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Friday, August 18, 2017

Director Report Card: Stanley Kubrick (1960)

5. Spartacus

In 1959, “Ben-Hur” was released. It became the biggest film of the year and was, at the time, one of the highest grossing films ever made. Historical epics were hotter than ever in Hollywood. Kirk Douglas wanted the title role in “Ben-Hur.” When he lost out on the part, he decided to develop his own Roman Empire epic through his own production company. “Spartacus,” a sprawling epic based on a novel by Howard Fast that was loosely based on reality, was originally meant to be directed by Anthony Mann. Douglas disagreed with Mann and had him fired from the film. Recalling the positive collaboration they had on “Paths of Glory,” Douglas brought Stanley Kubrick onto the film. “Spartacus” would also become a huge commercial and critical success. Kubrick, however, felt the film was a work-for-hire gig and would later – you guessed it – disown it.

“Spartacus” is certainly a fondly recalled part of cinematic history. However, it's production background may arguably be more interesting than the actual finished film. I'm not talking about how filming rolled on for over a year. Or how Kubrick and Douglas argued on set, with the actor nearly attacking the director with a chair at one point. I'm referring to the film's role in ending the Blacklist era. It's a well-known story now. The film was written by a still blacklisted Dalton Trumbo. Douglas, however, insisted the screenwriter be given proper credit. This would essentially break the blacklist, ending a dark period in Hollywood history. President Kennedy publicly went to see the film, in solidarity with Trumbo and everyone else on the blacklist. Compared to such political and creative intrigue, the story of a revolting gladiator seems less vital.

The historical basis for “Spartacus” is largely dubious. The real life Spartacus was born a free man, was a veteran before winding up in the gladiator camps, and probably died in combat. The fictional Spartacus was born a slave. He's sent to be a gladiator after biting a slave overseer, enraged at the cruel treatment of his fellow prisoners. From there, “Spartacus” makes its own path.  After seeing a fellow gladiator put to death, and being separated from his beloved, Spartacus leads a uprising among Rome's slaves. Spartacus and his army travel the country, striking back against the empire and freeing every prisoners they encounter. Spartacus soon comes into conflict with Marcus Crassus, a power-hungry general. Crassus soon becomes obsessed with destroying Spartacus.

As I said, Stanley Kubrick ultimately dismissed “Spartacus.” He considered the film the property of Douglas and Trumbo. So this film is essentially a work-for-hire project from one of the highest regarded auteurs in cinematic history. No matter how he felt about the film, you can still see some of Kubrick's trademarks in “Spartacus.” Early scenes in the slave camp features the director's smoothly moving tracking shots, the camera effortlessly sliding into the baths of the compound. That habit crops up a few times throughout the film. Otherwise, “Spartacus” is more defined by those gorgeous, classical Technicolor colors. There are several moments, composed with bright purples and dark blues, that are simply lovely.

Another problem Kubrick had with the script was the titular hero. He thought Douglas' portrayal of Spartacus was overly flawless and bland. This may be true, as Douglas' performance is as heroic as can be. The only flaw Spartacus really has is that he cares too much, putting a friend out of his misery rather than see him suffer on the crucifix. However, Douglas' Spartacus is still a memorable character. Kirk says a lot with a look. When Spartacus is paraded before rich aristocrats, Douglas glares in silent outrage. After escaping and beginning his rebellion, Douglas allows a warmer streak to shine through. He treats his fellow soldiers like family.

Douglas' hero most comes alive when paired with Jean Simmons' Varina. The two don't meet under the best of circumstances. Both are slaves in the gladiator camp, Varina forced to sleep with different men. Despite the scenario, Douglas sells Sparacus' fascination with her beauty. Upon meeting her, his bold admission that he's never been with a woman before is touching. Later, the two share more playful scenes. After being reunited, the two are positively giddy. There's a sweet scene, by a lake, when Spartacus hears that he'll be a father soon. Simmons' performance plays off Douglas extremely well, the two being a charming couple. Their love story adds an effective emotional heart to the epic story.

