Monday, 10 April 2017

Spartacus (1960)

”Spartacus” is one of those movie I am quite familiar with. I watched it back in high school when we had a Roman theme and I remember it as being an exciting movie to watch for a teenage boy with a penchant for antique history, though also that I was disappointed by the ending. I mean, they killed our hero!

It has been many years since then and revisiting “Spartacus” is a mixed pleasure. On some accounts it is better than I remember, but on others I cannot help being disappointed and that surprised me. I did expect it to confirm all my happy memories.

“Spartacus” belongs to a category of sandal and sword monster productions in vogue in the late fifties and early sixties. It was, I suspect, the recognized recipe for a blockbuster and as such it is firing on all cylinders to provide a magnificent spectacle, keeping in mind that all those invested dollars have to be earned back again. It is a long movie, around three hours, in splendid colors and hosting thousands of extras in truly impressive battle scenes. The sets are spectacular with elegant Roman villas, a gladiator school and grand battlefields. Costumes and equipment all look authentic and not least, the cast is first class.

Kirk Douglas is of course the central figure as Spartacus. No wonder, as that is the title character and Douglas was the man behind the movie. He was executive producer and it was his own production company, Bryna that made the movie. However, the actor that steals the picture is Laurence Olivier as Crassus, the Roman senator. Olivier was known as one of the best actors of the era, but I have often been underwhelmed by his appearance and felt his pretentiousness to be in the way of the roles he was playing. Not so in “Spartacus”. Laurence Olivier IS Crassus. I saw a statue of the man and he even looks like Olivier. The Roman arrogance is dripping from him, but not in the sycophantic and effeminate fashion normally associated with arrogance, but from sheer power. This is a man who knows he is better, stronger, richer and more deserving than anybody else. He is Patrician with capital P. Not a small feat, but for Olivier is perfect.

Peter Ustinov, Jean Simmons and Charles Laughton are all excellent and had it not been for Olivier I would have devoted more space to their praise. Tony Curtis and John Dall seem miscast, Curtis is not believable as a very young effeminate singer and Dall just resembles a country bumpkin from the Midwest, not a Roman general.

Anyway, this is all good, so what is my problem?

The problem is that “Spartacus” is far more interested in promoting a cause than telling an actual story. Never mind all the gimmicks included to please the perceived interests of an audience, that goes with the territory in a big production. I am pleased that for once this is a sword and sandal movie without biblical aspirations. The cause here is the struggle for freedom from an oppressive power. This was the crusade of the western world during the cold war and in 1960 we are right smack in at the height of that conflict. It is not difficult at all to see Spartacus’ slaves as oppressed people in the east block rebelling against the tyrannical and inhuman power of the Soviet. The slaves are freedom loving every-men and women of valor but low birth with a just cause and the Romans are evil, arrogant powermongers with no regard at all for subhuman slaves. This sort of black and white painting is typical Hollywood and ensures that the message gets received, but the actual story suffers greatly because of it.

Romans always gets to be the bad guys in movies. I suppose the Bible and Christian traditions have given the Romans so much bad publicity that they are forever stained in the eyes of the modern public, but when you get down to the core of things the Romans were not worse than anybody else. In fact much of what we admire and strive for are of Roman origin. Trustworthiness, legal justice, peaceful trade, religious freedom and civil comfort are all Roman virtues. Every society in antiquity held slaves. Everybody waged wars and blood-sport was not a Roman invention, tasteless as it is. Frankly, bull fighting is not that far removed from gladiator games.

I found the political battle between Crassus and Gracchus far more interesting this time round and while this is presented as callous political plotting with the slaves as pawns, this is also a window into the Roman conflict between patricians and plebeians and, even more interesting, the struggle between the pluralistic rule of the Senate and the dictatorial rule that eventually would become the empire. This is a super interesting era in Roman history and I gobble up every bit of it and find that the taste of what “Spartacus” serves us is often foul.   

But then again that is not the mission of “Spartacus”. This is about the struggle for freedom and to that end sentiments and aspirations are given to the slaves that I seriously doubt they had. In reality the slave army was not betrayed by Cilician pirates, but chose to stay in Italy to plunder. How is that for noble, freedom seeking every-men?

“Spartacus” is a spectacle and that is what we get. It is entertaining, but it is also hamfisted. I do not see Stanley Kubrick here at all. This is so different from anything he did. But I see a lot of Kirk Douglas and that is also okay. And for the performance of Laurence Olivier I can forgive “Spartacus” anything.



  1. I think it's interesting that all the Romans are British and the slaves are Americans! Jean Simmons is kind of between the two worlds?! if you ever get a chance, the movie Trumbo has a long bit about the writing of the film in which Douglas defied the Hollywood establishment to give the black-listed writer his first official screen credit since the black list was instituted.

    it's hard to choose between the actors. I am also very fond of Ustinov and Laughton.

    1. You have a point there, on the Romans being British and the slaves being American. I do not think it is a coincidence. John Dall is a noteworthy exception.

      I did indeed watch Trumbo and was very happy about it. Considering how buried I have been in 1950'ies movies lately that was a movie I just had to watch. Douglas deserves a lot of credit for ending the blacklist, but having said that I do not think Spartacus was Trumbo's finest script ever. Yes there are great lines and some unfogettable dialogues, but there are also parts that work less well. For me Trumbo's moment of glory was Roman Holiday.

      I forgot to mention in the review that this concludes 1960. I will now join you for 1961.

  2. I find a lot of Biblical epics to be pretty ham-fisted, this one no more than many others and far less than drippy messes like The Robe.

    I'm with Marie on Trumbo. It's a worthy watch.

    1. Certainly, if you compare Spartacus with it contemporary biblical equivalents, then it is truly refreshing. The simple fact that it is secular in orientation gives it a lot of points in my book.
      But then when you compare it with Kubrick's other movies it is far less subtle and elegant. Paths of Glory may be a much cheaper movie, but is in many ways far more satisfying.
      Yes, Trumbo is a great movie, see my reply above.