Spartacus – 1960 – English
Film directed in 1960 by Stanley Kubrick, and starring Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, Laurence Olivier, Peter Ustinov, Charles Laughton, Jean Simmons, John Gavin, Nina Foch, Herbert Lom, John Ireland, John Dall, Charles McGraw, Joanna Barnes, Harold J. Stone, Woody Strode, Peter Brocco, Paul Lambert, Nick Dennis…
Synopsis: In 73 B.C., a Thracian slave leads a revolt at a gladiatorial school run by Lentulus Batiatus (Sir Peter Ustinov). The uprising soon spreads across the Italian Peninsula involving thousand of slaves. The plan is to acquire sufficient funds to acquire ships from Silesian pirates who could then transport them to other lands from Brandisium in the south. The Roman Senator Gracchus (Charles Laughton) schemes to have Marcus Publius Glabrus (John Dall), Commander of the garrison of Rome, lead an army against the slaves who are living on Vesuvius. When Glabrus is defeated his mentor, Senator and General Marcus Licinius Crassus (Sir Laurence Olivier) is greatly embarrassed and leads his own army against the slaves. Spartacus and the thousands of freed slaves successfully make their way to Brandisium only to find that the Silesians have abandoned them. They then turn north and must face the might of Rome.
Review: From what little I’ve read of this film it was lucky to have been made at all. Some very big talents had some very big egos and those egos clashed repeatedly. Original director Anthony Mann was replaced by Stanley Kubrick by Producer/Star Kirk Douglas among other clashes.
But the result was all worth it. The stars all give top notch performances, but the mark of a really great film is the memorability of each individual in the ensemble. To give a few examples, Charles McGraw as the sadistic trainer at the gladiatorial school, John Dall as Sir Laurence Olivier’s protégé, and John Ireland as Kirk Douglas’s fellow gladiator trainee are all memorable in the brief roles they have.
Kirk Douglas wisely opts for a straightforward interpretation of a hero in the title role of Spartacus. He’s a BC everyman, born into a world which hadn’t heard anything about human rights, he knows and feels he’s not just cattle. Catch the alternating scenes of Douglas and Sir Laurence Olivier addressing the slave army and the Roman Army. Olivier with his years of Shakespearean training coming across as the tyrant to be, and Douglas in simple prose talking about the slaves fighting for their hopes and dreams. Very effective.
The plot concerns a revolt at a gladiatorial school which mushrooms into a crisis for the Roman Empire. Political factions led by Olivier as Crassus and Charles Laughton as Gracchus seek to use the slave revolt to further their own ends.
Laughton as always is a wonder. It’s a bit of unusual casting for him because his parts are usually those of very tortured souls. His Gracchus is a sly rogue, but a decent man. One of my favorite movie lines of all time is delivered by him addressing the Roman Senate where he says he’ll “take a little republican corruption for a little republican freedom.”
Another sly rogue in the film is Peter Ustinov who won the first of his two Oscars as Batiatus the owner of the gladiatorial school. Like so many others I’m sure in those days, he’s just trying to come out on the winning side when doing so could be a life or death situation.
Jean Simmons as Varinia, beloved of Spartacus, has the only woman’s part of any substance. But when was Ms. Simmons bad in anything. One of the most underrated and under-appreciated actresses in the history of film.
The lessons about man’s desire for freedom and to control his own destiny are eternal and valid. And this film will be also.