Release Date: October 7th, 1960 MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Stanley Kubrick Actors: Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Jean Simmons, Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov, John Gavin, Nina Foch, Herbert Lom, Joanna Barnes
n the last century before the birth of Christianity, destined to overthrow the slavery-plagued pagan Roman republic, a female Thracian chattel gives birth to Spartacus. The boy is sold into slavery himself, to labor away at unforgiving construction. As an adult, Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) is ferociously indomitable, taking every opportunity to betray his captors. When entrepreneur Batiatus (Peter Ustinov) comes in search of potential warriors to train at his gladiatorial school, he buys the unmanageable fighter, hearing of his recent hamstringing of a guard. As a trainee, he’s groomed and instructed on dueling in an arena, and even offered a slave girl for pleasure – Varinia (Jean Simmons) – who he falls in love with, despite refusing to use her when the custodians wish to spectate on the two as if they were animals.
When Roman senator Crassus (Laurence Olivier) arrives, demanding a show for his wife and accompanying colleague, Spartacus is thrown into a fight to the death for entertainment. Surviving only when the towering, trident-wielding African Draba (Woody Strode) refuses to execute him, Spartacus spontaneously launches a riot, which rapidly turns into a revolt to take over the school and neighboring properties before spreading across the countryside. Spartacus leads the gladiators in attacking the outlying Italian estates, hoping to build an army of slaves to combat the Roman garrisons journeying to Vesuvius to quash the uprising. During the process, he reunites with the escaped Varinia and Crassus’ Sicilian bodyservant Antoninus (Tony Curtis). Roman commander Marcus Glabrus (John Dall) leads a company of six cohorts that is ambushed and destroyed by the slave insurgence, but he is left alive to report back to the Senate that the gladiator army will attempt to peaceably cross Italy to the sea, where they’ll buy transport from Cilician pirates. Should there be Roman legion hindrance, the swiftly strengthening outfit won’t refrain from total annihilation.
Far more somber, tragic, and dark than the previous year’s “Ben-Hur,” “Spartacus” is rich with stirring morbidity and the grittier, realistic horrors of slavery. Although 1960 filmmaking had its thematic content limitations, there’s still an unsubtle amount of cruelty, bloodthirstiness, sexuality (implied rape, obscured nudity, plenty of oiled skin, and homosexual seduction), and violence (the most brutal offscreen, but a fair share showing severed limbs and visualized crimson gore). The presence of political backstabbing, undermining, and usurpation is a similarly new inclusion, topped with a corpulent, corrupt mastermind (Charles Laughton in the role of Gracchus) and colossal rebellion instead of personal revenge.
The incorporation of a major romance subplot is also refreshing for a historical epic, as is the absence of strong biblical ties, substituted instead with conspicuous parallels to American politics of the ‘50s (specifically McCarthyism). The film’s structuring is that of a longwinded saga (separated by an intermission and entr’acte), but the runtime reflects a brisker adventure. Dialogue and conversations are intricate and wordy, with attention to governmental affairs and allotment of power, while battle sequences are extensive and chaotic. Ustinov gives an almost sarcastic performance, full of idiosyncrasies, a whiny voice, and false timidity, contrasted by Olivier’s expressionless, pointedly coldblooded villain. Its positive critical reception abated due to the reactionary nature of the production having arrived after “Ben-Hur,” but “Spartacus” is still a magnificent picture that packs a rarely equaled emotional wallop with its impassioned camaraderie and paralyzing conclusion.
– Mike Massie