Hello and welcome to the latest installment of Directed Viewing. This series takes a look at a specific director at a time and then tackles their filmography in chronological order, with an eye not only to the films themselves but how they fit together to create a cohesive (or not) picture of the artist behind them. Sure, it’s redolent with auteur presumptions, but it’s also great fun!
We’ve been digging into the work of Stanley Kubrick the past few weeks, and it’s certainly been an eye-opening experience to explore the early work of the man who would become a household name for landmark movie making. Undoubtedly that will become true, but it sure wasn’t the case in the first four movies, even if I very much liked two of them. And that’s also the case for this film, maybe the last one that isn’t clearly identified as belonging wholly to Kubrick. It’s the movie whose success allowed him to become the man he became, but what of that springboard itself?
Well, that’s a complicated question to answer.
This wasn’t even supposed to be Kubrick’s movie. I think that’s important to discuss right off the bat. Blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo’s adaptation of the novel by Howard Fast had a director: Anthony Mann, known mostly for westerns during the 50s. However, shortly after shooting began on the first sequences in the film, star Kirk Douglas decided Mann wasn’t cutting it and had him removed. In his place went young Stanley Kubrick, who Douglas had stood by during the difficult and controversal shooting of Paths of Glory.
This explains a lot, because Spartacus feels very anti-Kubrickian, and by the time he got around to making his own epic with the full command of his creative faculties (Barry Lyndon, which I’m very excited to get to as it was going into this project my favorite Kubrick movie) the movie he made seemed almost aggressively opposed to the ideas presented in Spartacus. Which doesn’t mean this movie is bad, per se. No, that we leave up to a bunch of other things that bog down the film. But let’s get the facts out of the way, first.
Spartacus (Douglas) is a slave in Libya, and we come across him as he lashes out at his slaveowners for being cruel and is punished by being chained to a rock to die. He’s rescued by Batiatus (Peter Ustinov, who makes a small role into a scene-stealing one), who decides his spirit will make him perfect for Batiatus’ gladitorial training camp. Here over the course of much of the first third of the movie Spartacus is trained in the ways of war, and ends up having a quaintly chaste relationship with Varinia (Jean Simmons, looking very composed and well made up for a slave) who is part of the harem kept to keep the gladiators happy at night.
Eventually they training camp is visited by Crassus and his entourage, including two spoiled upper class women who insist on watching fights to the death despite the fact the school has rules forbidding killing in order to sell the trained gladiators to surrounding towns. Crassus (Laurence Olivier) pays off Batiatus, and Spartacus and several others are selected to fight. This raises tensions to the point that shortly after the performances Spartacus lashes out at his guards, and incites a riot that breaches the school, the slaves taking up arms and forming an army to insist on their freedom through force.
Most of the rest of the movie involves Spartacus’ efforts to free the thousands of people who end up making up his travelling tribe of liberated slaves and the machinations of Crassus back in Rome, who uses the slave rebellion as leverage to convince the Roman senate to make him emperor of all of Rome. Wars are fought, people are betrayed, and Spartacus ends up becoming a legend through the Roman empire, even as he struggles to balance the demands of leading his people and forming a family with Varinia, who ends up having his child while they are sojourning through the countryside.
Eventually Spartacus is forced into a trap that pins him in on all sides by Roman armies unless he tries to take Rome itself by force, doomed to fail as he comes up against the armies that Crassus himself commands outside the city. Most of the slaves are slaughtered, and the few captives are rounded up. This is where the most famous scene takes place, as the Romans demand to know who Spartacus is and one by one each man stands to identify himself as the hero, a sacrifice that leads them all to their death in service of turning Spartacus from outlaw to martyr.
Now, that all sounds well and good, I suppose, but I feel like there’s something that needs to be made clear: this is a swords and sandals epic made in 1960. If you’ve never seen one of those, it’s a movie that basically doesn’t exist anymore. Nearly three hours long, with an intermission built right in, it’s a movie with a cast of literally thousands, giant sets and elaborate costuming, all in service of telling a story at a pace that might best be described as glacial. This isn’t Gladiator, hell it’s not even Troy or Kingdom of Heaven, the closest modern movies have gotten to doing another one of these. It is of its own type, up there with Cleopatra and The Ten Commandmentsand any other number of big ancient period pieces.
What does that mean in practical terms? The movie is god damn boring. I really wish I could coach it in nicer language, but let’s face facts, it’s a huge giant mess of wasting my time, and I don’t care if these kinds of films had their time or their place, that time is over and even someone like me who adores old movies found it genuinely arduous to sit through.
I heap most of the blame onto the script. The story is almost resolutely simplistic, with clear villains and heroes and not an ounce of nuance to spare. I’ve heard it claimed that the script was written to play as a parable for communism, the same workers-versus-the-wealthy narrative that is deeply embedded in the beliefs of that movement, especially since at that point writer Dalton Trumbo had been railroaded out of Hollywood for years during the fallout of McCarthyism. I’m not sure that’s true, admittedly I’m not that good at sussing out the symbolism of 1960s politics in fiction. But if so it would explain why the script is so barren of anything but the most strident of hero-worship propaganda for its hero, of utter disregard for its villain.
Kirk Douglas is a great actor, but Spartacus is boring. He’s wise and good in every way, completely without fault. He is simply a man trying to do right, and seemingly succeeds in every way. At his opposite, you have Laurence Olivier, one of the greatest classical actors of the 20th century, stuffed into a role that he can barely do anything with. Crassus is scheming and cast as entirely unsympathetic (and weirdly in one scene heavily hints at being bisexual, a thing presented as being unseemly in a way that seems as out of place as blackface today). It’s frustrating to see both actors essentially wasted, because they’re both better than their roles and given the situation presented by the plot you’d expect to see more fire from both of them. Instead, it’s all ground out under the pedestrian words they’re forced to spit out over and over again as the film stretches into forever.
And yet, it’s not as if it’s entirely a waste. There are fight scenes that are surprisingly visceral and bloody, and as usual for movies like this everything looks vast and expensive in a way movies don’t look now that we have CG doing most of the heavy lifting. And by the very end, when Spartacus and Crassus meet for the last time and everything is at its darkest point, the movie actually manages to end on a rather interesting note, one that doesn’t quite salvage the entire film that came before but at least offers a satisfying button on the giant mass that came before.
In trying to talk about Kubrick, I wish I felt I had more to say here, but to be honest it barely feels like his film. This is one of those movies that’s entirely without directorial voice, left up to the actors and the screenwriter. So I’d happily lay this all at the feet of Trumbo, or even Douglas. It’s a strange footnote in the career of the director in question, and I’m happy to move past it.
But then again, it’s considered to be a classic, so if you have an affinity for the movie, feel free to throw down in the comments. I’d love to hear what people like about it, as I found it not much more than a giant chore. Willing to chalk that up to my sensibilities, though, and admit others might see differently. Certainly this is one of the times when the critical opinion of history doesn’t side with me in the least.