Filmsite Movie Review
Spartacus (1960)
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Spartacus (1960) is director Stanley Kubrick's adventure (sword and sandal) biopic filmed in Super Technirama. Although somewhat dated and uneven, it was a magnificent historical costume epic, set in the ancient 1st century B.C. The script had been adapted by openly-credited Communist screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (thereby breaking the abhorrent system of black-listing).

Star/producer Kirk Douglas and his independent film studio Bryna Productions worked in association with Universal Studios to provide the film's financing. Part of the impetus for the historical epic was Douglas' rejection to play the title role in director William Wyler's similar Best Picture-winning Ben-Hur (1959). It was based on left-leaning Howard Fast's 1951 fictionalized novel about a slave revolt in Rome between 73-71 BC led by a gladiator.

Douglas described his "linguistic scheme" - the Roman characters would speak with English accents, while the slaves (in revolt against the existing world order) would use American accents. An exception was made for British-born Jean Simmons' character, a slave ‘from Britannia’, who was allowed to speak with an English accent. A trend amongst the era's Hollywood epics was to follow this pattern in which modern American voices challenged the degenerating European societal model. Although anachronistic in costuming and accents and overly long (at 3 hours and 17 minutes) with some 'wooden' acting, Spartacus remains one of the more beloved and intelligent gladiator films (and a model for Ridley Scott's Gladiator (2000)).

During the wide-screen Technicolored film's production, there was a change of directors early on (from Anthony Mann (famous for El Cid (1961)) to the young Stanley Kubrick, who wasn't permitted his usual directorial freedom or control of the script, resulting in a decidedly un-Kubrick-like film) and rampant ego clashes amongst the actors.

At the time, with a budget that spiraled up to $12 million dollars, it was considered one of the most expensive Hollywood productions at the time (the previous year's Biblical epic Ben Hur (1959) had a budget of $15 million), and ended up with domestic revenue of $14 million - it was the highest-grossing (domestic) film of the year.

Some of the film's main characters were actually based upon real-life historical figures, but the historical time-line of the film (from 73-71 B.C.) was markedly different:

  • Caius Sempronius Gracchus (d. 121 B.C.) - not a Senator or nobleman, but a tribune, who died more than fifty years before Spartacus' time
  • Spartacus (d. 71 B.C.), the slave-revolt leader - killed in battle rather than being captured and crucified
  • Marcus Licinius Crassus (d. 53 B.C.), a Roman general and politician who after Spartacus' death, ruled Rome in the First Triumvirate with his rival Pompey the Great and Julius Caesar; he died during the Battle of Carrhae

Much of the film was shot in the Los Angeles area in mid-1959, although the massive battle sequence (with 8,000 soldiers from the Spanish infantry standing in for the Roman army) was filmed outside of Madrid, Spain. The massive cast of the film totaled approximately 10,500 individuals.

Its taglines were:

  • The finest cast ever assembled re-lives history's most powerful story of love and rebellion.
  • They trained him to kill for their pleasure...but they trained him a little too well...
  • Human desires so strong they changed the course of History...of a Rebellion that shook a Civilization in a Pagan era, 71 B.C....the grandeur and might of Rome and the challenge of an immortal gladiator...of a love that changed the world.

[Note: During production, due to the National Catholic Legion of Decency and the restrictive Hays Code, various segments were removed, including homosexual innuendo in the bathhouse scene and various depictions of gore during battle scenes (such as a severed limb). The 1991 re-release of Spartacus restored much of what was cut from the film, including adding two more minutes of the notorious bathhouse scene featuring the sexual advances of Crassus toward his attractive slave servant-poet Antoninus (Tony Curtis), with dialogue dubbed by Anthony Hopkins for the deceased Olivier: "Do you consider the eating of oysters to be moral and the eating of snails to be immoral?... My taste includes both snails and oysters." Antoninus was able to escape and join Spartacus' army. The re-release version also restored shots of Spartacus on the cross during his crucifixion, and included an overture and intermission.]

Other versions of the 'Spartacus' slave story included:

  • director Riccardo Freda's Spartaco (1953, It.) (aka Sins of Rome, or Spartacus the Gladiator), starring Massimo Girotti
  • director Sergio Corbucci's The Slave (1962, It.) (aka The Son of Spartacus), starring Steve Reeves
  • director Luigi Capuano's Revenge of the Gladiators (1964, It.), starring Mickey Hargitay and José Greci
  • and two TV-mini-series: Spartacus (2004) (two episodes), with Goran Visnjic as the film's hero, and Spartacus (2010-2013) (aka Spartacus: Blood and Sand) (33 episodes)

It had six Academy Award nominations, including Best Dramatic Score (Alex North) and Best Film Editing, with four wins for Best Supporting Actor (Peter Ustinov), Best Color Art Direction-Set Decoration, Best Color Cinematography, and Best Color Costume Design.

