"Spartacus" is a historical drama that takes place
in Italy in the first century B.C. Kirk Douglas
stars as the title character, an escaped slave who
leads an army of slaves against the Roman army.
The lengthy, expensive epic was directed by Stanley
Kubrick and adapted from the Howard Fast novel.
"Spartacus" is very loosely based on a true story.
Douglas is trained to be a gladiator by Marcellus
(Charles McGraw) at a facility owned by Batiatus
(Peter Ustinov), where Douglas falls for servant
Varinia (Jean Simmons). In due time, Douglas leads
a revolt and takes the complex, then raids the
countryside building an army of slaves, among them
"singer of songs" Antoninus (Tony Curtis).
Back in Rome, the politicians and generals discuss
how to deal with Spartacus. These include would-be
dictator Crassus (Laurence Olivier) and generous
schemer Gracchus (Charles Laughton).
"Spartacus" is a good movie. The cinematography is
impressive, and the cast of extras rivals "The Ten
Commandments" for sheer size. While far from Kubrick's
best work, the film is well directed. Douglas,
Olivier, Laughton and Ustinov are entertaining
and well-cast. When grimacing Douglas dunks McGraw's
head in a hot bowl of soup, you will be cheering for him.
But "Spartacus" is not as good as its reputation.
First of all, the action sometimes drags, especially
during the romantic scenes. While the Romans are
given witty and sophisticated dialogue, the slaves
aren't as fortunate. Stone-faced, sexually ambivalent
Curtis has to deliver lines like "It could be argued
so, master." Douglas and Simmons actually have
Douglas: "Oh, Varinia, Don't make me weak".
Simmons: "You're strong enough to be weak."
(several melodramatic lines later)
Douglas: "Oh, Varinia, Varinia, Varinia."
The Romans are portrayed as either brutally
repressive or morally corrupt. The slaves, in
contrast, are gentle and noble, with strong
family units. The consistency of these opposing
depictions reduces the credibility of the film.
The plot also has some needless and unlikely plot
twists towards the end, involving Simmons and Douglas.
Douglas produced "Spartacus", replacing Anthony Mann
with Kubrick after they had an argument. Douglas
and Kubrick had previously worked together on the
superior "Paths of Glory". Kubrick disliked the
script but was stuck with it. Much of the footage
never saw the theatre, and wasn't restored until 1991.
"Spartacus" won the Golden Globe award for Best
Picture. Tellingly, the Academy didn't nominate
"Spartacus" for Best Picture, but it did award Oscars
for Cinematography (Russell Metty), Sets and Costumes,
and Best Supporting Actor (Ustinov).
Copyright © 1998 Brian Koller