Spartacus (1960)

I first saw this film around seven years ago in a history class in school. Of course, one might find this outrageous considering the massive liberties taken with history in the film, but it’s a strong film all the same. I never, of course, thought of this as a Kubrick film, and it appears Kubrick didn’t either–he found it an embarassment in his filmography and wished to forget it. Criterion has no compunctions about informing us of this fact either, as I learned it directly from this very DVD.

As someone else noted in a review I’ve read, it’s almost more interesting to hear of the story behind the film than the film itself. I’m not one to use the word “dated” very often, but in 1960, and considering the movie around it, the romance was fairly….putrid. Awful, saccharine, generic, meaningless lines. The chemistry was fine, and the physicality of Kirk Douglas as Spartacus and Jean Simmons as Varinia was fine, but the lines are terrible.

Perhaps, though, it was because they were surrounded by Charles Laughton and Peter Ustinov and Laurence Olivier. By far, the most engaging parts of the movie are Ustinov and Laughton–honestly, claiming the enjoyment of Olivier over them is criminal, even if Olivier has the greater reputation, which I suspect is the reason so many make note of him first–parrying verbally, their bemused cameraderie (of sorts), mixed with false modesty, hedonism, puns, judgment, armchair philosophising and politicking. These conversations are an absolute joy to watch, and Douglas’s square-jawed, stoic silence seems almost laughable in comparison to the easy fluidity of those two in conversation. Of course, Douglas is also saddled with the aforementioned awkward romance, which seems to work as an overall thread within the film, but can unravel in any given scene when it requires great verbal interaction. But, perhaps it is just in comparison that this happens. Then again, I just read that Ustinov re-wrote their scenes when Laughton rejected them, so perhaps it was improved writing in the hands of two skilled actors that made these scenes such a bright spot.

At one point I felt myself complaining at the film’s length, internally, as what seemed to be the climactic battle between the rebellious gladiator slave Spartacus’s army and Crassus’s command of the Roman Legions took place with forty minutes still to go in the running time. Yet, somehow it all ended up working out to an acceptable, understandable end–none of the final forty minutes seemed a waste, and the last few were quite excellent indeed.

As a mixed bag overall though, I’m rating this film unusually low for a Criterion release, as I suppose I expected more. Perhaps Douglas had too much control–I had difficulty seeing the film as much more than a vanity piece for him, and Kubrick was barely visible as director. That becomes a bit more confused to my sense of honest morality, when one considers that blacklisted Dalton Trumbo, when originally planned to run uncredited, had Kubrick nominate himself as replacement credited screenwriter–which appalled Douglas into guaranteeing Trumbo his credit, effectively ending the blacklist. I’m rather with Douglas on that one, for his disgust at Kubrick’s ego, even beyond ending the blacklist. Perhaps when I re-watch the film in the future I will see it differently–who’s to say?

The end result is a film I only reluctantly recommend, and do so only to those with great curiosity, interest in sword-and-sandal, or obsessives about Kubrick, Douglas, Olivier or anyone else in the film.

For my usual final note of completely irrelevant inanity: probably my favourite part of the entire film is actually Saul Bass’ opening credits. Stunning piece of work, and far more ahead of themselves than the rest of the film was. The score, especially, was in contrast; for all that it was well-performed and written, catchy in that unintrusive way that a movie score should be, but still far too bombastic and overly sugary for my personal taste.

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