Spartacus is not a man nor is he a slave – he’s an idea, a symbol for those who follow him wherever he goes throughout Italy, seeking freedom from his former masters. Fellow brothers look up to Spartacus, they respect him for the knowledge, intelligence, poise and bravery he possesses. As an idea, Spartacus has the leadership qualities of someone that can lead revolutions without a shadow of a doubt, someone to stand up for the voiceless and inspire hundreds of thousands to join the fight to be completely free from bondage. Anyone can be Spartacus – it’s not just a name or a distinction, Spartacus is hope.
For Spartacus (Kirk Douglas), all he has known is being a slave since the young age of 13 to a Roman empire with its foot on the world’s throat. Set 2,000 years before the end of slavery, Spartacus sees a better future for the brothers in the same station as him. Alone, Spartacus is just a man, a mere pebble dropped in a pond, but with the numbers of slaves in Italy, the ripple effect is overwhelming to ignore. In Rome, Spartacus’s actions have not gone unnoticed by the overpowering senate – Marcus Licinius Crassus (Laurence Olivier) is tasked to stop the army of slaves heading for the capital. To Crassus, Spartacus is an urban legend, admittedly not knowing what Spartacus looks like, what Crassus fears the most is the loss of an accustomed luxury.
As a protagonist, Spartacus is a hero, we’re supposed to root for this no name underdog taking on an impossible task however, screenwriter Dalton Trumbo who adapted Spartacus from the novel of the same name by Howard Fast makes Spartacus a martyr after the prolonged efforts of being free and fighting back against a Republic that cannot function without slaves. By the end of this action epic for the ages, there is no quick death, Spartacus is left to die an excruciating death by way of crucifixion – slowly and painfully on display in front of the gates so all who visit Rome can witness the demise of an idea.
Coming in at a lengthy 197 minutes, Spartacus defines the term epic and spectacle capturing the scale of a silent era film of the biblical sense. With the current runtime, an intermission is even edited in to break up the action about a half of the way through.
Almost 63 years after its release, Spartacus holds the test of time. More than just a film of several scenes of depicted brutality, Spartacus holds so much heart within its bones. On the largest scale possible, director Stanley Kubrick, coming off Paths of Glory (with Douglas) balances his film with an intimacy that outlasts its rage and fury. At the center of that intimacy is a budding romance between Spartacus and Varinia (Jean Simmons). Both met while enslaved to Lentulus Batiatus (Peter Ustinov), owner of the gladiatorial school where Spartacus and Varinia quickly fall in love.
For Kubrick, Spartacus is his most ambitious film in his early career taking the lessons learned on Fear & Desire, Killer’s Kiss and The Killing and applying them here. For the entirety of the lengthy film, Kubrick has total control of his historical epic. Shot by Russell Metty, on location in Madrid, Guadalajara and Iriépal, the landscape provides a breathtaking escape to get lost in only to realize there are about thousands of extras running across the countryside. Comparatively, when in Rome, the production design fully engrosses the viewer in the overindulgent lifestyle Romans were accustomed to. Halls are massive and the estates that senators callously weep over are full of detail and historical significance. Technically, Spartacus is held together with beauty, a meticulous attention to finer details and pride for this type of narrative.
Having worked with Kubrick on Paths of Glory, Kirk Douglas commands the screen in ways that seem impossible to pull off, but he makes it look effortless. Douglas brings a charismatic stoic pride to his role that he only needs to say one word and you’re behind his movement. With Kubrick directing, Douglas squeezes out an ocean of emotions from pain and anger to sincerity. Spartacus is the epitome of a selfless hero who wants the leave the world better for his son and future generations and Douglas fits the role like a glove. This many years later, its truly remarkable the work of Douglas and Kubrick.
Aside from Douglas, Spartacus is a true ensemble film consisting of top-notch performances from top to bottom. From Charles Laughton as Gracchus to Tony Curtis as Antoninus to John Gavin as Julius Caesar and John Dall as Marcus Glabrus, each respective actor and actress commit to their role providing a nuanced approach that keeps pace with Douglas and Jean Simmons.
Going back to the runtime, for anyone, a 3-hour film has the appearance of a daunting task to accomplish however, thanks to the precision and steady hand of Kubrick in the director’s chair, Spartacus is rather easy to consume as a first-time viewer or a returning one wanting to revisit a masterpiece of its time.
Ultimately, Spartacus is a generational film – able to translate its messages and themes in a clear and concise manner while providing the large-scale action that would come with a war so grandiose. Kubrick is like his titular Spartacus, facing the unknown head on and welcoming the challenge of an ambitious undertaking that would scare off even the most fearless people. As I mentioned earlier in this review, Spartacus holds up so many years later with some dated effects, the relevance of the themes are just as present in the 21’s century as they were in the period that this epic takes place.
Screenplay By: Dalton Trumbo
Directed By: Stanley Kubrick
Music By: Alex North
Cinematography: Russell Metty
Starring: Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Jean Simmons, Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov, Tony Curtis, John Gavin, John Dall
Release Date: October 19, 1960
Running Time: 3 Hours 17 Minutes
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 94%
Based On: Spartacus by Howard Fast