Plot Synopsis

Opening Title Sequence and Narration:

The movie's main orchestral overture began with a trumpet fanfare followed by a title sequence created by design consultant Saul Bass, to represent the might and power of the Roman Empire. It was shortened by a minute and a half (by director Kubrick). The role of each of the six main cast members during the credits was illustrated by a symbolic item:

  • Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) - a manacled or chained hand (a symbol of defiance)
  • Crassus (Laurence Olivier) - an imperial or Roman eagle (on a sceptre)
  • Varinia (Jean Simmons) - a hand holding a water or wine jug
  • Gracchus (Charles Laughton) - a hand reaching out
  • Batiatus (Peter Ustinov) - a hand holding a snake
  • Julius Caesar (John Gavin) - a hand holding a sword

The film's title was then presented above an image of the ends of two green sword blades that moved vertically into the frame to challenge each other - representative of the slaves' struggle for freedom and dignity against Rome. Tony Curtis' co-starring role as Antoninus was symbolized by two friendly, open hands reaching out.

The remainder of the credits was composed of a montage of backdrops of fragments of large classical Roman sculptures (highlighted in pastel colors) and writings of Roman script on stone. One plaque displayed the letters "ECXXI' that seemed to be Roman numerals, although the letter "E" was never used as a number during Roman times. The profiled head of a marble Roman bust of Roman Emperor Julius Caesar was displayed during the final credit for the director, and then during a full-frontal view of the head, it slowly cracked crumbled, and the camera zoomed into the blackness of its eye.

The film was introduced with a voice-over narration (by Vic Perrin) about the pagan, oppressive and dictatorial rule of the Roman Republic before the institution of Christianity, when a "disease called human slavery" was rampant in society. Many were enslaved by the wealthiest Roman class of patricians and by a class of privileged commoners known as plebeians. Spartacus' birth signaled that he would provide the vision to bring about the "death of slavery 2,000 years before it would finally die," but as acknowledged, the system of slavery would exist far beyond the end of Rome. Spartacus' questing dream for the "death of slavery" would be doomed for two millennia:

In the last century before the birth of the new faith called Christianity, which was destined to overthrow the pagan tyranny of Rome and bring about a new society, the Roman Republic stood at the very center of the civilized world. 'Of all things fairest' sang the poet, 'First among cities and home of the Gods is Golden Rome.' Yet even at the zenith of her pride and power, the Republic lay fatally stricken with the disease called human slavery. The age of the dictator was at hand, waiting in shadows for the event to bring it forth.

In that same century, in the conquered Greek province of Thrace, an illiterate slave woman added to her master's wealth by giving birth to a son whom she named Spartacus. A proud, rebellious son, who was sold to living death in the mines of Libya before his 13th birthday. There, under whip and chain and sun, he lived out his youth and his young manhood, dreaming of the death of slavery 2,000 years before it finally would die.

[Note: The film's themes mirrored two historical incidents in the US: (1) the Congressional HUAC Committee's hearings to pressure witnesses to name names (Spartacus' defeated followers refused to divulge his identity), and (2) the 1960's Civil Rights Movement to end segregation and liberate those who were oppressed.]

Armies of Slaves Performed Menial Work for the Corrupt Roman Republic:

In the year 73 BC during the reign of the all-powerful, corrupt, stagnant and declining Roman Republic, the title character Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) was introduced as a life-long slave - a "proud, rebellious son" who was sold at age 13 to "living death" working under bondage in the Libyan mining pits located in the conquered Greek province of Thrace. His condemned life as a third-generation slave meant laboring in the hot sun under harsh conditions and under the threat of whips and death.

The resistant, strong, intelligent, ferociously-angry, clench-jawed, and proud Spartacus disobediently rebelled against his overseers, when he attempted to help another struggling slave who collapsed carrying a heavy load of rocks. When ordered "Back to work!" and called a "Thracian dog," he defiantly and viciously bit a Roman centurion's ankle. He was beaten unconscious and dragged off. His punishment was to be staked to a large rock and left to die in the hot sun by starvation, to set an example.

