Pros:Epic set pieces, generally well handled quieter scenes, classic Alex North score.
Cons:The dialogue suffers at times from the Hollywood "Biblical" tradition.
The Bottom Line: SPARTACUS remains the strongest, most exciting, most moving of Roman Epics because the characters have emotional validity. It is far superior to GLADIATOR (Scott, 2000), which attempted to emulate it.
SPARTACUS (Mann/Kubrick, 1960) gives us the essentially true story of one of the many christlike figures who appeared around the beginning of the First Millenium A.D.
It is inherent in the teachings of Jesus Christ, as found in The Bible, that all men are sinners; all men equal in the gaze of God. That revolutionary, dangerous notion had been stirring in the Middle East at least since Amenhotep IV (Pharaoh Ikhnaton) of the Egyptians in the 14th Century B.C. For well over a millenium, the cruel, capricious religions of the various great empires served the wealthy and powerful, making the majority of men slaves.
By the middle of the 5th Century B.C., the concept of "a republic" was being floated as a means of balancing and maintaining power and property. We see democracy in the Greek City States, and the plebeians choose their own tribune in Rome, but both societies are supported by slavery.
The meteoric figure of Alexander the Great in the 4th Century B.C. provided, in legend at least, the noble model of a man who judged others not by their class but by their abilities. His premature death caused unrest over much of the civilized world, and his visage was adopted by others on coinage for hundreds of years after his passing. In the 4th Century B.C., too, the Jews revolted in Persia, and Rome's rebellious plebeians achieved full equality with the patricians. In the next centuries came insurrection in Egypt over high taxes, and the Revolt of the Maccabeas in Judeah. But the majority of men were still slaves.
It is at this point that new, miraculous religions arose promising "heaven" for all; and self proclaimed, competing messiahs clamored on every street corner of the established empires, a process which continues to this very day.
Then, in 71 B.C., an unknown gladiator led a revolt of his fellows against the Roman Republic and gave a name and a face of sorts to the wretched of mankind: Spartacus. His revolt of the gladiators fed on the slavery, poverty, and resentment of people in the countryside, and for a brief historical moment challenged the growing power of Rome. Because many gladiators were former soldiers and knew some military strategy and tactics, Spartacus gave the Roman professional army under Consuls Pompey and Crassus a run for their silver denari until sheer numbers put his scarred back to the sea.
My last paragraph is essentially the plot of Dalton Trumbo's 196 minute epic. Trumbo (KITTY FOYLE, 1940; ROMAN HOLIDAY, 1953), newly off the Communist blacklist, must have seen something of a parallel between himself as a rebellious Hollywood writer/wage slave and the downtrodden Spartacus.
Trumbo went all out.
Producer Kirk Douglas (CHAMPION, 1949; ACE IN THE HOLE, 1951; LUST FOR LIFE, 1956) plays the title role of Spartacus with unusual restraint, and offers an interesting contrast in acting style with his counterpart, Laurence Olivier as Crassus. (Pompey, who was the real winner in the affair, and later fought it out with Julius Caesar for the Empire, is little seen.) Jean Simmons makes a beautiful, gentle slave heroine, and Tony Curtis is a kind of sidekick. Charles Laughton as a Roman senator represents the tottering institution of the Roman Republic while Peter Ustinov provides commentary and comic relief as a good hearted, cowardly rogue, for which he received an Academy Award.
SPARTACUS moves on a number of splendid set pieces that contrast the polite savagery of the Roman Patricians and the desperate brotherhood of the rebels. We see Spartacus first rebel against the drudgery of his work in a Roman province. Then, after he has been sentenced to gladiatorial service, we witness the cruel interest in and human indifference of Roman visitors (Olivier, John Dall, Nina Foch) toward a fight to the death between Spartacus and an Abyssinian gladiator (Woody Strode). Underlined by Alex North's alternately tumultuous and sensitive musical score, there follows the revolt itself, the humanizing of Spartacus through love, the initial victories and the final defeat of the Gladiators.
Kirk Douglas, born a poor boy as Issur Daniclovitch Demsky, was clearly warmed to passion by this project. Shortly into the shoot he fired Director Anthony Mann (BEND IN THE RIVER, 1951) and hired Stanley Kubrick, with whom he had worked on probably his best film, PATHS OF GLORY, 1957. Kubrick's commercial reputation and financial independence was established by SPARTACUS (although he disowned it). Mann went on to make the epics EL CID, 1961 and THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE, 1964.
In the crucifixion of the still unrecognized Spartacus and his brother slaves on the road to Rome, we are intended to make a connection between Spartacus, Christ and all those who have risen up for their beliefs against oppressors, and paid with their skewered lives.
A longer Director's Cut, which explores and contrasts the nature of the homo-erotic elements of this clash of social classes, appeared in 1991.
Most Hollywood epics look campy, amusing -- absurd -- after 40 or 50 years. SPARTACUS remains impressive.
Red Room Edition Note: When this review of SPARTACUS was first published in 2000, the 911 strike of the Muslim terrorists was well in the future. Looking back on over a decade in the idiocy of how we handled that incident (as "an opportunity," as "Another Pearl Harbor" by Neo-con lights), it is clear to me that we have become "The Romans" and spawned untold numbers of Spartacus martyrs crying out against our greed, brutality, and arrogance.
Causes Alex Fraser Supports