Spartacus Reigns Supreme
Spartacus Reigns Supreme
by Henry Edward Hardy
Spartacus (1960) is one of director Stanley Kubrick’s best films. Starring a buff Kirk Douglas and darkly handsome Lawrence Olivier, this panoramic spectacular tells the fictionalized story of the Third Servile War of 73-71 BC, the last of the great slave revolts against the Roman Republic.
Douglas plays Spartacus, the leader of the slave rebellion, as a rather simple man who through ability and circumstance comes within a hairsbreadth of overthrowing the Roman slave system. There is a sweet love-story of his romance and marriage to Varinia as played by Jean Simmons, which contrasts to his rise from gladiator slave to a military leader who shattered legions.
It is not clear from the historical records of the real Spartacus that he had the ambition to overthrow slavery as a system, nor the Roman state. He may simply have wished to leave Italy with his followers in order to escape slavery and return to his home. However, in the movie there is a strong political subtext.
The script was written by Dalton Trumbo. Trumbo was a well-known author and Hollywood scriptwriter who was a member of the Communist Party USA. He had refused to give evidence against others to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1947. In consequence, Trumbo had been blacklisted and unable to publish work under his own name for 13 years until Kubrick and Douglas, who produced the film, allowed him to put his name on Spartacus.
Trumbo’s Spartacus is a humanitarian, a revolutionary, and a communist who keeps the loot in a common treasury for all. The script, based on Howard Fast’s novel is scintillating, and contains veiled allusions and subtle dialog. Particularly risque and adroitly handled is the seduction scene between Crassus (Olivier) and the young Antoninus (Tony Curtis). Crassus discusses eating oysters or eating snails as a metaphor for sexual preference, indicating that it is merely a matter of taste, not of morality.
Spartacus makes great use of the wide screen. The composition of many of the shots is remarkable, and utterly brutalized by pan-and-scan versions. For instance, in an early scene at the gladiator school, the action takes place in the middle of the screen in the pit below, while from either side of the frame the sybaritic Roman elite look on and discusses the life and death struggles below in a cold and repellent, narcissistic manner.
Spartacus is a challenge to the mind, an inspiration to the spirit, a treat for the eye and a tug on the heartstrings. By all means see this great classic on the wide screen when you can.
A version of this review was published by Current.
Copyright © 2007 Henry Edward Hardy
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