Spartacus Bought and Transported For Training in the Gladiatorial School:

Unexpectedly an hour later, he was viewed and purchased (with others) by callous Roman businessman-slave trader Lentulus Batiatus (Best Supporting Actor award-winning Peter Ustinov), a gladiator-school owner (lanista) who selected him for his brute strength and strong teeth. He was to be trained as a skilled gladiator in his training school (ludus) at Capua. When they arrived, the "dirty-looking lot" of slave-trainees were assembled to listen to Batiatus:

Here, you will be trained by experts to fight in pairs to the death. Obviously you won't be required to fight to the death here. That will only be after you've been sold and then for ladies and gentlemen of quality, those who appreciate a fine kill. A gladiator's like a stallion, he must be pampered. You'll be oiled, bathed, shaved, massaged, taught to use your heads. A good body with a dull brain is as cheap as life itself. You'll be given your ceremonial caudas (a tail-like appendage of hair) ....On certain special occasions, those of you who please me will even be given the companionship of a young lady. Approximately half our graduates live for 5, 10, 10 years. Some of them even attain freedom and become trainers themselves....I congratulate you. And may fortune smile on most of you.

And then brutal head gladiatorial trainer Marcellus (Charles McGraw) was advised by Batiatus to treat Spartacus as a special case because he had "quality."

Marcellus, watch the second from the right in front. He's a Thracian. They were going to kill him for hamstringing a guard....Don't overdo it, Marcellus. He has quality.

The stoic and resistant Spartacus was picked out of the group and warned by Marcellus: "You just remember, from now on everything you do I'll be watching." Spartacus quickly learned that the gladiator-trainees were reluctant to ally themselves together, when he was cautioned by giant, black Ethiopian Draba (Woody Strode):

Gladiators don't make friends. If we're ever matched in the arena together, I'll have to kill you.

One evening, servant-slave women were paraded into the quarters of the gladiators and assigned to a man for the night for sexual pleasures:

  • Helena with Galino
  • Patricia with Crixus
  • Priscilla with David
  • Claudia with Pharox
  • Varinia (Jean Simmons) with Spartacus

When Varinia entered Spartacus' caged cell, he tentatively touched her soft skin and hair, and then bashfully admitted: "I've never had a woman." When she slipped off her gown and stood naked before him, they heard laughter from above. Batiatus and Marcellus watched from a grating above his cell to see how the virginal Spartacus would react. When he urged them to "Go away," they ignored his request to leave: "We must learn to share our pleasures." He shouted at them, refusing to be treated like an animal:

I am not an animal.

Batiatus encouraged Spartacus: "Spartacus, do the job. Direct your courage to the girl, Spartacus." He refused to mistreat or rape the demure young woman, and again shouted out: "I am not an animal," before she was removed. Batiatus was disappointed in his new acquisition who again defied the expected rules and conditions of servitude: "You'll have to take her out of here, Marcellus. You may not be an animal, Spartacus, but this sorry show gives me very little hope that you will ever be a man."

During weeks of dehumanizing training in the camp, seen in a montage, the branded slaves were kept in cells, and during the day were mercilessly instructed and exercised on the brutal skills of how to strategically kill to the death in the arena - for purposes of the "sport" of entertainment to be watched by wealthy patricians. One of the training mechanisms was a rotating platform with a central revolving pole of blades at different heights that functioned as hurdles. Marcellus used three colors of paint to illustrate various "kill zones" on Spartacus' torso:

  • RED - "First rule, you get an instant kill on the red....Always remember, go for the red first."
  • BLUE - "In the blue, you get a cripple....Second rule, go for the cripple before the slow kill. With a cripple, you know you've got him if you keep your distance and wear him down."
  • YELLOW - "Here's a slow kill on the yellow....Remember, a slow kill may have enough left in him to kill you before he dies."

Marcellus emphasized how Capua's spectacles were different than those in Rome: "Here at Capua we expect more than just simple butchery and we get it." Knowing that the brooding Spartacus had unspoken feelings for Varinia, the two were often humiliated in public, and Varinia was forced to sleep with the Spaniard - to spite Spartacus. They often secretly shared furtive, knowing glances toward each other across distances, but once at mealtime she poured drink from a jug for him and they momentarily touched hands.

Visitors to the Capua Camp - A Fight to the Death in the Arena and Slave Revolt:

Then one day, it was announced that aristocratic visitors had arrived at the Capua camp: "Two simply enormous Roman lords on the hill," one of whom was an important, power-hungry, cruel, regal and very rich patrician Roman Senator named Marcus Licinius Crassus (Laurence Olivier). He was known to be in competition with an elderly, philosophical plebian and political leader - Senator Lentulus Gracchus (Charles Laughton) for control of the Roman Senate. Crassus was accompanied by two "ladies" - his wife Lady Helena Glabrus (Nina Foch) and sister-in-law Lady Claudia Marius (Joanna Barnes), and her fiancee Marcus Publius Glabrus (John Dall).

