Tuesday, November 20, 2012


Based on the novel by Howard Fast, Spartacus is the story of a slave who leads a revolt against the Romans during first century B.C. Directed by Stanley Kubrick, with additional work by Anthony Mann, and screenplay by Douglas Trumbo, the film is an epic about a man who becomes a gladiator and the voice to slaves as he fights off against his oppressors. Starring Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Jean Simmons, Charles Laughton, Tony Curtis, Peter Ustinov, and John Gavin. Spartacus is a grand yet adventurous epic from Stanley Kubrick.

After being a slave for all of his life, Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) is sold to Roman businessman Lentulus Batiatus (Peter Ustinov) where he’s to be trained as a gladiator to fight against others in the arena. Despite dealing with abuse of trainer Marcellus (Charles McGraw), Spartacus is able to make friends with a few slaves while falling for a serving woman named Varinia (Jean Simmons). When Roman senator Marcus Licinius Crassus (Laurence Olivier) arrives for a visit, he asks to see what Batiatus has to offer where he has four gladiators fight to the death. Spartacus pairs up with the African Draba (Woody Strode) where the two have a good fight but Spartacus is nearly killed by Draba only for Draba to do something that would unfortunately lead to his own death. After learning that Varinia is being sold to Crassus, Spartacus revolts against Batiatus and Marcellus where he and the slaves decide to fight for their own freedom.

With Spartacus gathering an army to lead his revolt, the Romans including Gracchus (Charles Laughton) are aware of what Spartacus is doing as he decides to have Julius Caesar (John Gavin) to control the Roman army. Spartacus manages to gain more numbers including Varinia who had fled Batiatus while they also gain a young slave named Antoninus (Tony Curtis) who had just been a slave for Crassus. After defeating an army led by Marcus Glabrus (John Dall), Glabrus returns to Rome to unveil what happened to him. A power struggle happens in the Senate where Caesar learns about Gracchus’ bribery on the Cilicians to get Spartacus and the slaves out of Italy. Caesar reveals Spartacus’ plans to Crassus who would make a move on his own as Spartacus finds out from Cilician envoy Tigranes Levantus (Herbert Lom).

Realizing that they’re trapped and nowhere to go, Spartacus reveals to the slaves that the Romans are coming and there’s no choice to fight them all the way to Rome. A battle finally ensues where the results fall in favor of Crassus as Batiatus is also there to identify Spartacus. Unable to find him, they were able to find Varinia and her newborn baby where Crassus decides to take her for his own to the disgust of Batiatus. With Crassus having full control and Caesar joining Crassus, Gracchus realizes what Rome is becoming as he starts to lose control of his power. In a final act of defiance against Crassus, Gracchus organizes a plan to retrieve Varinia and her son from Crassus and take her to freedom with Batiatus to accompany her. Spartacus faces Crassus for the first time as he becomes fully aware of his fate while he begins to ponder if there was any good that came out of his rebellion against Rome.

The film is an epic story about a slave who rebels against his masters and the rule of Rome where he leads a revolt against slavery in hopes to bring Rome to its knees. Meanwhile, a power struggle occurs inside Rome as two politicians try to out-do one another in how to handle Spartacus’ revolt. One of which wants nothing to do with the revolt knowing that Rome is already in enough trouble with other countries while the other is hoping to maintain control of Rome and put things back in order with more restrictions. Eventually, all of these events would collide where many would question abut everything that had happened where one faces death, another faces an uncertain future, and one rises to power all of which contain an element of ambiguity.

Dalton Trumbo’s screenplay is very multi-layered in the way it establishes a lot of what was happening in Rome as it begins with narration by Vic Perrin to unveil a lot about Spartacus’ early life. This is a man who has only known oppression his entire life as he is aware of the cruelty he faces not just to himself but those around him. When he’s sold to a businessman in Batiatus, Spartacus learns the art of being a gladiator as well as finding someone like Varinia who represents a world that is away from oppression. After a fight where his opponent shows compassion and spirit, it gives Spartacus a lot of reasons to rebel where he leads a revolt. Despite his courage and ability to lead the people, Spartacus is fully aware that he’s also uneducated and wants the freedom to not just live a nice life but also the freedom to learn.

Varinia and Antoninus would be the two people in Spartacus’ life that would provide him not just intelligence but also compassion and to be a man of the people. This would raise the ire of the men of Rome who realize how dangerous Spartacus is to not just the ideals of Rome but also the lifestyle they live in. Crassus and Gracchus are two men with very different ideas of politics who are both aware of the kind of power Spartacus would have. The latter is a man who knows that Spartacus is a threat who just wants freedom where would do things that would undermine the ideas of politics just so that he wouldn’t have to deal with Spartacus as well as the lives of Roman soldiers. Then there’s Crassus who is the main antagonist of Spartacus who wants to maintain the kind of control of Rome as he realizes that without slaves, Rome would fall. Crassus and Gracchus would fight for the control of the Roman Senate and its army through political means where part of this is a young Julius Caesar.

