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Author Topic: Spartacus (1960) - ''The Thinking Man's Epic''  (Read 8158 times)
Groggy
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« on: June 27, 2007, 04:38:21 PM »

I didn't see a thread devoted to this film, though I remember some discussion about it being posted on a Kubrick-related thread. But anyway, to springboard the conversation here is my just-submitted IMDB comment. Enjoy!

In Rome circa 55 BC, Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) is a Thracian slave who is purchased as a gladiator by the sniveling Lanista Lentulus Batiatus (Peter Ustinov), and along with his colleagues is trained in the art of killing. Falling for a slave girl, Varinia (Jean Simmons), and motivated by the death of one of his colleagues, Draba (Woody Strode), for refusing to kill him in a duel, Spartacus leads a bloody slave uprising that spreads throughout Italy. In Rome, political rivals Marcus Licinius Crassus (Laurence Olivier), a Patrician with dictatorial ambitions, and Gracchus (Charles Laughton), a Republican "man of the people", along with their subordinates Glabrus (John Dall) and Julius Caesar (John Gavin), manipulate the rebellion for their own gains. As army after army is defeated by Spartacus, the situation grows more desperate - until Crassus is given the ultimate authority to deal with Spartacus, and leads three huge Roman armies to trap him in a final showdown.

The stories behind the making of "Spartacus" are legendary. The firing of director Anthony Mann, the clash of ideas between screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, novelist Howard Fast, director Stanley Kubrick, and producer/star Kirk Douglas, and the attempts of various right-wing groups in Hollywood to block the film's release, are as interesting as the film itself. With all these troubles, it's hard to believe that "Spartacus" is such a good film. It's flawed, yes, but nonetheless several notches above most films of its type.

Most historical epics of the '40s and '50s were superficial spectacles which relied on casts of thousands, huge sets and scenery, giant battles, and star-power to (hopefully) overlook poor period writing and ridiculously formulaic stories. In 1959, William Wyler's "Ben-Hur" began to elevate the epic above mere shallow entertainment; in 1962, David Lean would take the genre to its pinnacle with "Lawrence of Arabia". "Spartacus" is very much in the mold of these films, rather than the empty spectacle of C.B. DeMille Biblical epics.

The film contains plenty of spectacle, with its use of gorgeous Spanish scenery (offset by the occasional back-lot scene), and the giant marching armies of Rome and Spartacus, whose army becomes so large that it literally blots out the screen. The film contains a few duels and fights (particularly the memorable trident-vs.-sword fight between Spartacus and Draba), but only one major battle scene: the climactic defeat of the slave army. The prelude to the final battle features one of the most awe-inspiring spectacles ever filmed, as the enormous Roman Army maneuvers into attack formation; this scene is so impressive that the failure to represent Spartacus's earlier victories is easily forgotten. Combined with Alex North's rousing musical score, this scene is one of the most memorable in film history.

But it's the much-debated political aspect of the film which propels it to classic status. The film manages to preserve most of Dalton Trumbo's notion that Spartacus is a genuine people's hero; he is motivated by the cruelty that he sees, the love of Varinia, and goes from an almost animalistic brute to a humanist who genuinely loves his followers. At one point, he refuses a request from his turncoat ally, Cilician pirate leader Tigranus Levantus (Herbert Lom), to evacuate Spartacus and his family to a life of luxury for themselves. The revolt may be futile from the beginning, but Spartacus feels that "just by opposing Rome, we may have won a victory." This is definitely a liberal point-of-view, but I don't see it as particularly offensive; then again, it was released in the aftermath of the McCarthy era, with a previously blacklisted screenwriter, so it was definitely more sensitive at the time.

Even more interesting than Spartacus himself is the intricately woven chess match between Gracchus and Crassus. Gracchus is old, crooked, and venal, and yet he recognizes the threat that Crassus poses to Rome: "I'd rather have a little Republican corruption, with a little Republican freedom, than rule by Crassus and no freedom at all!" Crassus, as written by Trumbo and portrayed by the great Laurence Olivier, is a fascinating character. At first glance he is simply a power-hungry egomaniac, but upon examination he is a much more complex character. Unsure of himself, and of his abilities, he feels threatened personally by Spartacus's rebellion and wants to gain power, we suspect, more to assuage his personal insecurities than for power's sake. Even after his victory, purging Rome of its enemies ("Lists of the disloyal have been compiled" - a line which must have really resonated in 1960) and marrying Varinia, Crassus is still unable to feel secure.

