1960’s Spartacus was a laborious film for all involved. After one week of filming under the helm of Anthony Mann, Stanley Kubrick took over as director. Working with a script by blacklisted Dalton Trumbo that feels pulled between political views of the time and a main character paralleling Moses, Kubrick nonetheless created a beautiful and stirring epic that has stood the test of time and has become an iconic classic.
Kirk Douglas plays Spartacus, a rebellious slave in Ancient Rome. He is recruited by Batiatus (Peter Ustinov) to become a gladiator. While this is presented as an opportunity, it is just another form of slavery, where the men are treated like thoroughbred horses and trained until it is time to fight to the death. During this time, Spartacus meets Varina (Jean Simmons). Rather she is sent to his room, as gladiators are rewarded with slave women. With the famous line, “I am not an animal!,” Spartacus’ and Varina’s relationship begins as one of quiet, restrained emotion and respect. When a visit from Marcus Glabrus (John Dall) leaves Spartacus lucky to be alive, a riot soon follows. Once the gladiators escape, Spartacus brings them together as an ever-growing army of former slaves with hopes of ending slavery and overthrowing Rome. Of course, this makes Spartacus a threat and enemy to all of Rome.
Spartacus was nominated for six Academy Awards and won four. The film was nominated for, but did not win, the awards for Best Film Editing and Music Scoring. It did win for Art Direction and Costume Design for a film in color. Russell Metty received the Oscar for Best Cinematography, though it’s rumored that most of the work was done by Kubrick himself. And Peter Ustinov won for Best Supporting Actor, the only actor ever to win under Kubrick’s direction.
Most films by Stanley Kubrick have a very distinct, intangible feel to them, something that is not very present in Spartacus. Instead, it feels more like the biblical epics of the period: Ben Hur, The Ten Commandments, and The Robe for example. This may be credited to the fact that this was the last film Kubrick directed that he did not have total artistic control over.
One of the most famous scenes from Spartacus was not in the original theatrical release. In the scene, Crassus (Laurence Olivier) coyly attempts to seduce young Antonious (Tony Curtis). It includes a conversation on whether a man prefers “oysters or snails” as euphemism for homosexuality. Both The Production Code Administration and the Legion of Decency rejected the sequence, and it was cut until the restoration of the film in 1991. However, the audio for the scene was long lost, and Sir Laurence had since passed away. As a result, it’s Anthony Hopkins, in his best Olivier impression, heard as the voice of Crassus.
Spartacus is a marathon of a film (over 3 hours) that, like other epics of its time, can feel like a real commitment. However, it is a smart, engaging film as well as an exciting ride with a good amount of action. It boasts a diverse list of great actors, all of whom give great performances, especially Douglas and Ustinov. Art geeks might want to seek it out for Saul Bass’ contributions, both in the credits and a few key scenes. And though it doesn’t have that unmistakably Kubrick atmosphere, it is still an important film for anyone wanting to broaden their views on his work.
“I am Spartacus!”
With a life long love of film and writing, Alyson Krier has decided to watch and review all the Best Picture nominees throughout the history of the Academy Awards on her ever expanding blog, The Best Picture Project.