Genre: Adventure, Biography, Drama
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Screenwriter: Dalton Trumbo
based on the novel by Howard Fast
Music: Alex North
Cinematography: Russell Metty
Harold J. Stone
Nigh the dog end of Hollywood’s studio era, a young Kubrick replaced Anthony Mann to direct this 1st century BC historical epic, which later he disowned for want of a carte blanche within his directorial remit.
That said, SPARTACUS is anything but a nondescript product out of Hollywood’s assembly line, carrying a humongous budget around $12 million, it provides Kubrick a fecund playground to deploy his clout to the pursuance of a vision of his own, which germinates the majestic cinematography that culminates in the climatic pitched battle between the slave horde led by our Thracian hero Spartacus (Douglas) and the Roman army marshaled by senator Crassus (Olivier), and for an axiomatic losing battle, Kubrick emphatically ratchets up the pathos by panning through the multifarious visages of these doomed slaves, women and children are prioritized, and it is those quieter moments that prove to be having more staying power than the action pieces, which, save for intimate gladiator combats (athlete-turned-actor Woody Strode struts his stuff in an earlier fight with Spartacus), are hogtied by orchestrating an unwieldy multitude of extras to an unconvincing effect (and who wants to see the facsimile of a realistic bloodbath anyway).
Compartmentalizing American actors as slaves and their British counterparts as the Romans, except for a comely Jean Simmons as Spartacus’ wife Varinia and the dreamboat John Gavin as Julius Caesar, the story gears up for cothurnus whenever Olivier’s Crassus and Laughton’s Gracchus, two rivaling forces in the senate, start to clash with overt contempt towards each other; and goes sentimentally romantic whenever Douglas and Simmons give an amorous spin to the largely men’s affairs. Yet, scripted by Dalton Trumbo from Howard Fast’s novel, the most exhilarating part, to this reviewer’s liking, should be handed to the snails and oysters metaphor from a swinging-both-ways Crassus to the handsome slave Antoninus (Curtis), plus his conspicuous copping-a-feel of an Adonis-like, half-naked Caesar, so gladsome that those unorthodox undertones are not left in the editing room.
Kirk Douglas looks unfortunately rather weather-beaten for a sinewy hero, but, emulating Charlton Heston’s Ben-Hur, he tops off the saga with a well-balanced performance of valor and compassion (the “I’m Spartacus!” moment is a rousing landmark much obliged to his reaction shot); as the chief antagonist, a hoity-toity Laurence Olivier brings great poise and grandeur into good play, persuasively elevates the irony that he loses out both preys of either sexes to Spartacus, a scar will mar him forever in his lofty hubris, even he cunningly wins the battle. Jean Simmons, also holds it on her own with commendable composure and an enchanting luster of femininity that the film cannot survive without.
In his penultimate role, Charles Laughton equally lords over declamation against Olivier during their senatorial ructions, but privately finds a delightful kindred spirit in Peter Ustinov, the plebeian Batiatus, former-owner of Spartacus and a sycophant who will do the right thing if only he is getting well paid, Ustinov won his first Oscar for his vivid portrayal of a character whose annoyance and vindictiveness are often brilliantly touched on instead of being fully revealed, which offers a welcome middle viewpoint between the high and low, and hints that his bravery in the end is a hard-won battle in choosing side, there must be a smidgen of sense of justice in spite of all the allure of lucre.
A top-tier Hollywood epic, Alex North’s revolutionary score is an emotive boon to accompany viewers through this jeremiad of die fighting for freedom against the hierarchy, not a David-and-Goliath victory, but a stirring roar with its resounding ripple effect, moreover, SPARTACUS is a weighty fruit borne out of the sui genesis occurrence when Kubrick’s acute artistic might collaborates with an elephantine, time-honored, minted movie-making system that breathes its last hurrah.