#20 - Spartacus (Stanley Kubrick)

A minor masterpiece of epic proportions.

The swords and sandals epic used to be a big genre in Hollywood of the 50’s and 60’s, and “Spartacus” is definitely one of the better films to come out of that period. But today most film enthusiasts seem to remember it only for the behind the scenes production troubles, and see it as nothing more than a stepping stone in the career of the great Stanley Kubrick. Or at least that is the impression I get.

And yes, there is quite a draw to those stories as well, and even though Stanley Kubrick is indeed one of the greatest directors one can hardly say that “Spartacus” is a Kubrick film. Of course the man signs the directing credit, but this film is more a testament to Kirk Douglas’ stardom at the time than anything else. Mr. Douglas even openly admitted that he got “Spartacus” off the ground as to show William Wyler how wrong he was for refusing him the lead part in “Ben Hur”. And he displayed unprecedented power as the star/producer when he fired the original director, Anthony Mann, and as replacement hired Kubrick with whom he worked three years prior on “Paths of Glory”; undoubtedly the best film Mr. Douglas had the pleasure to work on. Very little here really points to a Kubrick film, instead it feels very much like an above average Technicolor epic of the time. Which doesn’t mean it’s not a good film, on the contrary.

There’s quite a lot to enjoy here. Douglas gives his Spartacus a fittingly defiant line that he is more than happy to underscore with his stone-faced gazes, but he also makes him a charmingly simple and curious man. And his romance with Varinia (Jean Simmons) gets off to quite a memorable start with the scene in the slave pens, but it unfortunately develops in to another dry affair as the film goes along. Still, from the acting perspective it was a true pleasure to watch the film’s three main Romans and their constant quips and bickering. The writing of their roles is nothing spectacular but they are portrayed by the legendary trinity of Laurence Olivier, Peter Ustinov and Charles Laughton, each of whom is a magnetic presence on the screen alone, let alone when paired up with the other two.

Another source of delight are the numerous wide shots of massive crowds of extras moving along the plains and hills of Italy. The Technicolor cinematography is a definite highlight as well which, together with the great matte-paintings, gives the film a truly grandiose and at times a very dream-like quality. In fact the production is near flawless on every conceivable level which is quite an achievement for a film of this scale. It is obvious that this film was someone’s labor of love, and for me this alone makes "Spartacus" a minor masterpiece.

If there’s one thing to complain about here then it is certainly the by the numbers nature for a film of that time. The length, the somewhat theatrical acting, the conservative shooting style and the very format of the film, with an overture and an intermission; this all ages the film considerably and will surely make it quite an exhausting watch for some modern viewers. But then again the film does ooze that classic Hollywood charm, and that is certainly a draw in its own right.

"Spartacus" is a kind of film we do not see any more, and it’s not a very challenging film. It’s a film very much designed to be enjoyed on the largest of formats, which I’m sure gives it a new layer of power altogether. But even on video formats it’s an enjoyable distraction for a lazy Sunday afternoon.


Kirk Douglas - Spartacus
Jean Simmons - Varinia
Laurence Olivier - Crassus
Peter Ustinov - Batiatus
Charles Laughton - Gracchus

Spartacus on IMDb

No comments:

Post a Comment