Spartacus (1960) dir Stanley Kubrick
Starring: Kirk Douglas, Lawrence Olivier, Peter Ustinov, Jean Simmons, Tony Curtis, Charles Laughton
By Alan Bacchus
Sure ‘Spartacus’ is not a ‘Stanley Kubrick’ picture. It has none of his usual visual hallmarks, hell there’s nary a wideangle tracking shot anywhere in the picture. But ‘Spartacus’ represents a great achievement for the great director man nonetheless, one of the benchmarks of his career, and arguably one of his best pictures.
The story behind the making of the picture is well known, the vehicle for Kirk Douglas, serving as star and executive producer of the legendary story of the Roman slave who rose up against the his tyrannical captors, united his fellow slaves and fought against the powerful Roman army. The first director Anthony Mann, a fine director in his own right, displeased Douglas for his ‘lack of scope’ and thus was fired a week into principal photography. Douglas, having established a good working relationship with Stanley Kubrick on ‘Paths of Glory’, hired Kubrick, then 30 years old, to step in and direct the picture.
Thinking back, the idea of Stanley Kubrick as a hired gun, parachuted into a studio picture and working completely under the auspices of is ridiculous. And indeed Kubrick famously quarrelled with Douglas and didn’t get to have the full command and final cut of his film. But it was a learning experience and since then Kubrick famously worked independently, outside Hollywood, as his own producer and always with complete control of the film.
So what would have Kubrick changed of ‘Spartacus’ if he had control? Apparently some gory battle scenes were cut out. I’d also wager he would have plunked much of Alex North’s music. Despite the acclaim, it’s hit and miss score. In the great montage scenes and the aggressive fight and battle sequence, North provides a rousing rhythmic build up, while in the love scenes, hammers home a whiney overwrought tenderness. Of course Kubrick doing tender romance has never been his strong suit - in fact, he’s never tried it since - and so it makes for the weakest elements of the film.
The best personalities exist on the Roman side of the field. Peter Ustinov is loveable as the foppish slave trader and gladiatorial trainer, especiall his banter with crass and cruel Charles Laughton. And Lawrence Olivier relishes his ambiguously gay legion commander role converting all that homosexuality into typical evilness - as is customary in Hollywood.
As for the heroes, Kirk Douglas plays Spartacus with such godlike deification, and lacking any edge, flaws or internal conflict. Same with Jean Simmons as the devoted wife, Varinia, as mentioned a role softened like melted butter by Alex North’s syrupy leitmotif. Even Tony Curtis who plays the former slave whose skills only include juggling and singing songs is monotone and dull throughout. And so in the final act without action we only have these personalities to drive the picture to its finale. Instead it sputters to a mere whimper.
Such is the trap of many of these epics, especially the ones which present its money shot at the end of the second act. The best moments in the third act include the heroic ‘I am Spartacus’ scene and the heroic fight between Antoninus and Spartacus wherein, the ‘winner’ gets crucified! I still have trouble trying to figure out the motivations in that scene.
So the final act is a stinker. The previous two and a half hours provide some of the most rousing sword and sandal entertainment ever produced in the Hollywood. The entire opening gladiator camp sequence is a truly magnificently extended sequence. The gladiatorial training, led by the gruff-voiced Marcellus (Charles McGraw), shows the fuel for Spartacus’s anger and inhuman barbarism of the Romans. Though, it’s Woody Strode, as the silent Ethiopian who wants to keep to himself and eventually heroically sacrifices his life for Spartacus who steals everyone’s scenes. He’s arguably, the most ‘Kubrick’ of any of the characters.
And of course, when it comes to the climatic confrontation between the Gracchus’ army and Spartacus’ there’s few if any battle scenes hyped up and delivered with more cinematic awesomeness. And to think it was all conceived and choreographed by a 30 year Hollywood outsider with only two comparatively smaller features under his belt. To have and disown a film like this on one’s resume is one of the great anomalous asterixes in Hollywood history.