Spartacus (1960, Stanley Kubrick)


It took a lot of misery on the part of various cantankerous men to create this movie. Spartacus, you no doubt realize, is the name of the legendary leader of a slave revolt and uprising against the Romans during the First Century B.C., but it’s also the name of a muscular and sandpaper-voiced superhero played by Kirk Douglas in this gargantuan Universal entry in the spate of epic Hollywood pictures of the ’50s and ’60s. The people who toiled on this monster loathed one another in a variety of inventive ways: exiled screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (who was credited on the film, thus breaking the blacklist) rubbed elbows with novelist Howard Fast, who didn’t think much of the entire endeavor; actor-producer Douglas grew increasingly batty over the perceived sluggish pace and creative drudgery of director Anthony Mann. The possibly apocryphal story goes that sprightly young Stanley Kubrick was playing cards with some friends, having recently let go of a potential project with Marlon Brando, when he got a phone call by way of Kirk Douglas, star of Kubrick’s critical breakthrough Paths of Glory, asking him to be in Hollywood within twenty-four hours to immediately pick up shooting of Spartacus from Mann, who’d been fired. Thus the director in all the annals of cinema most famous for his meticulous planning and control over a film’s visual and artistic voice would become a finanicially free agent for life thanks to a movie over which he had very nearly no control whatever. In time his strange methods and wild ideas would provide him with his piece of the enemies-list pie as well. (This included cinematographer Russell Metty, who was essentially prevented by Kubrick from making any creative choices on the project, but he nevertheless took home the Oscar.)

Keeping in mind that some maintain this just barely qualifies as a Kubrick picture, we must nevertheless think carefully about where America’s finest-ever filmmaker stood in 1960. Kubrick by now was widely viewed as a gifted young man likely to go far in the business, though he’d enjoyed mostly critical rather than popular acclaim, and that on the back almost exclusively of his third and fourth films: the brilliant noir thriller The Killing and the pacifist requiem Paths of Glory, regarded at the time as among the most beautiful and moving of all Hollywood pictures. In retrospect, Paths carries less potency than, for instance, All Quiet on the Western Front as a result of its somewhat outlandish characterization, but it retains its strikingly radical message and a nearly perfect visual sense. Historically, its greatest significance may finally be that it brought Kubrick and Kirk Douglas together. In time, Douglas would loathe Kubrick as openly as he loathed any man on the giant set of Spartacus, but his admiration for the director’s work on Paths of Glory was such that he thought of him as an economical choice to take over from Mann. It was more than admiration, of course; it was also probably much easier to get Kubrick to agree to oversee the troubled production than to track down a more famous director with greater clout, and one who’d be willing to work underneath Douglas.

Kubrick was untested on a big-budget project, all four prior features having been low-budget black & white quickies, with only Paths attaining any prestigious standing. Douglas would insist eventually that he deserved credit for giving Kubrick his voice, and there is some truth in this argument. Without the transitional experience of making Spartacus, Kubrick may well have continued to deal in simpler, streamlined productions and we’d never know how much bigness and controversy befitted him. Few directors ever made so resourceful a use of sudden mass success as did Kubrick when he followed this film up with the risky and magnificent Lolita. The question finally is: if Spartacus was a project made by necessity, made as a contract worker, that Kubrick ultimately disowned (though his opinion became more favorable far down the line); if it lacks the major facet that all of his other films boast — his complete control over every frame — can we still identify it as a Kubrick picture? In fact, in terms of the mise en scene, we most certainly can.

Though Kubrick hated the script, not for him was the idea of simply slapping his name on a product that he’d be ashamed of. Watch the three-hour film carefully and you will notice that its great number of unusual, interesting, tricky shots and setpieces considerably outpaces that of more sizable but mostly more conventional pictures like El Cid and Cleopatra. There is disagreement regarding how much of Anthony Mann’s work remains in the finished feature. The fascinating audio commentary included in Criterion’s release of the film, which in many ways is a crucial item in a complete understanding of it, features more than one claim that much of the “gladiator school” portion of the first act was directed by Mann. Most Kubrick biographies contradict this claim, but they would, wouldn’t they? Most evidence suggests that the vast majority of footage we have is Kubrick’s, and there are exciting and breathtaking moments scattered through the narrative — he annoyed the crew endlessly with his complicated setups, leading to several near-mutinies on the set. Eventually, Douglas conspired to fire Kubrick as well — according to Dalton Trumbo, it was only through his own reverse-psychology intervention that the hotheaded star was talked down.

