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Posts Tagged ‘Spartacus’

Twenty years on from his death, the world seems to be thinking of Stanley Kubrick more than ever: an exhibition is currently running in London of props and personal effects from the Kubrick archives, a few weeks ago A Clockwork Orange enjoyed a re-release, there was a mini-season of his films across various BBC channels… then again, it does seem that Kubrick casts a longer shadow than most, and his films are revived on a regular basis (and quite right too, you might say). This even includes the one major film over which Kubrick did not have complete creative control, with the result that he was so dissatisfied that he effectively disowned it.

I speak, of course, of 1960’s Spartacus, onto which he was brought after the original director, Anthony Mann, was fired after only a week’s filming had been completed. The making of this film seems to have been unusually colourful: the project was initiated by star Kirk Douglas after he failed to win the lead role in Ben-Hur, found itself in a race with a rival Spartacus project involving Yul Brynner, was instrumental in destroying the Hollywood blacklist by crediting screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (Douglas recalls being rather disgusted by Kubrick’s eagerness to take the credit for the script), and so on.

This is entirely in keeping with a film which purports to be a retelling of one of the most intriguing stories of antiquity: the Third Servile War, also known as Spartacus’ rebellion against the Roman republic. Little is known of the actual history of these events, the Romans being characteristically reluctant to keep records of an incident they felt to be profoundly embarrassing. Given so little is known, I suppose it is quite impressive that the film manages to get the majority of the facts wrong.

Still, the story remains very roughly accurate in most respects: Kirk Douglas plays Spartacus, a man born into slavery but still possessed of a stubborn and rebellious streak: enough to get him into serious trouble in the mines where he has spent most of his life. He is saved from a death sentence by the gladiatorial entrepreneur Batiatus (Peter Ustinov), who brings him to his school in Capua where a brutal training regime begins. Pretty much the only solace he gets, other than the sense of brotherhood that inevitably develops between the gladiators, is a low-key romance with a slave-girl named Varinia (Jean Simmons).

But all the ends with the visit of the ruthless soldier and politician Marcus Licinius Crassus (Laurence Olivier), who takes a fancy to Varinia and purchases her from Batiatus. He also informs Batiatus that he expects to see gladiators fight to the death for his entertainment and that of his distinguished young companions. Spartacus narrowly avoids death in the ensuing combat, but resentment festers amongst the slaves, and when he learns he is never to see Varinia again, Spartacus snaps and launches a revolt against the masters of the school. Soon all the countryside around Capua is in uproar and the rulers of Rome must decide on their response to the gathering slave army in the countryside…

Over the last fifty or sixty years, Spartacus has become a hardy perennial of the TV schedules, and I have watched the initial hour or so of the movie many, many times. This is mainly because the first act of the movie barely puts a foot wrong in establishing the characters and tone of the movie. The sequence culminating in the arena fight between Douglas and Woody Strode, in particular, is an exemplary demonstration of how to build up to, stage, and choreograph this kind of action set-piece, and a genuine highlight of the film. Of course, it also introduces Olivier as Crassus, thus setting up the much longer middle section of the film.

Once the gladiators actually start revolting, we reach the point at which I usually change the channel, to be honest, because the film undergoes a strange and slightly jarring change of emphasis – Spartacus, previously a taciturn figure who mainly expresses himself through violence, suddenly becomes an idealistic and (relatively) eloquent leader of men, in charge of a multitude of people who are presented in rather trite and sentimental terms – there seem to be a disproportionate number of small moppets, sweet old couples, and amusing dwarves amongst the rebelling slaves. One of Kubrick’s issues with the script was that Spartacus is a dull character without quirks, and he kind of has a point – Douglas relies heavily on his innate charisma, together with a couple of very minor grace-note scenes where he is afflicted with mild self-doubt.

What keeps the film going, apart from its impressive scale, spectacle, and Alex North’s marvellous orchestral score (you can hear echoes of it in many subsequent soundtracks by much more famous composers), is the other strand of the plot at this point, which concerns the political shenanigans in Rome – the viewer is left to pick this up for him or herself, mostly, but basically a class (or caste) struggle is in progress, with the wily old Gracchus (Charles Laughton) on one side, backed up by the massed plebes, set against the more aristocratic (not to mention autocratic) Crassus. Which way Gracchus’ protege Julius Caesar (John Gavin) will jump is not immediately clear (Caesar is a relatively minor character in Spartacus, and not especially sympathetically portrayed). The ace card of this section of the film is the presence of so many great actors – Olivier, Laughton, Ustinov – all apparently intent on outdoing each other. Ustinov and Laughton seem to have worked out they can’t match Olivier for sheer power and presence, as he was pretty much in his prime at this point, but they both milk their roles for all the entertainment value possible, and it was Ustinov who took the Oscar home.

Olivier’s dominance of the film seems quite fitting as one of the things that marks Spartacus out from the majority of sword-and-sandal epics is that it has a genuinely downbeat trajectory and an honestly bleak ending. All of Spartacus’ bold statements about freedom and the right to live as one chooses come to nothing – the rebellion is crushed, with thousands slaughtered by the Roman legions, and all it has achieved is to allow Crassus to orchestrate his rise to unmatched power in what remains of the Republic. There is no choir standing by behind the camera, no hopeful message about the eventual victory of Christianity – this is a rare example of a big Hollywood movie where the bad guy wins. The film works horribly hard to try and give Spartacus the moral victory, and at least Crassus doesn’t get the girl, but neither does he end up dead, on a cross, committing suicide, or driven into exile, which is what happens to the sympathetic characters in this film. (There’s no mention of the grisly fate suffered by the historical Crassus.) The film’s grimness and cynicism do feel authentically Kubrickian.

Elsewhere, the great director handles the toybox of the Hollywood epic with all the skill and elan you might expect, and – perhaps – the lack of ability to generate sincere emotion you might also associate with his work. The climactic battle between the slaves and the legions is stirring stuff, to be sure, and the vista of corpses as far as the eye can see in the aftermath is an uncompromising image, but the defeat of the heroes and the death of all their dreams never quite hits you where you live; the battle is missing the moment where Spartacus realises his army has no chance of victory and we see his reaction to it. It is this and a few other missed beats that keep Spartacus from being a classic of the first rank. Nevertheless, for all of Kubrick’s antipathy towards it, this is a film which most other directors would and should have been very proud of.

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