The acting is generally top-notch. Kirk Douglas gives a sterling portrait of Spartacus as a man who grows to have deeply-held convictions. He is more than a simple rock-jawed, noble hero; he is a complex character who grows over the course of the story. Laurence Olivier proves himself the brilliant actor he was with his wonderfully subtle and layered performance as Crassus, with Charles Laughton, in one of his last roles, a brilliant counterpart as his ultra-pragmatic rival. Tony Curtis is also fine as Antoninus, the romantic slave who becomes Spartacus's right hand man, and Peter Ustinov does a fine job as the sleazy Batiatus, who cares not a wit about politics, viewing the whole situation as a mere inconvenience to him. Smaller parts are ably handled by John Ireland, Herbert Lom, Charles McGraw, and Woody Strode. On the other hand, Jean Simmons, while gorgeous, is rather one-note as Varinia, while John Dall and John Gavin are given one-dimensional characters and play them accordingly.

Despite some flaws in its execution (too long, poor pacing, leaving out important battle scenes, undeveloped subplots involving supporting characters), "Spartacus"'s reputation as the "thinking-man's epic" is well-deserved. Skillfully weaving a tapestry of complicated political messages, well-rounded characters, and the usual pomp and spectacle expected of the genre, Kubrick's film, if not a masterpiece, is still a classic.

8/10

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« Reply #1 on: June 27, 2007, 04:42:08 PM »

I'll save this for toilet reading. Spartacus is the only of two available Kubrick movies I have yet to see (along side Eyes Wide Shut).

The only others I can't see due to unavailability are Fear and Desire and The Seafarers.

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dave jenkins
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« Reply #2 on: June 27, 2007, 05:50:47 PM »

Definitely not the thinking man's epic, if you consider Kubrick a "thinking man." I repost the director's comment that I placed earlier in the movie ratings thread:

Quote
In Spartacus I tried with only limited success to make the film as real as possible but I was up against a pretty dumb script which was rarely faithful to what is known about Spartacus. History tells us he twice led his victorious slave army to the northern borders of Italy, and could quite easily have gotten out of the country. But he didnít, and instead he led his army back to pillage Roman cities. What the reasons were for this would have been the most interesting question the film might have pondered. Did the intentions of the rebellion change? Did Spartacus lose control of his leaders who by now may have been more interested in the spoils of war than in freedom? In the film, Spartacus was prevented from escape by the silly contrivance of a pirate leader who reneged on a deal to take the slave army away in his ships. If I ever needed any convincing of the limits of persuasion a director can have on a film where someone else is the producer and he is merely the highest paid member of the crew, Spartacus provided proof to last a lifetime.
(Kubrick in Ciment 151).

Anyone arguing for the film's intellectual integrity must take this statement into account. Of course, there are things to praise in the film (as Groggy rightly points out, the widescreen choreography of the battles is amazing), but to claim intellectual sophistication for it is a real stretch.

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« Reply #3 on: June 28, 2007, 06:03:16 AM »

I disagree, and at any rate I was not the person to coin the phrase, hence the quotation marks.

The movie's not an art film, granted, but it is much more intelligent than most films of its ilk, and I'd dare say most films of its time. Kubrick's argument seemed to be complaining that, for once, he didn't have complete control over everything, and that the movie was historically inaccurate. The first one is a point of ego, so far as I'm concerned: whether or not Kubrick liked the end product, the movie was very popular and is widely considered a classic today. The second is more valid, but then sacrificing historical accuracy for the sake of thematic/dramatic reasons has been widely accepted in movies since time immemorial. Would a more accurate depiction of Spartacus's uprising been more entertaining. It's very arguable, in my opnion. I don't think, for instance, that "Lawrence of Arabia" was worse for its depiction of Lawrence as being ignorant of the Sykes-Picot Agreement until he happened to walk in accidentally on a conference between Allenby and Feisal. The historically minded might complain, but the thing nitpickers about historical accuracy miss out on is - most people don't know, or care, about such things.

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« Reply #4 on: June 28, 2007, 08:13:10 AM »

It's a good movie, with his mistakes too. Much better than Ben Hur. But those painted sky and trees in the studio! Not so typical "Kubrick-ish" like 2001 or Dr. Strangelove.

Laughton steals the show, even from Olivier and Ustinov, but they all are very good. I think Kirk Douglas was a little old for the role, and not very handsome...

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« Reply #5 on: June 28, 2007, 08:45:46 AM »

Would a more accurate depiction of Spartacus's uprising been more entertaining. It's very arguable, in my opnion.
Then you are arguing with Kubrick himself. He thought that the more accurate depiction would be more entertaining, not because it was more accurate necessarily, but because it was inherently more interesting. It wasn't a question of which version worked better dramatically; Kubrick could have done either equally well. It's a question of which version would be more intellectually engaging (for, presumably, the "thinking man.") And Man Bites Dog is just plain more interesting than Dog Bites Man. Dalton Trumbo and Kirk Douglas, however, thought that American audiences needed to hear the Dog Bites Man civics lesson one more time.

