Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Spartacus is in the middle of a Venn diagram. On one side you have “Studio Epic” and on the other, “Stanley Kubrick.” This is a Kubrickian movie that doesn’t feel Kubrickian. It’s almost mind blowing that the same guy who directed this also directed The Shining.
Spartacus, whether by its content or self-importance, dates itself. It feels like a studio movie of the forties, and the directors who made movies such as these were nothing like the auteurs who would make more modern movies beginning later in the 60s. To put it another way, Stanley Kubrick’s later movies showed just how strong of a voice he had, and from what I can tell, none of that is visible here.
That’s because this is a movie put together by its star, Kirk Douglas. Douglas executive produced this film and assembled the talent both onscreen and off. After original director Anthony Mann dropped out, Douglas pulled in Kubrick, with whom he had worked on 1957’s Paths of Glory. About that film he said, “There’s a picture that will always be good, years from now. I don’t have to wait 50 years to know that; I know it now.”
It’s clear Douglas must have been enamored with his director, a notoriously tough hang who demands far too many takes for most actors’ liking and whose attention to detail must make him both adored and loathed. After working with Kubrick on Spartacus, a more than three hour epic, Douglas made it clear he never wanted to work with him again.
To use a sports analogy, Spartacus is like one of those super teams assembled in the offseason with far too much talent to fail, a team too good to be believed. It’s aspirations and self-importance, combined with the practical nightmare of putting together such a spectacle, announces the film long before it ever reaches the screen. In 1960, Spartacus would be akin to the 2011 Miami Heat, or the 2017 Dodgers, or the 2017 Warriors. The point is that Spartacus was important because of what went into the production. It was never going to surprise you unless it was truly horrendous.
In addition to Kubrick, Douglas hired Dalton Trumbo (then a blacklisted screenwriter) to write the script, and he filled out the cast with the likes of Tony Curtis (coming off of the comedy Some Like It Hot), Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton and other memorable actors I know less about.
Douglas remained the star, but he wasn’t foolish enough to put the weight of the film all on his shoulders. As Spartacus, the ex-slave and Khaleesi of the slave rebellion, he gets all the patriotic, inspirational speeches, but the movie spreads its time between Spartacus and the politics of Rome, a less exciting affair.
I love Kirk Douglas because he can effectively play both hero and villain, and neither role ever feels clearly black and white. His heroes suffer from hubris or self-sabotage, and his villains are charismatic enough to make you think they might be onto something. His screen presence has a gravity of its own, and his characters often surprise you but for different reasons.
He’s played movie producers, journalists, gunslingin’ cowboys, Vincent Van Gogh, a heroic French soldier and one of the “strange loves” of Martha Ivers. In each of these films, save for maybe Van Gogh, his characters are small enough that he can effectively fill them out and bring them to life, adding a charisma that only he could bring. If you were to read the screenplays, I imagine, his characters wouldn’t have nearly the appeal as the ones onscreen.
But Spartacus is different, and Douglas’ performance struggles to keep up with the character’s legend. He does about as good a job as anyone might, but we’re told how important and meaningful and symbolic this character is from the start. Douglas looks as though he’s just running through the motions of playing an archetypical hero. There’s nothing surprising in this performance or in the character. Spartacus is a folk hero, and we’re meant to love, admire and root for him. Our relationship to the character has none of the nuance of his other memorable performances.
Because of all this, the moments in the film that should be effective are only slightly so. The movie calls so much attention to itself, like any spectacle I suppose, that the well-lit close ups come off as stale and watered down. The better parts of the film, the more subversive elements, are the ones that surprise you and draw a reaction beyond pride and self-righteousness.
The heroes are heroic, and the villains are the villains, that much is clear, but there are shades of villainy to the villains, and the heroes don’t get the happy ending. The film can be broken into three distinct parts, beginning with Spartacus’ enslavement and the gladiator battles to the death he and the other slaves are forced to participate in. Then you have the slave revolt and the subsequent building up of the slave army, all with Spartacus as its leader. Finally there is the climactic clash with the Romans, an impressive spectacle shot in the hills of Spain and with thousands of extras. After the battle and Spartacus’ defeat, he is enslaved once more, forced to kill a friend in one of those gladiator battles and then crucified. The end.
The lack of a happy ending alone makes this film a little more memorable, though we are told upfront that despite Spartacus’ best efforts, slavery wouldn’t end for another 2,000 years. The story, then, is somewhat inevitable but because of the inspiration nature of the story as well as our own expectations, you anticipate everything working out in the end.
Spartacus was a martyr, and you get the sense he’s a character Kirk Douglas always wanted to play. He’s a character around which the movie was constructed, and because of that he is in a sense the eye of the storm, the calm around which the more interesting elements play out.
Though the Romans are the clear-cut bad guys, and the movie ends with them as the clear-cut bad guys, there is a lot of time devoted to the nuance of Roman politics, particularly one man’s frustrations with another. To be perfectly clear, I tuned the hell out during all of this, first because I found it uninteresting, second because the movie is over three hours long and third because I didn’t think it would matter in the end. And it doesn’t. These moments in the story allow for some nice acting, I’m sure, but the only real effect is that it allows for the escape of Spartacus’ slave wife and their infant child. The only effect of this escape is to have that final moment in the end in which, before her escape, she can visit Spartacus as he’s slowly dying on the cross and show him her son while insisting that he will grow up knowing who his father was, meaning that Spartacus’ life and his efforts were not in vain. He dies, but the idea lives on. It’s a nice message, but it takes a lot of set up, a lot of discussion of closed door Roman politics, to get there.
The more engaging moments involve the violence, which, you know I wish it wasn’t what excited me about a movie like this, but it is. It’s like how Francois Truffaut argued that there is no such thing as an anti-war movie because movie violence insists upon itself. By showing the violence, no matter your intention, you glorify it.
And there’s something appealing about a good ‘ol fashioned good versus bad story, whether it’s us versus the Nazis in World War II or Spartacus versus the Romans. The feeling of this part of the film can be found in the story of Daenerys Targaryen in Game of Thrones. About two or so seasons of her arc is essentially just the story of Spartacus except she doesn’t die at the end.
So there’s an appeal in the gladiator scenes and in the final battle between our hero and the enemy. We hate the enemy in a way we’re supposed to in these kinds of films, and we root for the hero in the way we’re supposed to. Still, the story is dwarfed by the visual spectacle, and anytime the movie isn’t showing off, then it kind of suffers. We want more of the rolling hills, the thousands of extras, etc. We want less of the Roman bath houses.
I watched Spartacus because I felt like I should. I enjoy the work of Douglas and Kubrick, and I’m all for a good spectacle, but the movie tries to do too many things and it takes too long to do so. Uneven is the easiest way to describe it. There is occasional momentum which quickly dissipates as we cut between the stories of Spartacus and the Roman politics. We might feel the fire of one character’s goal and suddenly we’re pulled out and forced to reacquaint ourselves with well-fed Romans.
One interesting note about the film is that the famous “I am Spartacus” scene, in which Spartacus’ fellow slaves stand up for him in the face of persecution, can be seen as symbolic of the solidarity of many in the face of communist accusations by Joseph McCarthy. Writer Dalton Trumbo was accused of being a communist and blacklisted, forced to work under a pseudonym, and this admittedly powerful scene, the most inspired in the film, feels like a testament to the goodwill of his supporters and those who refused to name names.
Up Next: Wag the Dog (1997), The Dirty Dozen (1967), Lady Bird (2017)