THE MAKING OF ‘SPARTACUS’ (1960).

 

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There were three Servile Wars in B.C. Italy; the one involving escaped slave/gladiator Spartacus being the last of them. It ended with a final battle in 71 BC. Stanley Kubrick replaced Anthony Mann as director of Spartacus (1960), after Mann and the star, Kirk Douglas, repeatedly clashed. Douglas and Kubrick would clash also, especially when the director unashamedly attempted to take credit for blacklisted Dalton Trumbo’s screenplay. Kirk used his considerable clout to ensure Trumbo was given the credit to which he was entitled. In doing so, Douglas himself took credit for effectively ending the Hollywood blacklist. Others disagreed with his assessment of this. CB DeMille, for instance, had previously ignored the list when he made The Ten Commandments (1956) and gave blacklisted Edward G. Robinson a role, thus enabling the aging actor to continue in his profession. In truth, Douglas could get Trumbo ‘on the cheap’ because of his blacklisting and that was his main reason for hiring him.

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Kirk Douglas & Stanley Kubrick on the set of Spartacus (1960)

Most fans of Kubrick (and there are plenty of them), would probably cite his 2001: a space odyssey (1968) or A Clockwork Orange (1971) as his best works. I expect a movie to entertain me, to keep me interested at all times. In my opinion 2001, special effects and sets aside, progressed at a snail’s pace and culminated in one of the most confusing, unsatisfactory endings in movie history. A Clockwork Orange, in my personal opinion, was sick garbage. I can almost hear the Kubrick zealots jumping up and down in horror, but I stand by my opinion. Spartacus, on the other hand, is entertainment at its finest. Trumbo’s screenplay is almost brilliant, the acting, with the singular glaring exception of Tony Curtis who was woefully miscast as Antoninus, is uniformly first class, and the cinematography is spectacular. The scene in which the Roman legions advance to do battle with the slave army is quite extraordinary. Kubrick gives us a glimpse of what it must have been like to face the mightiest army on Earth. Wonderful spectacle.

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Roman legions moving into position

Sir Laurence Olivier is perfectly cast as Crassus; Peter Ustinov is brilliant as Batiatus, the owner of the gladiatorial school, and Charles Laughton as Gracchus is the scheming politician of caricature. The principals, Douglas and Jean Simmons are fine, but not in the same league as the aforementioned superstars. I can only assume that Curtis (whom I admired as an actor in most things he attempted), was tossed into the picture to attract younger cinema-goers. A pity. His Bronx accent is ludicrously out of place here. Kubrick and Trumbo clashed over the character of Spartacus, and I must say I agree with the director’s viewpoint on that issue. Trumbo paints the slave leader as a virtually flawless man – a kind, forgiving, understanding deep thinker with a sense of humour! Of course, history knows the man as an uneducated slave, a gladiator sorely used by everyone he has ever known, a brute, brutalised by the system all his life. Trumbo really should have painted him a little darker. A lot darker, for that matter.

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Tony Curtis as Antoninus

Needless to say, considerable license has been taken with the truth here. It is highly unlikely, for instance, that Crassus and Spartacus ever spoke to each other, (as they do towards the end of this picture). Plutarch’s biography mentions that Spartacus did attempt to personally kill Crassus in the final battle, but was cut down by the general’s bodyguards in the process. It is possible, therefore, that they may have clapped eyes on one another for a moment or so. It is true that Crassus crucified hundreds of followers of Spartacus after the battle, but their leader was not among them. He died in the fighting. As for the totally dumb ‘I am Spartacus!’ scene, Douglas asked Kubrick (in front of cast and crew) what he thought of it. He replied that it was ‘a stupid idea’, whereupon Douglas chewed him out in front of everyone. It really is a stupid idea, yet it is probably the most remembered scene in the movie. Go figure. Incidentally, the actor who looks like George Kennedy when he jumps to his feet and yells, ‘I’m Spartacus’ is not Kennedy. It is, in fact, stunt man Bob Morgan, the same guy who would later marry Yvonne de Carlo and tragically lose his leg in the railroad flatcar, loaded with logs, scene in How the West was Won in 1962.

