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Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #77: Spartacus

Spartacus (1960) is an interesting movie in Stanley Kubrick's filmography because it doesn’t really feel like a Stanley Kubrick movie. I don’t exactly know why, but his signature style doesn’t seem to be present unlike in classics such as The Shining, A Clockwork Orange, or Dr. Strangelove. It does however feel like one of those big sword-and-sandals epics in which you have British thespians acting as Roman politicians with the occasional big battle sequence. In that respect it is spectacular and features Kirk Douglas at his best as the titular hero.

The story of the rebel slave Spartacus has inspired a bloody and sexy TV series (so far unseen by me, but I hear it’s great) and the story behind how it was made is one of those cases of life imitating art. The Bryan Cranston film Trumbo tells how screenwriter Dalton Trumbo was blacklisted in Hollywood during the 1950s for his communist beliefs and had to rebel against the system by writing screenplays for cheap movies under a fake name. Then movie star Kirk Douglas came knocking at his door looking for a talented writer to polish a screenplay about a man rebelling against an unfair government. Indeed Trumbo seemed liked the ideal man for the job, and the result was a big-screen epic that still resonates today.

Having seen Ridley Scott’s Gladiator on the screen I thought the effects and battle sequences of Spartacus are a little bit dated when I saw it on TV, but the story still works thanks in part to Kirk Douglas’ performance. A slave for the Roman Empire in the 1st Century B.C, Spartacus is transferred from a quarry to a gladiator training camp when he seems physically fit for bigger things. Yet even while being trained to fight instead of being worked to death Spartacus is still demeaned and humiliated by Batiatus (Peter Ustinov), the owner of the gladiator school. One night a beautiful serving woman Varinia (Jean Simmons) is sent to Spartacus’ cell, which of course excites him until he realizes Batiatus is watching from a window above waiting for a peep show. In response Spartacus screams at him “I am not an animal!” and of course neither is Varinia.

Eventually the taunting and mistreatment of Spartacus causes him to fight one of his jailers, which leads to a full scale riot in the camp and then a full uprising. The Romans had been training these men to fight to the death, so of course if they have the opportunity to fight for their lives they will take it. Fleeing to the countryside they choose Spartacus as their leader, and word of the uprising draws in other escaped slaves. By attacking Roman estates they soon have money and eventually an army big enough to challenge Rome. Spartacus also reunites with Varinia who becomes his companion of her own free will and then the mother of his child. Not bad for a man who was initially in chains.

Amidst all of the fighting there is a lot of plotting and scheming amongst the Roman politicians such as senator Crassus (Laurence Olivier) and his opponent Gracchus (Charles Laughton). To defeat Spartacus Gracchus wants to give military power to a young senator by the name of Julius Caesar (John Gavin). That man indeed does have a lot of potential. We also get to learn some rather personal information about Crassus while he is having a discussion with his slave Antoninus (Tony Curtis) about the morality of eating snails and oysters. Crassus, it turns out, has a taste for both, which for the early 1960s seems to be a bold claim about being bisexual.

If you know some history it is not much of a spoiler to say Spartacus’ revolt does not end with the fall of the Roman Empire and the abolition of slavery. Yet it remains a massively inspiring story, which gave one of cinema’s great quotes, “I’m Spartacus!” when his brothers in arms try to hide his identity from Roman soldiers. I will probably get to the TV show eventually, but any movie lover should definitely watch the original movie if only for that scene alone.

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