In Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne comes to the realisation that he has to become more than just a man in order to fight crime in Gotham. He must become a symbol, and by doing so he will become incorruptible. Part of this same idea runs in the background of Kirk Douglas’ Spartacus, where a Thracian slave-turned-gladiator dares to defy the might of Rome and win not only his freedom, but freedom for all those enslaved by her.
You may have noticed how I attributed this production entirely to the film’s lead actor even though he was not in the directors chair. This is because even though our man Stanley was behind the camera – hired after Anthony Mann was fired – he barely registers any impact on the finished product. It’s Douglas who seems to be the driving force and while he is the centre, it feels as though we have been forced to focus on him even though there’s more interesting stuff occurring elsewhere. The film is devoid of Kubrick’s verve and ingenuity, and plays out entirely how I expected as a standard historical epic.
That’s not to say that Spartacus isn’t an engaging piece of cinema and for all of its 196 minute runtime – including overture and intermission – it never had me bored. We start in the mines of Libya, where an enslaved Spartacus still kicks against the goads of his masters. He is then snatched up by gladiator trainer Batiatus (Peter Ustinov) and taken to Italy. It is here that he meets and falls in love with serving woman Verinia (played by Jean Simmons), who is always lit softly in close-up giving her an ethereal quality. Classic Hollywood stuff. I have to say that their relationship does not seem so believable but I do like the way it begins; they are thrown together initially, essentially for the entertainment of their cruel overseers, but there’s something between them and through prolonged glances and fleeting touches they grow closer together.
After a visit from the delightfully imperious Crassus (Laurence Olivier), where a select few gladiators are picked to fight to the death – uncommon in the training schools – they decide that enough is enough and their escape is long overdue. After taking back their freedom they rally to Spartacus, and as an army they plan to march to the coast to return to their various homes. Kirk Douglas does his best steely resolve as the leader of the resistance but he’s too much of a moral paragon, a bastion of all that is good and right, without any flaws. It’s this that elevates him from man to symbol but at the expense of any heart and empathetic response from the audience. As a story of freedom I’m immediately on the side of the slaves, as is everyone who watches this, but I’m not that interested in Spartacus himself.
The major upside of the rise of Spartacus as an anti-Roman figurehead is the impact this has on the governing body of Rome herself – the senate. It’s here where the real meat of the drama lies, as conniving politicians manoeuvre and use the slave uprising as a pawn in their own games for ultimate power. The cast is stuffed with fine actors; Ustinov and Olivier I have mentioned, also John Gavin, John Dall, Tony Curtis and Charles Laughton. Those in the senate have a tremendous time with their roles and it’s a joy to see Laughton going toe-to-toe (politically speaking of course) with Olivier while the meek Ustinov steals a lot of the scenes with this fretting and fawning.
Earning it’s right to be called an epic, Spartacus makes good on the promise of grand scale. Impressive vistas fill the entirety of the wide frame and even indoor scenes are lush and vibrant. It all looks fantastic, and I’m only disappointed I couldn’t watch it on the big screen. Particularly in this age of CGI, the older blockbusters become all the more impressive for their scale because of the simple fact that every soldier you see marching in an army is an extra, and the battle scenes are all the more spectacular for it.
I’m always wary when approaching a film that has become a respected classic over the years, worried that it might not hold the same wonder that it did for audiences years ago, and while I don’t believe that Spartacus warrants all the praise it has accumulated, it’s certainly a great film. Perhaps what sets it apart most is its ending. By no means a happily-ever-after but sombre and befitting the man who stood as a symbol against Rome. Kubrick may have disowned it, but Spartacus is an entertaining tale with universal appeal.
Next time on my Kubrickian journey, Stanley courts controversy with Lolita.
My review of Kubrick’s previous film, Paths of Glory, can be found here.