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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

Reviewer Roundup
1.  Dragan Antulov review follows movie reviewmovie review
2.  Brian Koller read the review movie reviewmovie reviewvideo review
3.  Jerry Saravia read the review ---

Review by Dragan Antulov
2 stars out of 4

1950s weren't the happiest of times for Hollywood talents with leftist sentiments, since in the atmosphere of Cold War hysteria many were considered to be Communists. Many of them were blacklisted by studios and forced to take pseudonyms in order to earn their living. It took great courage for executive producer Kirk Douglas to defy the Blacklist and hire a screenwriter from such blacklist. It took even more courage to use his talent to make adaptation of the novel written by radical leftist Howard Fast. And, to add insult to injury for any hysteric anti-leftists in these times, the subject of the film was life of a man who was considered one of great Communist martyrs and role models. It all happened in 1960 with SPARTACUS, the film that finally ended the era of Hollywood black lists and thus became one of landmark events in the history of American cinema. Unfortunately, its historical importance barely corresponded with the quality, and today it is often considered to be "the worst film ever directed by Stanley Kubrick".

The novel, as well as the film, is based on the events that took place in the first part of 1st Century B.C. Once democratic Roman Empire became the wealthiest and most powerful nation of the world, but with the wealth came corruption and widespread use of slavery. One of such slaves is Spartacus (played by Kirk Douglas), tough Thracian who was sentenced to spend the rest of his life working in Lybian mines, but even in such terrible conditions he didn't cease to defy his captors. Slave trader Batiatus (played by Peter Ustinov) thinks that such fighting spirit could be used, so he buys Spartacus for his gladiator school in Capua, Italy. Spartacus is there being subjected in intense combat training and also develops feelings for slave girl Varinia (played by Jean Simmons). One day the school is visited by powerful Roman politician Marcus Licinius Crassus (played by Laurence Olivier), and Batiatus, in order to entertain two of his lady companions, organises four of his best gladiator fighting to the death. In one of such fights Spartacus is defeated but his opponent Drabba (played by Woody Strode) decides to spare his life and instead sacrifices his own in vain attempt to escape. Spartacus is deeply moved by such event and when his beloved Varinia is being sold away, his personal anger leads to spontaneous act of rebellion that would be joined by all of the gladiators. Soon gladiators overwhelm their guards and the news of their revolt begins spreading like wildfire. Spartacus and his rebels begin plundering rich slave-owners' estates and thousands of escaped and liberated slaves join his band. Spartacus would use his combat skills and experience, as well as his charisma, to organise them into fighting force able to handle any Roman army sent after them. Spartacus begins his campaign towards port city of Brundisium, where he would find to transport slaves outside of Italy into freedom. In the meantime, slave revolt has some important political consequences in Roman Senate. While Crassus wants to use it as a pretext to impose his personal dictatorship, his main rival, liberal senator Crassus (played by Charles Laughton) wants to use the revolt as way to foil such plans and save the Republic.

SPARTACUS had a lot of potential to be one of the greatest films of its era, and the big box-office success and few "Oscars" prove that. Unfortunately, it failed in being anything more than historical spectacle because people behind the project had rather different creative visions. For screenwriter Dalton Trambo this historical story was an excellent opportunity to comment on the social condition of 1950s America, not so subtly disguised in his vision of 1st Century B.C. Roman Republic. Both countries were most powerful in the world, but their old republican institutions and democratic virtues had been corrupted by social injustice and class exploitation, and in both cases ambitious politicians were threatening to use society's paranoia in order to install their own personal dictatorship. It isn't very hard to imagine character of Crassus being inspired by Senator Joe McCarthy.

Unfortunately, when Stanley Kubrick replaced director Anthony Mann after his quarrel with Kirk Douglas, it turned out that Kubrick's vision was quite different. Kubrick, being perfectionist, checked the historical data about Spartacus and concluded that Trambo, just like many PC filmmakers of today, sacrificed historical accuracy for the sake of delivering political message. For example, many important details of Spartacus' campaign and his multiple attempts to lead slaves out of Italy, as well as infighting and desertions within his own ranks, remained outside the script. Furthermore, Trambo's idea to make huge contrast between rich, decadent and utterly depraved Romans on one side, and their hard-working, clean-cut and noble slaves was definitely not in line with Kubrick's own more pessimistic and misanthropic view on human affairs. After unsuccessful attempts to change the script, Kubrick lost interest in the film and did his job as "hired gun".

This becomes evident when we compare first third of the film, which was directed by Mann, with the segments later directed by Kubrick. The segment directed by Mann is the best in the film, because it deals almost exclusively with Spartacus and the events that led to revolt. The audience is being subjected to all harsh realities of the life of slaves and gladiators, and action dominates the words. But as soon as the plot is removed from the gladiator school and Kubrick takes over, film loses momentum. Spartacus and his gladiators are reduced to cardboard characters, and even charisma of Kirk Douglas can't make him as sympathetic as in the first segment of film. Hollywoodised romance between Spartacus and Varinia also doesn't help, being injected in the plot only to give some bright overtones to the dark, yet corny finale. In this segment, bad guys in the form of Romans are more interesting than the slave protagonists. Charles Laughton is simply grand as shrewd, cynical, hedonistic yet kind-hearted Roman Senator. In the case of Crassus, screenwriters obviously didn't know how to reconcile or explain the sharp contrast between Crassus' insistence on old Roman values on one side, and his depravity and ruthless dictatorial ambition on the other. But Laurence Olivier still shows his great talent by making this badly written character memorable. Finally, Peter Ustinov justly deserved his "Oscar" for the role of Batiatus - his character, despite being involved in one of the most deplorable professions of slave trade, comes out as nice guy at the end, not because of some sudden virtue, but because of his humanity. Tony Curtis as slave Antoninus, singer of songs we hear spoken as plain text, on the other hand, played his role very badly, and his character would be remembered simply as the dark object of Crassus' bisexual desire.

Script and characterisation problems aside, SPARTACUS is very attractive film because it doesn't lack spectacle. In the latter part of film, Kubrick obviously tried to compensate the lack of movie's quality with quantity - there are plenty of mass scenes with many interesting details and good use of colour photography by Russell Metty. Unfortunately, the most spectacular scene - the final battle between Spartacus and Roman legions under Crassus - is a failure. We actually don't see why and how the slaves had been beaten and Kubrick's effort to direct some 8,500 Spanish soldiers hired as extras weren't justified. After the last climactic battle, we are presented with its tragic aftermath, and subjected to many extra minutes of historical inaccuracy and pointless melodrama. The music by Alex North is also somewhat disappointing and explains why Kubrick in his later films relied mostly on non-original soundtrack.

For some people three hours spent in front of SPARTACUS might seem wasted, but despite being much overrated, this historical epic can be quite entertaining. It is especially interesting because of the insight given into one important and splendid era of American motion picture industry, as well into the early career of Stanley Kubrick.

Copyright 2000 Dragan Antulov

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