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movie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Spartacus

Starring: Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 196 Minutes
Release Date: October 1960
Genres: Classic, Action, Drama

*Also starring: Jean Simmons, Tony Curtis, Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov, John Gavin, Nina Foch, Herbert Lom, John Ireland, Charles McGraw

Review by Jerry Saravia
No Rating Supplied

A 70mm Cinemascope spectacular directed by Mr. Stanley Kubrick, a format of film ratio in the same breadth since its inception in 1953's "The Robe," as well as many other epics. No, this is not "2001: A Space Odyssey." It is one of Kubrick's lesser works, at least in contrast with the films he created later on. "Spartacus" is the "Gladiator" of 1960 and far superior to its modern counterpart. It is often beautifully made, wonderfully scored, and exceptionally acted by most of the principal actors, but it is also a long-winded story with not enough pathos to warrant a more than three-hour length.

Spartacus (played by the dignified Kirk Douglas) is a born slave selected to become a gladiator by the brutal yet cowardly Batiatus (Peter Ustinov, who won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar). Spartacus joins a gladiator school that has a tough regiment which includes running, jumping, dueling and avoiding a spinning ball with blunt projections (later used to similar effect in countless films including "First Knight"). These training gladiators are treated like prisoners of war - they are housed in dark, unpleasant dungeons where outside light hardly exists. Women are given to them to be pleased, but Spartacus proves to be impotent since love is something he is not experienced in - some of these scenes show the tender side of Kirk Douglas that has rarely been shown before or since.

One day, the domineering, sardonic General Crassus (Laurence Olivier) visits the school along with some gleefully depraved friends to watch a real fight to the death. Batiatus is reluctant to stage such a fight but gives in anyway. Spartacus and an Ethiopian (played by the late Woody Strode) fight for the pleasure of the spectators, who interestingly seem to ignore the brutal fight until the moment of the kill. The Ethiopian chooses not to kill Spartacus while holding him down, and is thus killed by Crassus.

Later, there is a revolt against the guards and an escape, though the slaves first stage similar fights to the death among the surviving guards. Spartacus is disgusted at such conduct in general, and persuades the slaves to fight the Romans in full glory, perhaps they could be called the "paths of glory." The rest of the film focuses on Spartacus' strategies to fight the Roman legions through most of Italy, while the Senate deals with the aspiring dictatorial machinations of Crassus in contrast with the older, wiser General Gracchus (Charles Laughton), who is wholly opposed to his sadistic, prideful antagonist. It is like a political campaign full of the usual backstabbers and irate politicians.

The film's pleasures are listening to these Senate hearings, and the conversations between Crassus and Batiatus, and Batiatus and Gracchus - both Crassus and Gracchus are politicians with slightly different agendas on how to attack Spartacus' army. There is also some unusual insights on the private lives of Crassus and Gracchus, particularly for 1960. We learn that Crassus is bisexual and also pines for Spartacus' wife, Varinia (Jean Simmons). There is an originally censored scene, later restored, where Crassus shares a bath with a slave, Antoninus (Tony Curtis), who later joins Spartacus' army. The sly discussion is on oysters and snails, and Crassus admits he likes both oysters and snails (Olivier's lines were later post-dubbed by Anthony Hopkins for the 1990 restoration). In contrast, Gracchus is merely a womanizer and lives with several women who attend to his every whim.

If "Spartacus" suffers, it is from the developing relationship between Spartacus and Varinia, another former slave, which is often playful but mostly dated in its peculiar innocence. There must have been some strain on their marriage considering the chaos in and around Rome and her incoming pregnancy but because of the time in which this film was released, one must not fret over such details.

Another flaw is how Spartacus is presented in the film. The adapted screenplay by the formerly blacklisted Dalton Trumbo focuses on the strength of Spartacus as a skilled fighter and his transition into an exceptional general with an acute sense of planning battle strategies. The first half of the film certainly shows that side of Spartacus, but as the film spans its 196 minute running time, we find that less focus is placed on Spartacus and more on Varinia's eventual escape from the throes of Crassus, who wants to possess and own her. By the end of the film, Spartacus becomes a supporting player who is left crucified on a cross as are all his troop members.

"Spartacus" is often breathtaking and alluring, and the battle scenes are well-directed and disorienting. This is a film that must be seen in a theatre, particularly to be astounded by the 70mm format that fills our own field of vision in ways most movies today do not. As compared to most of Kubrick's epics, however, which never seem dated and evolve with each passing generation, this one is just a pleasant time filler, an interlude for those interested in Kubrick's career. It is the one film where he had the least creative control over his vision, and it shows.

Copyright 1998 Jerry Saravia

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