Classic Movie Review: Spartacus (1960)


TitleSpartacus
Release Date: October 6, 1960
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Production Company: Bryna Productions
Summary/Review:

I first saw Spartacus in 1991 when it was restored and re-released in theaters with previously censored scenes spliced back in.  Most notable is the scene where Crassus (Laurence Olivier) attempts to seduce Antoninus (Tony Curtis) with an extended metaphor about oysters and snails to imply he is bisexual.  This scene was too racy for the production code in 1960 although it would have probably been unnecessarily subtle in Ancient Rome. The other part of the movie I remember well is the gladiatorial training scenes where instructor Marcellus (Charles McGraw) has a comically gravelly voice that appears to dubbed over the film.  For months after seeing this movie, my sister and I would imitate that voice saying “Kill, me Spartacus! Come on, kill me!”

I was surprised that most of what I remember of the film happens pretty early on (except, of course, the famous “I’m Spartacus!” scene near the end).  Kirk Douglas stars as Spartacus, an enslaved man from Thrace who is brought to a gladiatorial training school in Capua and rebels after a series of indignities.  This prompts a broader revolt of which Spartacus is chosen as leader and many successful battles against the Roman military as the freed people attempt to leave the Italian peninsula. Spartacus also forms a romance with a former enslaved woman Varinia (Jean Simmons), although I find their scenes together to not be very convincing.

It comes as no surprise that director Stanley Kubrick was more interested in focusing on the Romans as it is in their scenes that the film is strongest. The story of the corrupt Roman aristocracy plays as a sharp satire much as I read Gone With the Wind as a satire of the slavocracy of the Old South, or to be more relevant to Kubrick, a progenitor of Dr. Strangelove.  Crassus is the aristocrat who outwardly stands for the greater esteem of Roman identity while privately plotting to take dictatorial power.  Against him stands Gracchus (Charles Laughton), the populist who stirs up “the rabble” to his own ends.  The movie even suggest the rise to power of Julius Caesar (John Gavin) is brought about by the events of this film, although Caesar himself plays only a small part in the story.  Stealing scenes from everyone is Peter Ustinov as Batiatus, the unctuous slave trader and owner of the gladiatorial school.

The production of this film was a legendary mess with a cadre of strong-willed men of assholic temperament at loggerheads with each other.  Nevertheless, it turns out as a very good if not great film despite the fact that it’s too long and uneven due to Kubrick’s disinterest in actually telling the story of Spartacus.  It was fun to revisit Spartacus, and while it won’t end up on my list of greatest films ever, it has earned a memorable spot in Hollywood history.

Rating: ***1/2

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