Spartacus came about because Kirk Douglas got a tad stroppy at the fact he lost the leading role in the 1959 epic Benhur to Charlton Heston. Spartacus was designed to be just as epic as the 1959 Best Picture winner, and thus when original director Antony Mann was sacked because he did not meet Douglas’ epic vision Douglas hired Stanley Kubrick to replace Mann in directorial duties. At this time it is clear that Douglas’ ego was as big and epic as the film itself.
Spartacus is one of thousands of slaves working under the rule of the Roman Empire; these slaves are worked to death in many places across the Empire. In Spartacus’ case he is mining in the scorching heat of the Libyan Desert. When a fellow slave collapses due to exhaustion and the sweltering heat Spartacus rushes to his aid, but is whipped for doing so, in retaliation Spartacus bites the Roman’s ankles and as a result is sentenced to death via starvation. However his life is saved as barely a few hours later a slave trader/Ianista, named Lentulus Batiatus (Peter Ustinov), arrives on the scene looking to purchase a slave in a bid to train him up as a gladiator. Lentulus spots Spartacus, and admiring his strength and size Lentulus buys him bringing Spartacus to a gladiator training school.
Here Spartacus is shocked and disgusted at the way the rich and spoilt casually pick slaves to fight each other to the death, quietly hiding his rage he feels against society Spartacus is trained into becoming a powerful fighter. While at the gladiator training school Spartacus falls in love with Varinia (Jean Simmons), but when she is sold to Marcus Licinius Crassus (Lawrence Oliver), a Paritcian of Rome, his anger at the system reaches breaking point and he leads the slave revolution against the Roman Empire. Meanwhile the side story is a political one, Marcus Licunius Crassus wishes to turn Rome into a dictatorship, and naturally Gracchus (Charles Laughton), a republican, opposes this.
Out of all the Kubrick films that are considered to be masterpieces Spartacus is probably the least ‘Kubrickian’ film of them all. This is true for a number of reasons, firstly he had a cast he did not hire; a script he did not approve and sets he did help design. However despite the fact that Kubrick did make some changes and added his own little touches Spartacus doesn’t feel like a Kubrick film, however it is a testament to his abilities that Kubrick, who hitherto never directed anything quite as huge, could take the reins of a massive production and direct something like Spartacus, a historical epic that rivals the likes of Lawrence of Arabia and Benhur. Even more impressively Kubrick and blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo never let the film’s sheer size dwarf over the characters as the viewer is truly behind Spartacus’ cause. The performances by the actors involved make the characters just as memorable as the sensational set designs.
With a budget of $12,000,000 it is hardly surprising that the set designs are as elaborate as they are. There is something more epic seeing incredibly designed Hollywood sets back in the days in which the likes of Benhur and Cleopatra were being produced than it is in films like Avatar, Star Wars (the prequels) and Gladiator because the likes of Avatar, Star Wars and Gladiator employ the use of GCI. I’m not against GCI (if used correctly) but using incredible set designs and 8,500 extras for a battle sequence feels more like proper, adventurous and epic filmmaking. I mean look at the image below, what a sight that is. 8500 extras in formation preparing for battle, it’s a simply a spectacular view.
There are numerous versions of Spartacus; the most recent restoration was in 1991 which included the homosexual undertones between Crassus and Antoninus (Tony Curtis), and a further fourteen extra minutes which brought the total running time up to 196 minutes. However this may appear an inflated and bloated running time, but Spartacus never gets boring for a great number of reasons ranging from the incredible performances, brilliant battle sequences and the magnificent set designs. All the performances are terrific but it’s the British who steal the show from the Americans, Best Supporting Actor winner Peter Ustinov steals every scene he is in, Lawrence Oliver is superb and Jean Simmons is more than satisfactory, though her love affair with Spartacus is when the film’s is a tad slouchy. Kirk Douglas is fine in the central role of Spartacus whose heroic cause to end slavery looks set to continue after his death, the film doesn’t feel the need to end in an obligatory happy ending which is usually expected for epics of this size.
Like many films Spartacus can be used to perhaps analyse American history during the time period in which the film was made. Slavery plays a major theme in the film, and during the 60s the Civil Rights Movement was in full swing, black people were fighting to end racial segregation while, in the film, slaves were fighting for their freedom and also against their own segregation and exploitation from the upper classes. Yet the film also points out the fact that America, like the Roman Empire, was built on the enslavement, buying and selling of thousands of people. Impressively though the film never loses track of its central themes as it also comments upon American’s political situation at the time the film was made.
It is true that some the props are a tad dated but Spartacus is truly a sweeping, sumptuous and soaring epic that influenced the swords and sandal genre to this very day (similarities with Ridley Scott’s Gladiator are clear for all to see). It may not be the most popular Stanley Kubrick film, it may not even be ‘Kubrick’ film, but it certainly is a superb one. It never feels as long and bloated as one expects it to be, but instead is thoroughly enjoyable Hollywood epic whose themes are very closely related to American history during the late 50s and early 1960s.