance to treasure from Charles Laughton – The Canterville Ghost, Witness for the Prosecution), who seeks obtain power only to prevent Crassus from doing so.   Caught between them is the obsequious, self-serving Batiatus, who is nevertheless a strangely likeable character thanks to Ustinov’s wonderfully laid-back performance.   Kirk Douglas was a functional actor, who acquired success through the force of his personality rather than mastery of his craft, and so he pales by comparison next to actors of the quality of Oliver, Laughton and Ustinov.   Perhaps this is why he shares relatively few scenes with them, but plenty with Tony Curtis (Sweet Smell of Success, Some Like it Hot), an actor from whom Kubrick seemed incapable of coaxing anything even close to a decent performance.

(Reviewed 14th June 2016)

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