Stanley Kubrick’s fifth feature, and arguably the first to launch him into the pantheon of great directors which he would inhabit for the rest of his career (and the rest of film history, no doubt), Spartacus tells the story of famous slave-cum-gladiator-cum-rebellion leader, the eponymous Spartacus, and his heroic trail from his gladiator training in Vesuvius his final demise (WOOPS! SPOILED! DAMN!) in Rome.
Despite it having Kubrick’s name attached, it was very much a passion project of Kirk Douglas, who was bitter about being looked over in favour of Charlton Heston for the title role of Wiliam Wyler’s Ben Hur. Kubrick began after one week of filming, when Heston fired esteemed Western director Anthony Mann (Winchester 73), who he felt was scared by the scope of the film. It is hard to believe, perhaps for you, definitely for me, that Kubrick hasn’t always been a huge name in cinema, and whilst he wasn’t a nobody when he was pegged to direct Spartacus (he had four films under his belt at the time), he was only thirty years old and Spartacus could’ve broken him as easily as it ended up making him. Enough backstory! What’s in the film?!
What we see in Spartacus is primarily a terrific story of biblical proportions. There is a huge amount of plot involving conflict, war, politics, and rebellion, but the film is 196 minutes long so I can’t really be expected to explain the whole thing can I? The wonderfully textured plot essentially surrounds the conflict of Spartacus, and his army of slaves, and the Roman army, in particular the conniving politician and general Marcus Licinius Crassus. Grandness ensues.
My problem with this film lies not in the grandness of its scope, or how much plot there is (which I do usually find to be an unattractive quality in films), but in the eponymous character himself. Spartacus is introduced to us as an insubordinate slave who, when disciplined by soldier, bites into his calf and is left tied to a rock to die of starvation. He is then bought by a gladiator owner (because rebellious slaves should be taught how to fight properly!) and, whilst being trained, is given a woman in his chambers for relief purposes. He touches her neck, tells her he’s never had a woman before, and upon laughs and jeers from his owners, howls “I’M NOT AN ANIMAL”.
It’s compelling, but this roar on his behalf ends up not being a psychological identity crisis, but the first moment where we are told the message that gets painful by the end: SPARTACUS IS PURE OF HEART. Throughout the film, Spartacus is a faultless paragon of morality, incorruptible, loyal, a terrific leader, he is perfect. He’s boring. He loses one fight, towards the beginning of the film, and it is one of the films most exciting moments. For a protagonist whose entire game plan is freedom and who has zero military training or experience, there are nowhere near enough moments where we realise the man has no idea what he’s doing. He shouldn’t be in control. He was born and raised a slave, yet he, like Jesus, can do no wrong. He is the perfect civil gentleman, and he shouldn’t be.
Interesting for a film made in the height of the cold war (Dalton Trumbo, who wrote the screenplay, was arrested as part of the Hollywood 10 at the peak of McCarthyism in the 1950s) is the conflict between the socialist slave army and the very much proto-capitalist Roman Republic (Crassus was himself one of the biggest names in moving Rome from a Republic to an Empire, and it is implied in the film that he was a pivotal mentor for one Julius Caesar). The slaves are seen as heroic, the Romans seeing their way of government as a threat to their own, and therefore setting out to destroy them (which definitely doesn’t sound like Vietnam).
The narrative of Spartacus is gripping, and the fine tuned cinematography and storytelling of Stanley Kubrick is on display from early in his career, but one can’t help wonder how truly interesting the character of Spartacus and his campaign could be portrayed if it weren’t used as a vehicle for Kirk Douglas announcing himself as the ultimate alpha.