Movie Review – Spartacus

Spartacus (1960)
Written by Dalton Trumbo
Directed by Stanley Kubrick

Spartacus helped to end the Hollywood blacklist. As a result of The House Un-American Activities Committee beginning in 1947, radical right-wing legislators sought to root out Communism in the nation, and this led to artists working in the film industry to be placed on a blacklist. Being placed on this list meant you were considered unhirable because your presence would lead to suspicions of Communist sympathies. 151 American entertainment professionals were put on this list and suffered greatly as a result. Dalton Trumbo was one of those people, and the combination of Kirk Douglas getting Trumbo hired to write Spartacus and director Otto Preminger doing the same for Exodus was a signal that over a decade long blacklisting was over. President John F. Kennedy crossing the picket lines of anti-Communists to view the film further spread the message that this horrible period should end.

Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) is a Thracian enslaved to mine for the corrupt Roman Empire. He is powerfully defiant no matter what punishment is hefted upon him. Spartacus gets pulled out of the mines by a Roman businessman (Peter Ustinov), who runs a gladiatorial training school, seeing that the man’s fire would make for entertaining matches. After participating in his first fight to the death, Spartacus vows never to be a part of such a brutal, disgusting system. During his time in the school, he has developed feelings for a female slave named Varinia (Jean Simmons). When he sees her bought and sent to live in the house of a Roman, Spartacus snaps. His fellow slaves follow suit, and they quickly flee the compound for the nearby hills where their resistance movement grows.

The Roman Senate grows worried about this band of slaves, headed for the eastern coasts where they plan to escape by boat. If such an action is allowed, it will inspire the rest of the slave class to rise. Senator Crassus (Sir Laurence Olivier) wants to use this crisis to seize control of the Empire and roll back social changes that have been made by more progressive leaders, particularly Senator Gracchus (Charles Laughton). A war on two fronts boils over, one in the fields and wilds of slaves marching for freedom and another in Rome’s halls where desperate men grab for power & control.

Spartacus is a strange film in that it does not fit comfortably in the filmography of Stanley Kubrick. Aesthetically it has some real moments of absolutely gorgeous cinematography but then falls into the standard flat looks of most Hollywood epics of the day. The film is a cunning Trojan horse of sorts presenting itself as a typical overblown epic, yet its themes center on contemporary politics. This is all due to the beautiful writing of Dalton Trumbo, who can communicate ideas of socialist upheaval, the innate rights of people to be free from tyranny, and the desire of those in power (typically backed by wealth) to seek to oppress labor.

The iconic scene of the captured slaves being asked to reveal Spartacus in their midst and rising to proclaim that each of them is the sought after leader parallels the adamant venom with which HUAC badgered witnesses to “name names.” Howard Fast, the man who wrote the novel of which this film is based, was jailed for refusing to testify and wrote the book while he was in prison. Trumbo’s opening narration speaks about the “sickness of human slavery” that infects Roman and causes it to be destined for ruin. Here the writer is pointing out that this effort to root out Communism is an attempt to hold back a dam of justified outrage from oppressed groups seeking to be treated equally in society.

I love the themes and ideas flowing through this movie, but it is hard to argue this is a Kubrick film in terms of his art, but instead, this was a great “work for hire” opportunity. He got to see what it was like to make a big-budget Hollywood affair just four years after Killer’s Kiss. Kubrick learned a lot making this film, mainly about how collaborative such a picture had to be. Trumbo had input as the writer, and Douglas was the main force driving the film to get put on the big screen. The style is naturally more commercial because it’s a product meant for mass consumption. Some audience members created a false idea of Kubrick after this movie and thus were deeply disappointed when his subsequent work ended up being wildly different. The director most certainly didn’t slouch in the effort he put into making this film. Spartacus is a very well constructed and beautiful looking movie, but even more revolutionary and better pictures were waiting for Kubrick.


3 thoughts on “Movie Review – Spartacus”

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