Kirk Douglas stands tall and center in one of cinema's most enduring classic epics. What sets "Spartacus" apart from the rest of the inflated dramas is its never wavering stance on tragedy. It never promises us a happy ending and along the way there are many horrid things that happen to our group of main characters; but that's only to be expected, because as our narrator tells us, it would take another 2,000 years before slavery was "outlawed".
Douglas plays the titular character who is almost killed in the first few seconds of the film because he was audacious enough to bite a guard on the leg. Batiatus (Peter Ustinov) rides in looking for gladiator material and decides to take the rowdy slave with him.
Spartacus is trained to be a gladiator, to kill without mercy, though the spectacle surrounding his training is rather interesting. The only plot device worthy of mentioning from this portion of the film is the introduction of the woman: Varinia (Jean Simmons). She is a servant girl, another slave, at the training facility where Spartacus is being held. He first meets her when Batiatus sends her in to have sex with him; but he refuses because he's a virgin and because "he's not an animal".
From this chance meeting and this weird act of kindness, the two fall in love with each other without even speaking a word, which is really hard because every time they glance at each, they are mocked or punished.
One day, a man named Crassus (Laurence Olivier) arrives with a few women in tow. They demand to be shone a gladiatorial fight to the death, something that is normally forbidden at the camp. But they pay plenty and Batiatus has no choice but to let them select four men to fight. Spartacus is among these men and loses his fight; but when his opponent turns towards Crassus and the nobility with murder in his eyes, that's when something interesting awakens in Spartacus: the idea of rebellion.
He stages a coup and is successful at overturning the camp.
Soon he is amassing slaves from all over Italy to join him in the fight for freedom.
Back in Rome, things aren't going quite so well. The Senate is bent and twisted with money flowing from its pockets and corruption breeding in its heart. Gracchus (Charles Laughton) is one of many politicians who seek their personal gain; but this is a man who is also quite level-headed. He knows what's best for country and what's best for him. To put it in modern day perspective, this man is the equivalent to Lord Varys.
In fact George R. R. Martin seems to draw a lot of inspiration from this movie, with its themes matching his own so meticulously. But that's beside the point.
Spartacus starts a revolution and brings in slaves by the thousands; but back in Rome, Crassus will not sit idly by and he starts plotting Spartacus' demise.
What is most curious about "Spartacus" is how mega-director Stanley Kubrick's name hardly gets mentioned at all when you're talking about the film, even though it was a mile-stone in his career and reaffirmed him as one of the superstars of Hollywood. Maybe it was because of the drama surrounding getting the picture made, but no matter.
The picture is more graphic than you might expect for 1960, even though it's a far cry from anything you will see in today's cinema.
The largest issue I had with the movie was the score by Alex North, which went from fanfare to experimental and back and hardly ever did any good.
Still, "Spartacus" remains an illustration of a wonderful script and a big budget. It could have fallen apart at so many places; but it thankfully doesn't. This is one of Kubrick's least lauded films, but probably his most epic, in sheer size alone.
Posted by Micah Jones