Monthly Film Bulletin - Aug 1984 - vol 51 no. 607 - by Richard Combs


U.S.A., 1960

Director: Stanley Kubrick

Cert-AA. dist-Rank. p.c-Bryna Productions. For Universal. exec. p-Kirk Douglas. p-Edward Lewis. p. manager- Norman Deming. asst. d-Marshall Green. sc-Dalton Trumbo. Based on the novel by Howard Fast. ph-Russell Metty. Super Technirama-70. col-Technicolor. addit. ph-Clifford Stine. ed-Robert Lawrence. asst. ed-Robert Schulte, Fred Chulack. ed. consultant-Irving Lerner. p. designer- Alexander Golitzen. design consultant-Saul Bass. a.d-Eric Orbom. set dec-Russell A. Gausman, Julia Heron. rn/m.d-Alex North. co-m.d-Joseph Gershenson. m. ed-Arnold Schwarzwald. cost-Valles, (Jean Simmons) Bill Thomas. wardrobe-Peruzzi. make-up- Bud Westmore. titles-Saul Bass. sd. rec- Waldon 0. Watson, Joe Lapis, Murray Spivack, Ronald Pierce. historical/technical adviser-Vittorio Nino Novarese. p. aide- Stan Margulies. l.p-Kirk Douglas (Spartacus), Laurence Olivier (Marcus Licinius Crassus), Jean Simmons (Varinia), Charles Laughton (Gracchus), Peter Ustinov (Lentulus Batiatus), John Gavin (Caius Julius Caesar), Tony Curtis (Antoninus), Nina Foch (Helena), Herbert Loin (Tigranes), John Ireland (Crixus), John Dall (Marcus Publius Glabrus), Charles McGraw (Marcellus), Joanna Barnes (Claudia), Harold J. Stone (David), Woody Strode (Draba), Peter Brocco (Ramon), Paul Lambert (Gannicus), Robert J. Wilke (Captain of the Guard), Nicholas Dennis (Dionysius), John Hoyt (Roman Officer), Fred Worlock (Laelius), Dayton Lummis (Symmachus). 6,290 ft. 175 mins. Original running time-(U.S.) 196 mins.; (G.B.) 193 mins.; subsequently cut for general release to 183 mins. (16mm.).

c. 73 B.C. Spartacus, a Thracian slave in the mines of Nubia, is purchased as potential gladiator material by Lentulus Batiatus, lanista of a gladiatorial school at Capua, near Rome. Under Batiatus' brutal trainer Marcellus, Spartacus learns the techniques of the arena (where he is destined to fight in matched pairs to the death), and is given a woman, Varinia, his innocent awe of whom causes his keepers much amusement. One day, an impromptu bout is staged for the entertainment of some visiting Roman patricians: Marcus Crassus, his lady friend Helena, and the latter's brother Marcus Glabrus (to whom Crassus gives command of the garrison of Rome, in an effort to check the power of his senatorial opponent and democratic demagogue Gracchus). Chosen to fight against the Ethiopian Draba, Spartacus loses but survives when Draba suddenly turns on the Romans instead and is killed. The next morning, taunted by Marcellus that Varinia has been sold to Crassus, Spartacus attacks and kills the trainer, and a mass break-out from the school ensues. Gathering other slaves as they go (including Varinia, who has escaped from Batiatus on her way to Crassus), the gladiators camp on Mount Vesuvius and set about shaping themselves into an army. To the horror of Crassus (who also loses his new body servant, Antoninus, to the rebels), Glabrus is manoeuvred by Gracchus into leading six cohorts of the garrison against Spartacus, and the result is a debacle for the Romans. Spartacus negotiates with pirates to have his slave army shipped out of Italy from Brundusium, meanwhile discovering that Varinia is pregnant and striking up a close friendship with the poetic Antoninus. A further Roman defeat at Metapontum enables Crassus to play his trump card against Gracchus: he will take the field against Spartacus if he is made First Consul and given command of all the legions in Italy. A bribe to the pirates deprives Spartacus of his ships, and with two other Roman armies approaching him, he realises that he is being forced to turn and face Crassus. The slaves are defeated, six thousand survivors are condemned to crucifixion, and Crassus begins a clean-up of dissidents in Rome. Varinia is found on the battlefield with her new-born son and taken in by Crassus; still fearful of the mystique of Spartacus, he tries to win her over but is bitterly rejected. He then stages a gladiatorial bout between Spartacus and Antoninus (the last of the prisoners), declaring-in a test of the myth of slave brotherhood-that the winner will be crucified. Each fights desperately to kill the other, but Antoninus is slain. Realising the fate that is in store for him, Gracchus arranges with Batiatus (who bears his own grudge against Crassus) to kidnap Varinia, then he commits suicide. Riding out of the city with Batiatus, Varinia is able to show Spartacus-dying on the cross-his son who will live in freedom.