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« Reply #6 on: June 28, 2007, 02:28:53 PM »

Then you are arguing with Kubrick himself. He thought that the more accurate depiction would be more entertaining, not because it was more accurate necessarily, but because it was inherently more interesting. It wasn't a question of which version worked better dramatically; Kubrick could have done either equally well. It's a question of which version would be more intellectually engaging (for, presumably, the "thinking man.") And Man Bites Dog is just plain more interesting than Dog Bites Man. Dalton Trumbo and Kirk Douglas, however, thought that American audiences needed to hear the Dog Bites Man civics lesson one more time.

I can't argue with Kubrick? He's an infallible god all of the sudden? I've run into this argument before ("a film maker said it, therefore you wrong"), and unless a film is actually made and able to be judged it's all speculation. Roll Eyes

I'm not overly familiar with the true story of "Spartacus", and it's still questionable how intellectually engaging a more accurate film would be. A movie is motivated by the agendas of its writers/producers, who, in this case, wanted to make a movie about Spartacus being a Communist-like people's hero who almost achieved victory against impossible odds.

And still. . . I agree the film is flawed. I would have liked for the subplot with Crixus being executed for wanting to march on Rome kept in. I would have liked more scenes explaining Caesar's shift from Gracchus to Crassus. I would have liked more battle scenes too. I think that the film, as it is, is highly entertaining, I'm not trying to argue that it's perfect or couldn't be better.

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« Reply #7 on: June 28, 2007, 03:09:03 PM »

Do you guy's get the impression that Kubrick is kind of the American version of Leone in terms of the way they tell their stories? A lot of people think Leone and Kubrick's films are to slow and boring which I hate hearing. I see a lot of similarities in their styles in some aspects.

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« Reply #8 on: June 28, 2007, 03:10:05 PM »

Do you guy's get the impression that Kubrick is kind of the American version of Leone in terms of the way they tell their stories? A lot of people think Leone and Kubrick's films are to slow and boring which I hate hearing. I see a lot of similarities in their styles in some aspects.

I've only seen three Kubrick films so far, so I'm not apt to comment.

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« Reply #9 on: June 29, 2007, 11:32:38 AM »

It's interesting to note that Kubrick came to know Leone and his work before embarking on Barry Lyndon, which, I like to argue, is his attempt at an SW. The principal motif in BL is the duel: the film opens with one, there are various duels (with swords as well as pistols) throughout the film, the movie climaxes with one. That final duel is not in Thackeray (Barry merely gets a thrashing), it is an invention of Kubrick's.

P.S. Groggy: I'm not saying you can't argue with a director, but if the subject is the historical Spartacus, and the director knows something about him, and you, by your own admission, are "not overly familiar" with the man, does it really hurt  to defer to one of greater knowledge?

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« Reply #10 on: June 29, 2007, 03:48:29 PM »

Quote
P.S. Groggy: I'm not saying you can't argue with a director, but if the subject is the historical Spartacus, and the director knows something about him, and you, by your own admission, are "not overly familiar" with the man, does it really hurt  to defer to one of greater knowledge?


That's fair enough. I've just run into many people, particularly on IMDB, who think that the word of a director or film critic is equivalent to the word of God.

However. . . since the film he wanted to make was never really made, it's all speculation, which was my point. On paper Kubrick's idea of a more accurate "Spartacus" story might have been better, but we've no way of knowing for sure.

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« Reply #11 on: February 03, 2008, 01:39:53 AM »

Spartacus - 8/10. I think that Lord Olivier as Crassus is the greatest villain in cinema history.

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« Reply #12 on: February 03, 2008, 11:43:46 AM »

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Spartacus - 8/10. I think that Lord Olivier as Crassus is the greatest villain in cinema history.

  One of my favorite parts from this classic is the final confrontation between Spartacus and Crassus.  The sneer on Kirk Douglas' face is unbelievable and then when he spits in Olivier's face, it's just too good.  I only wish he could have got his hand on a sword... Wink

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« Reply #13 on: October 31, 2010, 05:20:22 PM »

I'm disappointed Groggy, you praise the movie yet you do not mention him?

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« Reply #14 on: October 31, 2010, 05:36:04 PM »

Anyway, I finally re-watched it after years and years:

- 3 hours of this is too much

- the action scenes are magnificent (pretty much all of them)

- solid acting

- some of the drama is soapy

- couldn't digest all the political drama stuff (perhaps it's the length of the movie), really drains the life from the movie

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