Then there’s the character of Batiatus who is just a man that wants to run a house of gladiators where he would prod and do whatever to break Spartacus’ spirit. Yet, it would cost him everything he would have where he also realizes that whatever information he gives wouldn’t necessarily give him any kind of power. After realizing all of that and the kind of humility that Crassus would bring, he begins to understand what Spartacus is all about as he would team up with Gracchus in order to do something about Crassus’ tyranny. Notably in one of the film’s big moments where many slaves say “I am Spartacus” as an act of defiance as it would carry many allusions to what witch-hunt trials that were happening in the 1950s. Trumbo’s screenplay definitely carries references to a lot of what was happening in the 1950s to parallel what was happening during the age of Rome. Yet, there would be some semblance of hope about how people would do in the face of oppression while defying those who want them to do the wrong thing.

Stanley Kubrick’s direction is definitely vast in terms of the presentation that is created for an epic film. While the film doesn’t feature a lot of the visual trademarks and eerie directing style that Kubrick is known for. It is still engaging for the way he creates scenes on a large canvas to showcase a wide depth of field for many of the film’s locations set in Californian desert, parts of Spain, and bits of it in Death Valley, Nevada. With the exception of the film’s opening sequence that was directed by Anthony Mann who was fired after a week, Kubrick’s direction for the rest of the film carries a lot of the visual attributes of the epic film.

Kubrick’s direction definitely has more interesting compositions in some of the film’s more intimate moments involving the Senate meetings and the scenes in some of its interior settings. Largely in where he places the cameras to establish the world of the Romans and how they conduct their lives. Kubrick also uses a lot of close-up and medium shots to help create a mood for some of these scenes while many of the film’s exterior settings do have a lot of amazing imagery. Notably the final scene that features a very hopeful ending despite the ambiguity that it carries. Overall, Kubrick creates a marvelous and exhilarating epic film about oppression and rebellion.

Cinematographer Russell Metty does brilliant work with colorful cinematography to capture the beauty of many of the film‘s daytime exterior locations to the more intimate yet lush lighting schemes for the film‘s interiors including its scenes at night. Editor Robert Lawrence does excellent work with the editing to create rhythmic cuts for some of the action scenes along with more methodical ones in its dramatic moments while utilizing fade-outs for the film‘s transitions. Production designer Alexander Golitzen, along with art director Eric Orbom and set decorators Russell A. Gausman and Julia Heron, does superb work with the set pieces such as the homes of the Romans as well as the Senate room as well as the tents that the slaves live in during their trip towards the sea.

Costume designers Valles and William Ware Theiss do nice work with the costumes from the robes that the Romans wear to the more rugged clothing of the slaves. The sound work of Joe Lapis, Ronald Pierce, Murray Spivack, and Waldon O. Watson is fantastic to capture the intimacy of the Senate meetings as well as the big scenes in the film‘s climatic battle. The film’s music by Alex North is amazing for the bombast that is created in its orchestral presentation as well as more serene and sweeping score pieces to help play out the drama.

The film’s ensemble cast is phenomenal where it features some notable small roles from Woody Strode as the African gladiator Draba, John Ireland as the gladiator Crixus, Herbert Lom as the Cilician envoy Tigranes Levantus, Charles McGraw as the brutish gladiator trainer Marcellus, John Dall as Crassus’ friend and military leader Marcus Glabrus, Nina Foch as Glabrus’ wife Helena, and John Gavin as a young Julius Caesar who tries to deal with the role that he’s set to play. Tony Curtis is brilliant as the young slave Antoninus who provides Spartacus a world outside of violence with stories and songs as he becomes a son of sorts for Spartacus. Peter Ustinov is great as the businessman Batiatus who deals with the rebellion that he unknowingly caused as well as Crassus’ cruelty where he deals with humility but gain something far more valuable.

Charles Laughton is superb as Gracchus who tries to create many political maneuvers to usurp Crassus only to deal with the dark future that lies ahead where he would make moves that would redeem him. Jean Simmons is wonderful as Varinia who would become the woman that would be on Spartacus’ side and broaden his view about a life that could be so much more. Laurence Olivier is fantastic as the villainous Crassus who is cunning in his ambitions but also insecure about the fact that someone like Spartacus could ruin things where Olivier displays a great presence as well as make his character larger than life. Finally, there’s Kirk Douglas in a magnificent performance as the titular character where Douglas displays a lot of charisma to the character as well as something that is larger than life. Douglas also display a sensitivity to the character that balances the kind of man Spartacus is where it’s really one of Douglas’ great performances.

Spartacus is an exquisite yet majestic epic from Stanley Kubrick that features Kirk Douglas in a towering performance as the titular character. Armed with amazing images, Dalton Trumbo’s complex screenplay, thrilling music, and a top-notch supporting cast that includes Laurence Olivier, Jean Simmons, Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov, and Tony Curtis. It’s a film that is definitely carries a lot of strong themes about rebellion and oppression as it is still relevant more than 50 years since it’s release. While it may not be a film that features a lot of visual attributes of Kubrick, it is still a very strong to film to be engrossed by. In the end, Spartacus is an incredible film from Stanley Kubrick.

Stanley Kubrick Films: Fear & Desire - Killer's Kiss - The Killing - Paths of Glory - Lolita - Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb - 2001: A Space Odyssey - A Clockwork Orange - Barry Lyndon - The Shining - Full Metal Jacket - Eyes Wide Shut

Related: Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures - The Auteurs #18: Stanley Kubrick

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