R.I.P movie star Jean Simmons, who starred opposite Kirk Douglas in this film. She passed away last week just 9 days before her 81st birthday.
“Spartacus” (1960) and “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962) were the two great epic war films of the 1960s. That said, the latter is superior, but not for the former’s lack of trying. The backstory of “Spartacus” explains a lot: Executive producer and star Kirk Douglas fires director Anthony Mann and brings in his “Paths of Glory” (a phenomenal film) director Stanley Kubrick. Problem is, the eventually infamous Kubrick really had no experience working with anyone’s work but his own, even if the script was written by blacklisted two-time Oscar winner Dalton Trumbo. Basically, Douglas did his best to make the most of “Spartacus,” including the corralling of a distinguished cast, but it results in a very good — not great — film.
For one, Trumbo’s script is a crowd-pleaser, and I say that implying that it was for the ’60s. Rarely does a war epic focus so heavily on the protagonist’s romantic interest. As impressive as Jean Simmons is as Spartacus’ lover and wife, Varinia, the subplot of these two slaves falling for each other has too much clout in a story that should focus sternly on Spartacus as the inspiring leader of a slave rebellion against the Roman empire. His love for Varinia ultimately makes him more likable, but it comes at the cost of part of the film’s thematic boldness.
Sadly, one of the scenes that was most interesting was not part of the film until it was remastered in 1991. In it, Laurence Olivier, playing powerful Senate leader Crassus, tries to seduce a young slave played by Tony Curtis as they are in the bath using a cunning metaphor. Naturally, this was deemed inappropriate by the Legion of Decency. Few scenes are as memorable as that one and only a couple of Spartacus’ speeches on freedom are standouts as well. “Death is the only a freedom a slave knows. That’s why he’s not afraid of it” is one of just a handful of powerful moments in three-hour film.
For Kubrick fans, this is that one asterisk in Kubrick’s grand career. There’s very little director trademark in this film and there is very minimal hands-on work. If anything, the cinematography –namely the shadowy interiors — is most noteworthy. And interestingly, most of this was Kubrick’s doing and not that of Russell Metty because of alleged disagreements.
The unarguably great part of this film are the performances. Sir Peter Ustinov won an Oscar for his role as Lentulus, owner of the gladiator school where Spartacus is sold at the film’s beginning. He is a comical man just trying to do whatever he can to insure he’s buried head out of the sand rather than in. He’s the pawn of the Roman powers and he earns much of our pity as the film wears on. Olivier is of course commanding the the Roman leader and Charles Laughton perfect as his rival senator, kind-hearted yet distinctly amoral.
It might be Alex North’s score that sums “Spartacus” up best. It’s theme-driven music perfectly suited for an epic film, but feels completely out of context. Whereas Maurice Jarre’s epic “Lawrence of Arabia” soundtrack captures the greatness of that film, North’s is a reminder that “Spartacus” was an idea born in Hollywood and shot mostly in California. It just doesn’t convey a sense of time or place, only that this film was made to be a head-turning film with thousands of cast members and extras. Once again, it is a film of tremendous talents, but only verges on epic greatness.
Directed by: Stanley Kubrick
Written by: Dalton Trumbo
Starring: Kirk Douglas, Jean Simmons, Laurence Olivier, Peter Ustinov