#199 Spartacus

(1960, Stanley Kubrick)

“I’m Spartacus! I’m Spartacus! I’m Spartacus!” (etc.)

Oh good, a big three hour historical epic. I love these. I love movies shot at wide angles with so many characters that none are ever really introduced properly so you don’t care about anybody. I love movies about ancient civilisations filmed with a self-important pomposity that you just beg for it to end. Oh, wait, Spartacus is actually entertaining? Really? Let me see this.

Spartacus is about Spartacus (Kirk Douglas), as redundant as that sounds. He’s a slave to the Romans, and has become so uncooperative in slavery that he’s forced into servitude as a gladiator. During his training, he rebels against the Romans, leading the other gladiators to stage a revolt. He then heads out on a mission to free all the slaves and lead them to a new life.

So, how did Spartacus win me over despite being a film in a genre I typically hate? Well, for a start, the focus isn’t on the abstract “slaves vs. Romans” concept and is instead about a man. By focusing on a single character over a nondescript group, it helped create a human centre in the movie and keep it interesting. The movie also chooses to focus on big universal human themes instead of trying to painstakingly recreate history, which means that although it’s set thousands of years ago, it’s still easy to identify with the central themes of freedom and justice.

The movie also keeps up an entertaining pace. Despite a slow start, the movie eventually picks up after Spartacus is forced to fight another gladiator to the death. This fight is tense, and the subsequent riot it kick-starts is genuinely exciting. For a three hour movie, it moves pretty quickly. My only objection would be some long pilgrimage scenes somewhere in the middle which feel a little meandering, but overall, it was fine.

I also liked the romantic subplot, which helped make Spartacus even more identifiable. Unusually for romantic subplots in movies such as these, it doesn’t feel tacked on. In fact, I can’t see how the movie would have worked without it, since it made the lead seem less a permanently angry revolutionary, and more a man who cares and wishes to right wrongs. Also helps that there’s good chemistry between him and his love interest, Varinia (Jean Simmons).

The most famous scene (the “I’m Spartacus!” scene) also remains a triumphant moment in the story despite the millions of parodies and references and its general overexposure in wider pop culture.

Spartacus isn’t a perfect movie, however. That triumphant moment in the above scene is quickly wrenched away and the movie suddenly becomes a lot bleaker without warning in the final scenes. While understandable in the context of the plot, it still causes some significant mood whiplash.

The Roman villains were ridiculous on top of this. They tended to feel not particularly threatening and always gave off a greater impression of being the bunch of aging Shakespearian actors they all were. OK, maybe this was the point, but I just couldn’t take any of the Romans seriously. They felt like silly caricatures rather than actual characters.

There were also some questionable moments in editing. When Spartacus burns down a Roman camp and proceeds to give a big speech, the scene switches to a long shot, and the audio noticeably drops as he talks, clearly splicing together two shots with the boom mic at different distances from Kirk Douglas. When there’s so much attention to detail elsewhere (it is a Kubrick movie, after all), this is kind of disappointing.

I also took objection to the blank screen musical interludes that played at the beginning of the movie and about halfway through. While potentially necessary for the original theatrical release, they felt awkward in the DVD release. Minor issue, I know, but when you have to fast-forward the first ten minutes of the movie because there’s literally nothing to see, it’s a problem.

Still, Spartacus was a surprise. Didn’t expect to enjoy it, but I did. It’s clear to see why this movie has remained such an influence after all this time.

Starring Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Jean Simmons, Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov, John Gavin & Tony Curtis
Written by Howard Fast (novel) and Dalton Trumbo
Produced by Edward Lewis & Kirk Douglas (executive)
Music by Alex North
Cinematography by Russell Metty
Edited by Robert Lawrence

Favourite Scene: The riot at the training camp. The exact moment the film started really moving.
Scene That Bugged Me: Didn’t really see the point of that scene where two naked Roman generals talk about oysters in a bathhouse

Watch it if: You’re normally put off by historical epics
Avoid it if: You’re not Spartacus (and neither is your wife)

Posted on July 5, 2013, in 1960s, Adventure, Historical and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Enjoyed your post! Thought you might like the “freedom/justice” theme even more if you knew that Howard Fast, the author, started work on the novel while in prison. He had refused to “name names” in testimony before the House Un-American Affairs Committee, so was sent to federal prison for contempt of Congress. He believed that a man’s mind and spirit must be free as well as his body. Howard Fast, my husband, was an American Freedom Fighter–in a way, he is Spartacus!

    • Actually, I did read about that since I tend to do a bit of research on the movies after watching them (to see if there’s any facts I could add) and I found the original novel was an allegory for the McCarthy era. My original draft did mention it, but I dropped it because it felt shoehorned in and ruined the flow of the review.

      But absolutely, knowing that does make the themes stand out even more and makes the story even better.

      Thanks for the response!

  1. Pingback: #212 Gladiator | Sven vs. The Movies

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