In some ways, “Spartacus'” treatment of sex and sexuality is surprisingly frank. Varina is ordered to display herself to Spartacus, the audience only seeing her nude back. Later, we see a little more of Simmons during a bathing scene. Pretty salacious stuff for 1960. More notorious is a moment where Crassus, during a bath, reveals his bisexuality to Antoninus in an attempted seduction. The script uses coded language, as Crassus talks about his preference for both “oysters” and “snails.” Yet the intent of the scene must have been obvious even to viewers back then. At the very least, the censors got the gist. Infamously, the conversation was clipped from later prints. When the film was restored in the early nineties, the scene was reinstated. However, the original audio was lost and Olivier's dialogue was dubbed in by none other than Anthony Hopkins. Hopkins' impersonation is uncanny enough that, unless you know he dubbed the lines in, you probably wouldn't notice.

Being an epic production from 1960, “Spartacus” has a loaded supporting cast. Of the notable performers, my favorite is probably Peter Ustinov as Batiatus, the slave trader. Ustinov brings a certain comedic energy to the part. Batiatus is involved in a dirty business but considers himself a man of style and grace. Ustinov's humor and clear command of the flamboyant character makes him one of the most memorable characters in the film. I wasn't alone in this estimation, as Ustinov would win an Oscar for the part.

Also appearing in the film is Laurence Olivier as Crassus, the story's villain. Olivier plays the part as a obstructing bureaucrat, self-involved in his own goals. At least until his outrage against Spartacus grows uncontrollable. Charles Laughton is amusing as  Gracchus, playing the part as a mostly bored senator. More often, he does things primarily to spite his enemies. Tony Curtis appears as Antoninus, who is more poet than warrior. Curtis' performance has a certain detached grace, which fits the character. Lastly, I barely recognized a very young Herbert Lom as a pirate envoy. I guess I'm only used to seeing him as an old man.

As you'd expect, “Spartacus” has an epic run time. The most complete version goes on for three hours and fifteen minutes. Impressively, the film rarely ever drags or feels excessively long... Except for the extended scenes devoted to the bureaucracy of ancient Rome. There are quite a few scenes focused on what the Roman Republic should do about this slave uprising. These moments tend to distract from what really drives the film, which is Spartacus himself and his quest. Beyond that, the discussions about ancient Roman politics are quite dry. These are the only scene that dragged down what is, otherwise, an excellently paced motion picture.

Due to the nature of its production, many have seen “Spartacus” as a covert critique of McCarthyism. The topic was likely on Dalton Trumbo's mind. You can see certain aspects of this interpretation, in the story of an individual bucking an oppressive regime. Yet, within Kubrick's overall career, “Spartacus” emerges as another anti-war film. A key moment has the gladiator forced to watch two of his friends fight to the death, the audience seeing more of Spartacus' reaction than the actual fight. Kubrick keeps many of the war sequences off-screen, often focusing more on people's reaction. When the violence is on-screen, it tends to be especially brutal. A guard is stabbed in a bath. Soldiers are set ablaze by a flaming wheel rolling across the battlefield. Another has his arm cleaved right off. Following the film's biggest battle scene, we see a field choked with dead bodies. “Spartacus” focuses on the brutality of war and the cost of combat.

“Spartacus” is an iconic film but in an interesting way. One scene has reverberated through cinematic history, still being referenced and parodied to this day. Yes, I'm talking about the “I'm Spartacus!” scene. And it really is a fantastic sequence. The silent tears on Spartacus' face as his men show such bravery, solidarity, and selflessness is genuinely moving. That one moment is hugely iconic. What's odd is that the movie around isn't nearly as well known or ubiquitous. The scene cast such a shadow over the whole film that, after it comes, “Spartacus” starts to waver a bit, the script heading into an extended denouncement that simply isn't as compelling as the famous moment proceeding it.

Learning that Stanley Kubrick would discard “Spartacus” is clearly another indication of the director's perfectionism and fierce independence. You don't immediately notice the filmmaker's fingerprints on the finished project, though you can find them if you're looking for them. This doesn't mean “Spartacus” is a bad film. It's actually quite beautifully executed, full of fun and polished performances, gorgeous cinematography, and powerful or interesting moments. Though destined to be discarded as a lesser Kubrick, “Spartacus” still functions are a thoroughly successful picture. [Grade: B]

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