By Noel Thingvall
Ah, Spartacus. The lone wolf. The odd man out. The “one of these is not like the others”. Ask a fan of Kubrick what they think of the film, and they’ll usually be disappointed because it’s done in a much more commercial style than the rest of his work. Ask someone who’s not a fan of Kubrick what they think, and they usually quite like it… because it’s done in a much more commercial style than the rest of his work. Out of all the films of Kubrick’s career, this is the only one that he didn’t personally select and build and nurture from the earliest outline to the final edit. This is a film directed by Kubrick, but it’s not a Kubrick film.
But is it a bad film? The story is all the pure swords & sandal daring do spectacle audiences of the 50s had been loving in the wake of Quo Vadis (which, trust me, does not live up to its reputation). The hero is a good, proud, simple man, a gladiator who just wants to be free, and standing in his way of freedom is the oppressive empire of Rome, which greedily basks in the leisure that’s found when all the heavy lifting is done by people you own. Following tradition, there’s very little grey to these people. Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) can kill and will kill, but there is no cruelty to him, best shown when he breaks up a fight to the death his fellow escaped gladiators have forced onto a pair of captured Romans. By the same token, General Marcus Licinius Crassus (Laurence Olivier) is pure egotistical villainy; he only fights for Rome when he blackmails the senate into giving him full dictatorial control, he captures Spartacus’ wife, Varinia (Jean Simmons), making casual threats against her newborn child to get her to play along, and he makes thinly veiled homosexual insinuations at a time when such things would have made the audience gasp with scandal.
One is good, the other is evil. There’s none of the cloudy motives, questionable actions, or ethical uncertainties that color the majority of Kubrick’s characters. One could argue that such is found in the form of Batiatus (Peter Ustinov), who goes from slovenly owner of Spartacus’ gladiator school to final protector of the man’s wife as he sneaks her out of town. He redeems himself, sure, but by smuggling her away, Batiatus gets to fling some dirt at a political competitor, and make off with a healthy sack of money while he’s at it. He does good, but not for good reasons. It’s a great performance on Ustinov’s part, and a great character, but he’s sadly absent for the majority of the film’s center.
By declaring Spartacus and Crassus generic, I’m certainly not suggesting they’re bad. Douglas was always an underrated actor, and a great deal of his performance – particularly in the first half of the movie, when his character is still chained and under threat of violence with each spoken word – is silent, with much being said through the clench of his jaw, the coil of his genuinely athletic frame, and those deep eyes filled with both the threat of death and the offer of compassion. It’s to his credit that I say Olivier’s Crassus initially blends into the ensemble and does little to call attention to himself, because it’s only as the film progresses that he moves into the spotlight as his character wrests more and more control, until he becomes even more of a threat to the “liberty” of Rome than a revolting army of slaves.
In reading the original novel by Howard Fast, upon which this film is, admittedly, only loosely based, I can’t help but wonder what story would have arisen had Kubrick adopted it from birth instead of fostering it during adolescence. The majority of the book is set after the war has ended and the last of the slaves have been crucified, as a group of wealthy Romans meet and frolic and wine and dine and share their beds, and they all look back on the war and try to understand its meaning. I’ve joked with my friends that Kubrick excelled when it came to scenes of “casual white yuppie chit chat”, and I stand by that, silly as it may seem. There’s a biting wit to his frequent use of coddled and entitled upper class society types often either missing or veiling the point as they try to keep their frame of mind as trendy as possible. Much of the book comes straight from this angle as these people surrounded by slaves can’t for the life of them understand why they’d even conceive of rebelling. If they weren’t owned, wouldn’t they be in debt? Wouldn’t they starve? Don’t they have a roof over their heads and a purpose to their lives? Isn’t that enough? Kubrick’s work is intentionally and satirically littered with these types of “socially acceptable” fools.
But by the time Kubrick became attached to Spartacus, the script was already written and locked. It was penned by Dalton Trumbo, who, just like novelist Fast, was a writer on the Hollywood Blacklist, and the inclusion of both was a bold and powerful statement at the time. Though, prestigious a screenwriter he may have been – and, admittedly, the script is very finely constructed – the script is still very generic and hits all the necessary beats. The framing story is gone and we instead have an entirely linear hero’s journey as Spartacus goes from the slave pits to the gladiator’s arena, finds love, breaks free, raises and army, crushes foes, then is overwhelmed in a brutal defeat. Hell, it even has one of those big “this is why we fight” speeches delivered from a mountain on high. And the classic “I am Spartacus!” scene, where he’s swallowed into the anonymity of a crowd that’s claiming both his name and ideals, is felled when Crassus follows it by confronting Spartacus face-to-face. In Hollywood, there must be a rule that the heroes and villains absolutely must have a personal showdown, even though Crassus remaining in frustrated ignorance as he never knows nor understands the face of his enemy would have been a far richer and more deeply fitting note to end him on.
Like Trumbo, Kubrick doesn’t do much to break from the norm. There’s some marvelously elaborate tracking shots, with the escape of the slaves and the razing of the Roman camp coming instantly to mind, and some of the best massive army footage ever put on screen as a mountain covered with slaves beholds the complex grid formation of approaching Roman legions, but the majority of the direction does little to separate itself from the first two weeks of work done by the initial filmmaker, Anthony Mann, who was fired by Douglas after shooting the opening quarry sequence. There’s very little of Kubrick’s art on display, but, again, that’s not to say it’s bad. It’s very dashing and commercial and unchallenging, but it’s also very cleanly framed and staged and cut. And there are still some striking moments, the most memorable of which I found to be the first gladiator fight of the film. It’s vague and uncertain, seen through the cracks between boards; the view of another gladiator witnessing his own inevitable fate.
I also want to point out Marcellus, played by Charles McGraw, who I found to be an interesting early draft of R. Lee Ermey’s Gunnery Sergeant Hartman from Full Metal Jacket. Marcellus was once a slave and survived the gladiator arenas for a good many years, and it won him his freedom and a job as chief trainer at Batiatus’ gladiator school. Instead of him forging a bond with people who are now where he once was, he revels in the fact that he’s risen above them and holds a sadistic whip to their backs the same way someone once held a whip to his. And as with the Sergent, many of his lessons do forge strong, capable fighters, but it also backfires when their resentment boils over, resulting in his death.
It’s a good film. A pretty darn good film. But it’s neither great, nor excellent, nor a masterpiece. I can understand why fans of Kubrick are cool to the work, seeing as it’s much more the personal pet of Kirk Douglas, who was bitter at not scoring Ben-Hur, but one shouldn’t ignore its place among the director’s output. Behind the scenes, it was a big, chaotic mess of a studio picture, but every filmmaker should be thrown into that situation at some point just to see how they react and how it affects what comes after, and Kubrick deserves all the credit in the world for making sure the final project still worked and delivered. And the ultimate result was that it reinforced for Stanley the importance of personal and total control on his projects, a philosophy he’d carry with him to every other film that followed. I don’t know that he would have stuck to those guns so diligently if he hadn’t been forced to push through the experience of Spartacus. Or the ridiculous mess of a production that resulted in One-Eyed Jacks, but that’s a topic for another day.
A native of the oft frozen lakelands of Minnesota, Noel Thingvall co-hosts the podcast I Hate/Love Remakes, and writes for Deconstructing Moya: A Farscape Rewatch, The Super Saturday Short-Lived Showcase, and Review Journal of an Obsessive Completist.
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