On his visit to the trenches in Paths of Glory, still needing to bolster his self-deceit that the attack on the Ant Hill is all for the glory of France and quite feasible, General Mireau surveys the target through field glasses and announces that he has seen worse objectives, that it looks quite "pregnable". Colonel Dax picks up on the metaphor and comments bitterly that it makes war seem as if it had "something to do with giving birth". It's a put-down of the pompous Mireau, but the remark also catches the kind of terrible intimacy which Paths of Glory sees in war: the sense of an organic connection between the machinations of the two ambitious generals, juggling with numbers of men, and the unmediated anguish of three of their victims. It's an erotic complicity which, given its military code of conduct, is sadomasochistic by nature, and the only fruit it bears is the unexpected emotional fusion, the communion in grief, of the final scene in the tavern. In Spartacus, Kubrick's subsequent battlefield picture with Kirk Douglas, Dax's irony becomes literal fact when Jean Simmons is plucked from the final slaughterground with the baby to which she has just given birth.

This, of course, is one of those dangerously bathetic scenes-of 'great' events occurring simultaneously on the personal and historical plane - which have given the movie epic, even such a relatively tolerated example as Spartacus, a bad name. But if there is any route into Spartacus that makes sense in terms of Kubrick's work -given its famous status in his career as the one that got away, the only project which he did not initiate and where he was in conflict with his producer/star over the script - it is the peculiar intimacy of love, war and death. Here it is Crassus who delivers the killer's kiss-who finally attempts to eradicate the memory of his enemy by taking possession of his wife. And it is Crassus who makes explicit the eroticism of power, the carnal thrill of his idealistic marriage to Rome: "I shall not violate Rome at the moment of possessing her" he explains to Glabrus, who suggests he could stop Gracchus by defying tradition and bringing his legions into the city; later, after his attempted seduction of Antoninus (at least, as it once was in the full version), his attention is again deflected by Rome ("You must serve her, you must abase yourself before her, you must grovel at her feet, you must love her").

There is a parallel between this kind of 'bondage' and the love games played by Spartacus and Varima, which ("Forbid me ever to leave you") fuse passion with an ironic reminder of their slavery, or of their idealism as ex-slaves. The moral point, of course, is the contrast between Crassus' unnatural passion for his body servant or the city-state and Spartacus and Varinia's liberated gambolling in the woods. But beyond that the film is remarkable as an attempt to describe from within - Bergman's red membranes might have provided an appropriate colour key - events that aren't too explicable from without, given the dearth of historical information about Spartacus. The film is an attempt to portray the birth of a new man - premature, as it turned out - and to measure him against the summa of what could be achieved by the old, Crassus. The cells in which Spartacus and his fellow gladiators are kept are both tomb and womb-like. When Spartacus is brought in from the mines, he is not so much a wild child as a clean slate, on which are daubed first experiences of love, sex and friendship - as well as the 'kill', 'cripple' and 'slow kill' zones painted on by Marcellus. In his first expression of self-awareness, Spartacus muses, "I'm free, but what do I know? I don't even know how to read.. .I know nothing, but I want to know everything". Crassus, on the other hand, is left at the end trying to subsume Spartacus into what is already known: "I want to understand.. I must understand".

All of which is not untypical of Kubrick (compare the hero as history's blank sheet of paper in Barry Lyndon; evolutionary extremes in 2001 and The Shining) and all of which is coherently laid out in Dalton Trumbo's script, with a patina of liberal smugness and folksiness which does it a disservice. Kubrick's only detailed explanation (in Kubrick, Michel Ciment) of his dissatisfaction with the script has been on historical grounds: "History tells us he [Spartacus] twice led his victorious slave army to the northern borders of Italy, and could quite easily have gotten out of the country... Did the intentions of the rebellion change? Did Spartacus lose control of his leaders who by now may have been more interested in the spoils of war than in freedom? In the film, Spartacus was prevented from escape by the silly contrivance of a pirate leader who reneged on a deal to take the slave army away in his ships". (That 'twice' is questionable, though it points to a real Kubrickian nightmare.) A more general summation of his unhappiness with Spartacus-"It had everything but a good story"-might be more revealing, however. Given the tendency of Kubrick's storytelling towards a kind of history - with a fascination for more-than-twice-told material - what Spartacus lacks is not 'story' but a historical key, a means of synthesising and systematising narrative. Something like the camera movements in Paths of Glory (see above), which bind any number of subjective stories within the objective whorl of history. At one point here, Kubrick repeats the pattern of subjective and objective tracking shots from Paths of Glory: Dax inspecting his trenches on the morning of the battle; Spartacus touring his camp the night before. But in Spartacus, the pattern is virtually meaningless, because what is involved is not the interlocking of personal and cosmic viewpoints but a montage of rhetorical opposites, e.g., the intercutting of Spartacus' and Crassus' final speeches to their troops.

