News and Commentary – Spartacus, Finally

Despite decades of dedication to the films of Stanley Kubrick, the hard working staff here at Mid Century Cinema had never before screened Spartacus. So now we have really seen them all. How could we possibly have waited this long? Two reasons. First, Spartacus is an epic – a giant, important, purposeful enterprise – and we’re epic-averse. Second, really, it’s not a Stanley Kubrick film. Yes, he was the director, full stop. But he came to the project late; after Anthony Mann left the film, producer-star Kirk Douglas asked Kubrick to step in. The screenplay was set (and Douglas, in a brave, blacklist-shattering move, gave proper screen credit to the writer Dalton Trumbo, who had served prison time as one of the original Hollywood ten); the cast was full of ginormous movie stars; the large, veteran crew was in already in place. Thus Kubrick had no influence over any of the essential elements or key decisions leading up to the production—and did not have the last word on the set. Then thirty-one and not yet famous, despite having two great films under his belt (The Killing, and, recently with Douglas, Paths of Glory) Kubrick was seen as a hired gun—and something of punk.

Turns out both of these reservations were well-advised. Spartacus is not a Kubrick film. Certainly it is very well crafted, and if you squint hard enough you can see a little Stanley peeking out—especially with some impressive tracking shots. But if you didn’t know he directed it, our claim is you would not be able to identify it as a Kubrick picture. Moreover, it is indeed an epic, all 197 well-intentioned, wide-screen, cast-of-thousands, shot-in-seventy-millimeter minutes of it. And there are limits to what Douglas can do with his leading role, which is pretty much this: Spartacus is born a slave. He is noble. He is heroic. He sparks a rebellion, and becomes the leader of a vast and growing army of freed slaves, who learn to live in freedom. He leads them nobly. He fights heroically. He falls in love graciously. He dies well, in the service of a great cause. In sum, nothing against Spartacus—but all that nobility simply does not make for compelling drama. On this issue, we’re with Pauline Kael: “nothing is so deathly to enjoyment as the relentless march of a movie to fulfill its obvious purpose.”

Moreover, to our taste, there are too many often hokey, commonly obvious, and needlessly extended sequences (generally accompanied by a hand-holding score, in case we were somehow uncertain as to the emotional content of the moment). And Trumbo is at his worst in his soapbox treatment of the movie’s Big Major Political Messages, wherein we learn that slavery is very bad, and that there is something rotten in a social system which allows the pampered wealthy to watch slaves murder each other for their amusement. Got it. 

But wait, there is better news. We’re not recommending this movie, but having seen it, we do note some elements worthy of praise. There are indeed more than a few strong moments in the film (we confess to being moved when Tony Curtis’ character dies)—and several outstanding performances. Whenever Charles Laughton (Gracchus) or Peter Ustinov (Batiatus) appear on screen, something interesting usually happens. Laurence Olivier is also quite good, and the rather free-range sexual tastes of his character (Crassus) are well-articulated for 1960. Herbert Lom is very fine in a small role (we are coming around to the view that he is almost always very fine, and perhaps underappreciated). And, if obscured by the vast scale of grand events, there is greatness in this movie—in its savvy depiction of the political struggle between Gracchus and Crassus. Here Trumbo is sophisticated rather than clumsy, showing the smart, complex, both-playing-the-long-game strategies of two men that represent contrasting visions of the Roman Empire. And even though the movie choses sides (and chooses correctly), here there are no easy answers, as the plain flaws of each side are made clear: Laughton’s tolerance and pragmatism invites rank decadence; Olivier’s commitment to honor and tradition yields to ruthless authoritarianism. In this conflict and more generally, Spartacus is at its best when its imperfect characters are navigating their way through uncertain and compromised choices. That’s entertainment.

Douglas Spartacus

He Is Spartacus (Kirk Douglas)

 

Epic

It's an Epic Out There

 

Lom

Tigranes Levantus (Herbert Lom) Tells Spartacus He Can't Win

 

Laughton Senate

Gracchus (Charles Laughton) Rules the Senate—At the Moment

 

Olivier Plan

Crassus (Laurence Olivier) Has a Plan 

 

darkness

Darkness Falls

 

Disloyal

"LIsts of the disloyal have been compiled"