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Olivier & John Gavin as Crassus and Caesar

After that final victory over the slaves, Crassus, Pompey and Julius Caesar formed a triumvirate and ruled Rome for a while. Crassus would be killed by the Parthians after losing the battle of Carrhae. In derisory, symbolic recognition of his enormous wealth, they forced him to drink a goblet of molten gold! Gracchus is a created character, loosely based on a couple of Roman tribunes (not senators), who existed several decades before these events took place and had nothing to do with Spartacus whatsoever.

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Peter Ustinov (L) as Batiatus & Charles Laughton as Gracchus

Despite the movie’s enormous success at the box-office, Kubrick disowned it entirely. It was the only one of his films over which he did not exercise complete control and it rankled him. Curiously, Peter Ustinov was the only actor appearing in a Kubrick movie to ever win an Oscar for his performance. Indeed, other than Ustinov, Peter Sellers was the only other actor in a film directed by Kubrick to even be nominated! He was an unsuccessfull contender for Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. (1964).

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Dalton Trumbo

When Gracchus is found guilty of orchestrating the revolt, he is confronted by Crassus, who tells him: ‘In every city and province, lists of the disloyal have been compiled.’ One imagines Dalton Trumbo, the writer of these words and himself one of the ‘Hollywood Ten’ imprisoned as Communists in the McCarthy Era, taking particular satisfaction at this sly dig at those who had persecuted him and who still had his name on their blacklist. Both John Wayne and columnist Hedda Hopper, leaders of Hollywood’s powerful right-wing element, were quick to condemn the movie as ‘Marxist Propaganda’, simply because the credits had a self-confessed Communist as the writer of the screenplay.

On a lighter note, Olivier did a great deal of research for his role as Crassus and came up with an interesting piece of trivia that he was determined to use to strengthen his performance. He read that all Roman generals rode their horses without the use of saddles, so he opted to ride bare-back throughout the picture. Unfortunately, this resulted in him wobbling about whenever his horse moved slightly in close-ups. Kubrick tired of the problems this created, so all Olivier’s horseback scenes were eventually shot with the great man perched on a ladder!

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Charles McGraw as Marcellus

I remember the first time I saw Spartacus. It was 1961 and I was fourteen. When Spartacus wrestled with Marcellus (played by Charles McGraw) during the breakout and drowned him in the soup vat, it was instantly apparent that Douglas accidentally smashed his fellow actor’s face on the side of the vat! Evidently, the accident broke the McGraw’s jaw, although he managed to finish the scene. No wonder it did him an injury. It was a severe whack!

On its release, Spartacus encountered protests from several anti-Communist groups, at the forefront of which was the ever-bleating, ‘Legion of Decency’, as usual making more noise than anyone else. To his everlasting credit, the newly-elected President John F. Kennedy personally diffused the situation by crossing the picket-line set up by the anti-Communist organizers and attending the film.

7 Comments

  1. Some years ago I watched a documentary on the History channel about Spartacus. In some ways the actual historical events of his life was even more fascinating than the 1960 movie.

    One thing that always stuck with me was that Spartacus and a number of his troops actually made it to their freedom at the Alps.
    Believe it or not,they chose to turn back and enter into Italy again.

    Why?

    They felt that the drudgery & poverty of being farmers was a horrible fate for the rest of their lives. They preferred to live a dangerous,exciting life of plunder.

  2. Hi Alan,
    I agree with you re 2001: a space odyssey, Its one thing to come out of a cinema after being left guessing about a character and/or plot outcome, especially when you suspect or know that a sequel is on its way, but to be left totally baffled by the film, and having to wait 51 years for you tube videos to come up with suggestions of an explanation, some of which are as baffling as the film itself. is disappointing to say the least.

  3. Spartacus remains one of my all time favorite films,Alan.

    I do love the “I’m Spartacus”scene very much. Not only seeing that his men would gladly die for him and the brotherhood it conveys among them.But the stunned look on Crassus face is powerful. Aman who believes you can buy loyalty only with money. He is amazed that there is an exception…and he is witness to it.

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