Nevertheless, it’s an understatement to regard this as an outlier in Kubrick’s filmography. It’s the most conventional-looking of all his films, in addition to clearly being the most sentimental and straightforward. There are few moments of jarring symmetry and fewer yet scrolls along great expanses of space; in contrast to the Kubrick being let out to pay indulgently of later films like The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut, this is Kubrick at a job interview: on his best behavior. As a piece of storytelling, it’s first-rate and incredibly absorbing. Little wonder that Kubrick would prove himself a master at Hollywood schmaltz the one time he gave it a shot. Why not, right? The film he delivers is initially a gripping and fraught dramatization of revolt, escape, revolution, and it progresses with speed thanks to Kubrick and the ever-charismatic Douglas, whose character only carries the majority of the weight for the first hour. That hour is as brilliant as mainstream American cinema gets; the film carefully, if hamhandedly, establishes the brokenness of the world it depicts and the not-sufficiently-faroff scourge of slavery. Immediately the contrast to William Wyler’s Ben-Hur is clear: there is merely brutality, no savior.

When Spartacus is sent to the gladiator school after his sniping and thirst for vengeance lead him nearly to be executed, we find him led by Charles McGraw’s brutal Marcellus, training to fight to the death; the impromptu staging of such a fight for the lite-FM amusement of Roman senator Crassus and his family, who look on nonchalantly as Spartacus and his friend Draba fight to survive, leads Spartacus to act out his rage, others follow, and thus it begins. Afterward, we split into two very different but intricately connected films: the march of Spartacus and the slaves across Italy, slaying much of the Roman army and humiliating Crassus and his political allies; and, all the while, we bear witness to the riveting debates and battles on the Senate floor as the politicians debate what’s to be done about this Spartacus fellow. Neither Kubrick nor anyone else involved can escpae the fact that, as a result of both casting and greater detail in the writing, the Rome sequences are vastly more entertaining than the slave army scenes. But there’s never a moment in Spartacus, as in Ben-Hur and other pictures of comparable length, when one impulsively wishes to reach for the fast-forward button; Kubrick’s work here may be distant and at times carefully inoffensive, but it performs its specific duties well, and one is consistently fascinated by the action onscreen while the director hangs back and lets us take it in, a feature encouraged by the expansive nature of the widescreen frame.

Despite Kubrick’s opinion to the contrary, Trumbo’s script, though it stumbles occasionally, is intelligent and well-rounded and has brilliant passages — its characters are vivid, its settings evocative, its story fast-moving and passionately told. One gets the feeling that the bile and brimstone of the production finally played some role in its success; everyone works phenomenally hard, and the picture has aged far more gracefully than any of the other major Hollywood epics. This is in part because while its historical accuracy is easily questioned, its liberalism has kept it relevant. It’s more uncompromising about slavery than any other picture of its era, and takes pains to ridicule the inhumane absurdity of the insitution — even if, yeah, we have to be conscious that we too are excited and delighted to watch two men fight to the death, even though (and maybe especially because) we know it’s only a movie. When Jean Simmons’ Varinia is thrown to Spartacus like a piece of meat for him to ball around with as Marcellus and Batiatus eagerly watch up above, few films in 1960 would probably have been so forward as to insist on giving her a chance to echo Spartacus’ line “I am not an animal,” to therefore critique the patriarchy not just of the first century B.C. but the twentieth A.D. In general, Trumbo and Kubrick’s subtle handling of the Romans as shorthand for general decadence and ruthless traditionalism keeps the film from overreaching into the cartoonishness of so many in this genre. You can sense why Howard Fast was unhappy, but Hollywood could not possibly have crafted a film this size with the intricacy and relative subversion Fast might have desired. It would take the enormous success of artistic directors like Kubrick for that to begin to become possible.

