Kirk Douglas at 100: Spartacus (1959 Stanley Kubrick)

If you haven’t heard it already, I would heartily recommend the You Must Remember This podcast series on The Blacklist and in particular the episode on Kirk Douglas and Dalton Trumbo. Indeed, if that isn’t enough, you could watch the film Trumbo from last year, which is in the same class and context as Good Night and Good Luck – they both explore the truly ridiculous times that descended on post-war US in the 1950s under the McCarthy era. Anyway, all of this provides an additional and expansive backdrop to the production of Spartacus, directed by Kubrick at Universal Studios and written by Trumbo. Thanks to Douglas, who pursued the production for years, Trumbo’s name appeared on the credits despite him having been on the Hollywood ‘Blacklist’ for a number of years. In many ways, this act, in culmination with the success of the movie (JFK publicly went out to see it), was seen as the key to the breaking of the list.

The film was released at a time when the biblical epics were being slathered on thick by the studios (The Ten Commandments in 1956, Ben Hur in 1959). David Lean and Arthur Penn were both originally on board to direct but a young Kubrick (only 30), took charge when Penn became daunted by the scope of the project (he did end up making another epic in 1964, The Fall of the Roman Empire). The epic scope of the movie was indeed quite formidable. It had a $12 million budget (over $100 million these days) and there were over 10,000 extras. But not unlike a Cecil B DeMille production, the studio had ‘simple’ demands – make it big, make it religious and make it successful. Kubrick was a different kettle of fish to the likes of the old hands like DeMille though. He was a new visionary and had more substantive ideas to go with the awe-inspiring visuals.

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Although it has the usual formulaic story devices (typical love-story, religious-heavy symbolism, underdog rising up etc.), Kubrick and Trumbo managed to concoct something more meaningful (there were some artistic differences between them though). With the charisma of Douglas at the helm, the beauty of Jean Simmons as the love interest, the weaselly bad guy in Laurence Olivier and the fat, repulsive bad guy in Charles Laughton (see picture) they were never going to go wrong anyway. But then add to this a variety of other sub-plots and sub-texts that went far beyond any other epic at the time. For example, the perceived homosexual relationship between Olivier’s Crassus and Tony Curtis’s Antoninus – it is not explicit but it is clear some rumpy-pumpy was going on. Then you have the incredible scene when the Ethiopian gladiator, Draba (played by the awesome Woody Strode) is forced to fight Spartacus and when he defeats him, he doesn’t kill him but rather gives up his own life by turning on the generals who put him there. It says a lot about the US’s history of slavery I think.

Spartacus is a unique epic film from the time because it has so much more going on than just telling a historical fiction and presenting it to the wider public to make vast amounts of bucks. It doesn’t fully sell itself on its ‘swords and sandals’ premise (the recent TV show based on Spartacus appeared to sell itself on homo-eroticism and misplaced masculinity) nor does it say that the underdog is always going to win in the end (the Vietnam War anyone?) but it has itself a fairly entertaining ride along the way and is presented in the finest of cinema-scopes. It truly was a whirlwind way for Kubrick to announce his arrival on the scene of big budget productions and it allowed Douglas to not only cement his place in Hollywood history but also to forever have random strangers come up to him and exclaim themselves to be, none other than, Spartacus!

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Rated 4/5 ♦♦♦♦

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