The difference in rhetoric between these two camps-even in their historical status, as represented by the film-suggests how inimical the project was in its very conception to Kubrick's methods. In a reassessment of the film in Cineaste (Vol. 6, No. 3), reference is made to "Douglas' eagerness to express his Zionist convictions [which] led him to portray Spartacus as the leader of a mass migration of slaves back to their homes, rather than as a revolutionary who tried to change the world". It's a perception which makes sense of the extraordinarily a-historical treatment of Spartacus and his followers-and the problem of what Spartacus' invocation of a collective 'home' might mean to a following made up of the conquered peoples of two thirds of the world. By comparison, the Romans are the embodiment of history, its encrustation in terms of very personal attributes (cynicism, corruption, cunning), which in turn explains why the slaves are so bland, why Spartacus has scarcely as much 'character' as the minor Roman officials that is their innocence, their freedom from history.

Such cyphers could be translated to arenas other than the Zionist - not the obvious one of the emancipation of the American slaves, but the American Revolution itself. The difference in historical situation (Spartacus and the slaves are trying to get themselves out of Italy, not the Romans) is emotionally bridged by the casting of American slaves and English Romans, a split that has other ramifications: of innocence and experience, of naivety and decadence, of an unselfconscious engagement with life and an ironical detachment. What many original reviews of the film took to be one of its greatest flaws, the way the burden of the acting works against its political sympathies ("The Anglo Romans win hands down": Sight and Sound), actually looks like an organised schizophrenia on the part of the script. The rhetoric of the Romans is even allowed to contain the occasional Shakespearean tag, while the slaves' speech is flat, flavourless, modern ("All we want is to get out of this damn country", etc.), the lingua franca of aggrieved humanity.

What justifies, and even necessitates, such liberties is the historical blank of Spartacus himself. It may be that what Kubrick needed was a more self-sufficient, integrated historical picture, and Dalton Trumbo has described him (Sight and Sound, Summer 1971) going elsewhere for it: "...Stanley had read Arthur Koestler's The Gladiators, which of course is a much better book, and as I watched the rushes I saw strange things get into the film". Such things are no longer evident, though presumably they related to Koestler's own attempt to fill in the blank of Spartacus with the supposition that what held his army together "must have been a kind of 'socialist' programme". Given that The Gladiators (part of a trilogy that includes Darkness at Noon) was written out of Koestler's disillusionment with Communism "the story of another revolution that had gone wrong" - its philosophical mechanism might also have appealed to Kubrick. Spartacus fails because he is not ruthless enough in pursuing his Utopia; the Bolshevik commisar of Darkness at Noon is ruthless enough, but loses sight of his goal in the process.

Interestingly enough, the structure of Howard Fast's Spartacus - which hardly touches on any "programme or common idea" sustaining the slaves' revolt - is not that far from Kubrick's methods, a sequence of flashbacks from the point of view of the Romans once the slaves have been crushed. The book acknowledges the inscrutability of Spartacus by presenting him as the nightmare of his conquerors, a vision of a new order of human existence. (Incidentally, the ''silly contrivance of a pirate leader'' is substantiated by Koestler as one of the causes of Spartacus' downfall; it is not mentioned by Fast). If Kubrick was unable to derive a satisfactory historical framework from either source, there is one scene in Spartacus which anticipates a more congenial source towards which he was heading. After defeating Spartacus, Crassus offers the surviving slaves a chance to escape crucifixion by identifying Spartacus for him. To prevent their leader surrendering himself to save them, each of the slaves then rises up to claim that he is Spartacus. In Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire, in the story of his escape from Zembla as King Charles, narrator Kinbote recalls the sacrifice of scores of royalists who dressed themselves up as the king in a diversionary tactic and went to jail in his stead. (In addition to the cuts made in Spartacus before its general release -Crassus' attempted seduction of Antoninus; Gracchus explaining the corruption of the Roman political system to Caesar the print under review has lost occasional scenes and bits of scenes, perhaps through damage. It is in wide-screen not Scope format, with the exception of some twenty minutes which have been printed in Academy ratio.)

Copyright - The British Film Institute