PG-13 | 3 h 17 min | Drama, Epic | 1960
The story’s simple enough, based loosely on real-life Roman-era figures. A gladiator-slave, Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) breaks free, rustles up a rebel army, and challenges the might of a crumbling Roman Empire. Through the loyalty and love of his men he grows to command, this lowly, one-time slave towers above the most decorated Romans in morality and courage, who, for all their clout, command neither love nor loyalty.
Three men embody Rome’s decadence: Senator Crassus (Laurence Olivier), Batiatus (Peter Ustinov) whose gladiator-slaves entertain Rome’s elite, and Crassus’s fellow power-monger Gracchus (Charles Laughton).
Unlike famed 1950s epics (“Ten Commandments,” “Ben Hur,” “Quo Vadis”), “Spartacus” avoids religious themes, dwelling instead on the universal hunger for freedom. It’s shot, largely, in the United States (Los Angeles!), not Europe, although select scenes are filmed in Spain. And Stanley Kubrick, at 30, becomes one of the youngest at the time to direct a film of that scale, with a mammoth cast including thousands of extras and stunt crew.
Spartacus is heroic not just for his way with weapons but for his refusal to use his power against the weak and readiness to use it against the powerful. Despite Batiatus’s goading, Spartacus refuses to exploit fellow-slave Varinia (Jean Simmons). Instead, he protects her, roaring: “I’m not an animal!”
Kubrick humanizes Spartacus, as a man who can laugh at others, with others, even at himself; as a warrior who respects rather than ridicules poetry and song; and as an illiterate who regards the learned with civility, not contempt.
Once, confronted by fierce military odds, plagued by self-doubt, and worried that his swelling army of followers will spot his fear, Spartacus pleads with Varinia, “Don’t make me weak.” She answers, “You’re strong enough to be weak.”
The gladiator-slaves rebel with Spartacus as one man, suddenly, explosively, but Kubrick offers no backstory, no elaborate plotting or scheming, just quiet and decisive action. Every man decides for himself, and because each is as convinced as Spartacus is, they act with purpose, not seeking honor, or recognition, merely freedom.
This foreshadows a memorable scene later on. Threatened with death by Rome, if they don’t disclose who their leader is, each rebel rises in turn, “I’m Spartacus!”
Magnificent long shots show the intensity of the challenge during a summer for Roman conquerors to keep their conquered in check: miles of dry, hostile country, with rock after rock, mountain after mountain, all beneath an unforgiving sun.
Powered by Alex North’s majestic soundtrack, Kubrick’s extreme wide shots add meaning, infuse context. When Spartacus and Varinia ride at dusk, they’re silhouetted against a wide, open sky that echoes their first taste of freedom.
Kubrick shows you the sea, the snow, the rain, the rebel campfires at night, and the maps used to plot their advance. He shoots gladiator scenes like he’s in a fight, with camera angles from above, from below, moving in, weaving out, circling around. You hear labored breathing as clanging blades ring out, you see sweat glisten off fevered necks.
Yet Kubrick takes his time with meditative shots. There’s barely a word in a four-minute sequence before Draba and Spartacus start a fight “to the death” to entertain Batiatus’s frivolous guests. They’re inside a holding cell, waiting for another pair of fighters, Crixus and Galino, to finish. The camera looks in at the men inside through a crevice as they ponder their destiny; then the camera looks out at the pair outside, who, likewise, bear no enmity toward each other, yet are compelled to battle.
Nearly 80,000 fans at a Notre Dame-Michigan State football game were commissioned just to record the crowd roars of “Hail Crassus” and “I’m Spartacus.”
Ustinov sparkles with wicked humor. As Batiatus waits to host Crassus, he spies a lingering stone-carved bust of Gracchus. Knowing it’ll rile Crassus to see homage to his political rival at such close quarters, Batiatus heaves at the stone to hide it, and when it doesn’t budge, shrouds it swiftly with a rag, peeking only to say, “Forgive me, Gracchus!”
Gripping opening credits reveal the sculpted face of a proud Roman (believed to represent Caesar) fragmenting as the camera closes in. Kubrick warns that he’s showcasing the hollow “victories” of oppressive regimes that try to crush the human spirit, but end up sowing the seeds of their own destruction.
Screenwriter Dalton Trumbo’s witty script builds on Howard Fast’s novel of the same name, coming into its own in scenes of Roman intrigue. Crassus’s callow protege Glabrus gushes with gratitude when honored with the charge of a garrison, wondering how he’ll repay the favor. Promising to cash in, crafty Crassus smiles, “Time will solve that mystery.”
Later, in language familiar to tyrants of any epoch, Crassus drones on with an air of dismal inevitability, “The enemies of the state are known. Arrests are in progress. The prisons begin to fill. In every city and province, lists of the disloyal have been compiled.”
Naturally, audiences may wonder if totalitarian regimes are worth defying at all. With every cell in his body, Spartacus answers: Yes. Always, yes!
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Starring: Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Peter Ustinov, Charles Laughton
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 3 hours, 17 minutes
Release Date: Oct. 19, 1960
Rated: 4 stars out of 5