It is really interesting to see why this film, Spartacus was made in the first place. Obviously, historical epics were massively successful during this time period. But this particular film was made as an answer to 1959’s Ben-Hur. In fact, it was Kirk Douglas’s answer to that movie. Douglas was originally set to star in that movie, but Charlton Heston was cast over Douglas at the last minute, giving Douglas a feeling of bitter resentment. Both films have a very common theme: one man rising against the mighty Roman Empire to fight for their beliefs. I think Ben-Hur is the better film, but there is much to admire about this film.
The movie, based off the popular novel by Howard Fast, was written by Dalton Trumbo. Trumbo is a well-known screenwriter, not only for his writing talent but because he was blacklisted because of his associated ties with communism. Kirk Douglas and director Stanley Kubrick stood strong behind their screenwriter and they publicly announced Trumbo wrote their movie, instead of Trumbo hiding behind a pseudonym. I found that to be a very courageous move on the part of Douglas and Kubrick, because that could have easily hurt the movie’s chance at the box office. Luckily, the film was a box office smash and was very popular with the critics and the audience alike.
This film has a Roman slave named Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) as the film’s central character. Spartacus is held at a gladiatorial school ran by the amusing Lentulus Batiatus (Peter Ustinov). One day, he starts a revolt because he became angered at the notion of fighting to the death for the entertainment of spoiled women. This revolt soon spread all across Italy, where thousands of slaves joined the cause. Their plan was for Silesian pirates to transport them away from Italy to new lands. Meanwhile in Rome, Senator Gracchus (Charles Laughton) schemes to have the slaves taken down by a Roman garrison. After they failed, his mentor Marcus Licinius Crassus (Laurence Olivier) decides to lead his own army against Spartacus’s slaves. Now Spartacus must face the might and power of the Roman army.
Now compared to other epics of the time, I didn’t like this film as much. It’s certainly not a bad film, not even close to being so. The problem is the movie is a tad overlong and the story drags at certain moments. Some of the dialogue was cheesy too. By today’s standards, the dialogue does not hold up very well and some of the words are laughingly bad. These complaints dragged the movie down, but only to a very small degree.
There are many things I did admire about the film. There are plenty of majestic battle sequences and I liked them very much. I loved watching how the revolt started and I was cheering for Spartacus the entire time. I liked the political backdrop of the movie. Obviously, Spartacus uprising has a major political undertone which is revolution, a very appropriate theme. We also get to go behind the scenes and see how Roman politics influenced the war. It’s a common fact that Roman senators always schemed against each other. The film also did something different, when compared to other epics. These other epics usually provide the normal happy ending. Well, that is not much the case with this film. If you follow history, you’ll know the fate of Spartacus. But I’m not going to spoil anything for those who don’t know. But the ending was very powerful and memorable. Speaking of powerful, my favorite scene was when a Roman general asked Spartacus’s army where Spartacus was. Each soldier stood up and said, “I’m Spartacus.” A very powerful scene showing the loyalty the slaves had for Spartacus and his cause.
This film was the first big film of Stanley Kubrick’s career. He was 30 when he directed the film, but he already had 4 feature films under his belt before this film. He masterfully directed the film, but it is publicly known that he disowned the film. It’s his most straightforward film, and it was nominated for 6 Oscars (and won 4 of them). But Kubrick didn’t like the film he made. He is one of my favorite directors, and you’ll see more reviews of his films down the line.
The film features fine performances from everyone involved. One of Kubrick’s strengths is getting the very best out of his actors. Kirk Douglas portrayed Spartacus as a strong man driven by perseverance. Peter Ustinov, who won Best Supporting Actor at the Oscars for his role as Batiatus, does a wonderful job. He is consistently funny and he has a great screen presence whenever onscreen. Laurence Olivier delivers a deep performance as Crassus, who is identified as bisexual in the movie. Jean Simmons does a good job as Varinia, the wife of Spartacus. She delivered some emotional performances. Just watch the ending of the movie to see why I say so. Also, keep an eye on a meaty supporting turn by Tony Curtis as Antoninus, the man who loves Spartacus like a brother. Finally, Charles Laughton is great as the soft-hearted scheming Roman Senator, Gracchus.
Overall, I liked Spartacus, but I didn’t really love it much. It runs into some boring stretches and parts of the movie such as the dialogue and costumes don’t hold up well. But I liked how the film strived to be more historically accurate than previous epics. This is a nice film to learn something about Ancient Rome. The film does feature wonderful, bold performances, great direction, good production design, and spectacular battles. Not the greatest epics ever made, but good enough.
My Grade: B