The group - as part of their plan to celebrate the betrothal, suggested entertainment for their pagan amusement - "a private showing of two the death." Batiatus wanted to honor their request, but insisted that it wouldn't be wise to force the slaves to fight to the death in their own camp:

But I beg, Your Honors. Here in Capua, we train the finest gladiators in all of Italy. We can give you a display of swordsmanship which is better than anything you can see in Rome at any cost. When they're sold, their new masters may do with them as they wish. But here, no, we never fight them to the death.... the ill feeling, it would spread through the whole school.

However, for the sum of 25,000 sesterces, the two ladies were given the opportunity to select four of the gladiators, including Spartacus' good friend Crixus (John Ireland), Galeno (Bob Morgan), the Ethiopian Draba ("the big black one"), and Spartacus himself ("the coward"). Lady Helena demanded that the conflicts would truly be to the death: "If both men are down and refuse to continue to fight, your trainer will slit their throats like chickens. We want no tricks." It was also requested by Lady Claudia that the combatants be scantily-clad: "I feel so sorry for the poor things in all this heat. Don't put them in those suffocating tunics. Let them wear just enough for modesty."

While awaiting the gladiatorial contest, slave-girl Varinia deliberately spilled the contents of her wine pouring vase onto Marcus. Crassus inquired of Varinia's background, and learned she was from Britannia, had been a slave since the age of 13, and her first master had her tutored before instructing his children. On a whim and in front of his wife, he proposed to purchase Varinia (due to his liking her "spirit") for 2,000 sesterces, and Batiatus agreed to have his steward escort her to Rome the next day. As a wedding present, Crassus also appointed Glabrus as the "commander of the garrison of Rome." It was part of Crassus' plan to take power from Gracchus in Rome: "The only power in Rome strong enough to checkmate Gracchus and his Senate." Later, the scheming Crassus told Glabrus that he had corruptly acquired the military appointment without his rival Gracchus' knowledge by buying off other Senators: ("I fought fire with oil. I purchased the Senate behind his back").

Draba and Spartacus sat quietly as they listened in a holding cell to the first pair of desperate fighters in the open-air arena (off-screen and momentarily viewed in a slit between wooden boards) -- Galeno vs. Crixus, with the sounds of swords clashing, grunting, and audience applause. After Crixus killed Galeno, it was Draba's and Spartacus' turn to fight to the death. Spartacus sported a short sword and shield, while Draba fought with a trident spear and metal mesh-net. During their savage and exciting duel/fight to the death (while the spectator-patricians in the gallery audience casually chatted with each other), Spartacus was overwhelmed and disarmed, but Draba defiantly chose to spare his life instead of lethally spearing him in the throat. Draba ignored Lady Helena's thumbs-down gesture, turned and threw his trident spear into the gallery. As he climbed up into the seating area to kill patrician Crassus, he was speared in the back by an arena guard. As he fell at Crassus' feet, the patrician cruelly slit the back of his neck with a dagger - blood splattered onto Crassus' face. Draba fell backwards into the arena, as the scene faded.

That evening, as the camera panned over the training area, the remaining gladiators were led into their holding area by Marcellus, deliberately paraded by the upside-down hanging body of Draba. Marcellus spitefully told Spartacus: "He'll hang there till he rots." The next morning during mealtime in the mess-hall, Spartacus noticed Varinia being driven away in a horse-drawn cart. Marcellus taunted Spartacus about Varinia's sale and fate: "Take a last look, Spartacus. She's going to Rome. She's been sold." Enraged, the resentful Spartacus assaulted Marcellus, as other emboldened fellow gladiators helped by attacking their guards. Spartacus threatened Marcellus by first strangling him, and then pushing his head into the kitchen's boiling pot of stew to drown him. A guard with a whistle alerted Batiatus to the escalating slave-revolt and conflict, who then impulsively decided to personally escort Varinia to Crassus' house in Rome. He ordered one of his lowly servants to ride to Capua to call out the garrison.

A major slave-revolt and bloody rebellion ensued, with all of the gladiatorial-trainee/slaves, with their advanced combat skills, able to defeat their captors and escape from their confines to flee into the Italian countryside on foot and on horseback. They set up camp on the slopes of Mt. Vesuvius.

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