The movie does, of course, have its lulls. As he did with all of his films, Kubrick cut Spartacus substantially after the premiere, from 202 minutes down to 184, with even shorter versions circulating in later rerelease. For decades, Kubrick’s cut was the canonical one, but this is one of two cases (with The Shining) in which the longer variation managed an afterlife. Robert Harris restored Spartacus in 1991 and found enough new material to push it out to 197 minutes. Though Kubrick happily approved this project, it’s notable that this is the only one of his features on which he was not a producer; had he been, it’s unlikely such a task would’ve been undertaken. It’s now been nearly twenty years since I last saw the old theatrical cut of Spartacus; though I remain fascinated by nearly everything in the 1991 reconstruction, I wouldn’t mind seeing the shorter cut again simply to find out whether its tightening-up was justified. I wonder which version really deserves to be canonical. But honestly, the film only slows to a crawl in the most historically dubious sequences, especially those involving Spartacus’ wife Varinia, who’s given the obligatory swimming-nude scene and a lot of lofty talk of babies and big love. (Nevertheless, Jean Simmons is quite good, as usual.) Tony Curtis’ bizarre “singing” interlude is also something that could have been skipped, but I suppose the rhythm of the time is what it is.

Kubrick alone cannot take credit for the visual glories of Spartacus. Astonishingly enough in the same year he received that controversial “pictorial consultant” credit on Psycho, Saul Bass served here as designer of one of his most elaborate and serious-minded title sequences — a montage of Roman statues in states of decay, finally crumbling — and also aided in the design of the battle scenes, which are among the best and breeziest in any movie. It’s useful to watch Paths of Glory prior to this to understand just why Kubrick wanted Bass involved here; a mere duplication of his lengthy, gritty pans in the earlier film wouldn’t work well in the wider frame, and the Roman setting presents the necessity for a certain majesty of impact. During the Slave Army victories early on, things are haphazard and chaotic and full of blissful energy. But later, when the Romans win their decisive victory at the climax, you almost audibly gulp when you see Bass’ checkered formation of soldiers approaching.

There’s something so wonderful about the way Kubrick’s film considers such brutality and evil with an unwavering sense of camp ridiculousness. If your film is going to involve someone drowning in a vat of soup, you know, why not go all the way with it? If the galvanizing testiness of the Roman congress isn’t enough to liven up your movie night, what about the fence-flipping, the direct attack on the upper classes by Draba, the completely fictitious fireballs that the slave army sends onto the battlefield? It’s all so inappropriate, really, but it makes one hell of a movie — audacious, violent, sexy, relentless, and vastly ahead of the curve in its here’s-the-lurid-shit-you-came-to-see blockbuster mentality. That’s also contributed to its unusual (for the “epic” trend) agelessness.

The cast, of coursem deserves some of those accolades, as they’re all very much up to the task of rendering this all so sublime and ridiculous. Kirk Douglas hams it up as enjoyably as ever, and we detect a sweetness underneath all that gruffness, which Kubrick doesn’t much care to acknowledge until his hero is pinned to a cross. Tony Curtis is amusingly moony and deadpan in his slightly homoerotic turn as “singer” and “magician” and all-around goofball Antoninus. Both are upstaged by one of the all-time best supporting casts: Peter Ustinov as the testy, corpulent, but finally kindhearted (!?) human trafficker Batiatus (stealing the film singlehandedly with “I tingle”), Charles Laughton’s deliciously scenery-chewing Gracchus, the smugly cranky man-about-town we all wish we were, except the antiquated viewpoints and all that, plus a wide-eyed John Dall (!), a surprisingly serious Herbert Lom (!?!), and most amusingly, Laurence Olivier having the time of his bloody life as Crassus. That Olivier agreed to do this is miracle enough, but in the end this turns out to be one of his strongest and most unusual performances, because its pure outlandish Jerry Springer-like wallowing in melodrama and hyperemotive anger is so wonderfully dumb.

The real star, however, is none of those mentioned above but Alex North’s eye-wideningly brilliant score, which lives in the memory as good but becomes clear on repeated exposure as one of the best ever written — a certain flourish that appears three or four times, last in the goosebump-inducing final shot, just does something almost supernatural. You might not be witnessing the true sweep of history but North epitomizes the film’s awareness that what it captures is merely a tiny fragment of something huger than everyone in it and everyone watching it. And this is another way in which Kubrick’s playful nature and steely determination to assert his individuality shine through; would any other film this automatically massive, this much of a guaranteed blockbuster (it was the top grossing picture of 1960), have dared to use its opening credits as a microcosm of the tragedy to come, to end them on that wheezing orchestral drone that signals the trouble ahead? Even in the most comfortable, familiar kind of setting, Kubrick was already keeping us on edge — but of course, here as ever, he had a lot of help.

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