For Memorial Day, a movie about war and freedom. And maybe a bit more than bargained for.
Er… Spartacus! Sorry, there’s not really a title screen for this one.
The Film: Based loosely on the historical event, Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) is a slave turned gladiator who uses his training and natural leadership skills to organize a revolt against the Roman Republic in the name of freedom and for the woman he loves (Jean Simmons). Spartacus rallies and trains an army powerful enough to threaten Rome, but political maneuvering by the ambitious Crassus (Laurence Olivier), dooms the slave army to defeat and collapses the Republic into a dictatorship. The rebellion ends tragically, but Spartacus and the former slaves die as free men.
The Production: Spartacus is one of the great happy accidents in movie history; it’s a film that has absolutely no business being as good as it is. The idea came from a Kirk Douglas tantrum over losing Ben-Hur to Charlton Heston, the script was penned by a writer from the gloomy Hollywood blacklist, and the film lost director Anthony Mann just days into shooting when he crossed Douglas. (Douglas, for his part, accused Mann of being unsuited for the sheer scale of the picture, although Mann later directed Martin Scorsese’s favorite epic El Cid starring, of course, Charlton Heston. The title translates loosely into English as Fuck Off, Kirk.)
Enter Stanley Kubrick, who had just directed Douglas in the excellent Paths of Glory. Douglas claimed that he knew a star director was on the rise, but it’s just as likely that he thought Kubrick could be controlled. Kubrick, having other ideas, immediately muscled out the cinematographer so that he could do the job himself (ultimately earning an Oscar for the guy), but he was still bound by the casting and the production design work that had been completed before he took the job. The result is a strange blend of studio sensibilities and Kubrick’s subversive thoughts on the sword and sandals genre. The combination proved surprisingly potent, becoming a runaway hit at the box office and instantly transforming Kubrick’s career. He became such a hot commodity that he actually convinced a studio to fund a production of Vladimir Nabokov’s untouchable novel, Lolita.
Best Moment: The “I’m Spartacus” scene that appears near the end of the film is so pervasive in popular culture that it’s become a cliche, rendering it nearly meaningless to new viewers of the film when they finally get to it. Monty Python spoofed it over 30 years ago, for crying out loud. It was even the basis for a pretty good Pepsi commercial.
That scene is still the most famous, but I’m more interested in a scene that wasn’t even in the original theatrical release, and one that’s helped to give the film a certain amount of cultural infamy. I’m referring to the “snails and oysters” scene. During a bath, Crassus seemingly attempts to seduce his slave, Antoninus (Tony Curtis), by musing on the difference between eating oysters and eating snails, and how preferring one over the other is a matter of taste and not of morals. Incidentally, Crassus enjoys both snails and oysters. He questions Antoninus on his own preferences, but finds that the slave has escaped while his back was turned.
I love this scene, and not just for its sly attempt to slip a discussion of homosexuality past the studio and the reeling Hayes Code (they weren’t fooled and the scene was cut.) I love the scene because it’s the most Kubrick of any in the film. Most of Spartacus is straight out of the studio epic playbook, from the look and feel, to the story structure, even the movie’s optimistic tone. Kubrick simply didn’t have the power over this production that he would later command.
This kind of power.
But the snails and oysters scene is Kubrick at his finest. Kubrick shoots the scene from an extreme wide angle, a crucial distancing technique that leaves the audience a little lost and uncomfortable, wondering where to look and who to sympathize with. The dialogue piles on the pressure. Antoninus is a slave and has very little choice in what his master does with him. Even if he objects, and it appears clear that he does, he must stay silent. That leaves a calm and creepy call/response where Crassus walks Antoninus through a calculated seduction, and Antoninus is helpless to escape. His only response is to flee, because the next move from Crassus must surely be force.
This scene fits in perfectly with the Kubrick’s blurred line between sex and warfare, which manifests this time as the power of one man over another. The scene is also a glaring reminder that Kubrick sees this seemingly straightforward epic with a cynic’s eye. The movie just isn’t the same without it.
Lasting Impact: Moderate-to-high. Spartacus was a major financial success, made Stanley Kubrick’s career, and canonized Kirk Douglas as a movie star. The movie routinely appears on lists of great epics, and in 2007, the American Film Institute named Spartacus the 81st best American movie ever made. On the downside, the film hasn’t aged well (although a bit better than Ben-Hur, to Douglas’s credit) and I feel like its influence on modern pop culture is pretty much done. My evidence? The cable channel Starz recently decided that the film was creaky enough to deserve a loud, godawful reboot in the style of Zach Snyder’s 300.
Overall: Need more evidence that Spartacus is an accidental classic? The film enjoys massive success as a war epic despite its complete lack of a war. Only one major battle scene takes place in front of the camera, with the rest of the running time devoted to romances, bromances, and political shenanigans. Spartacus isn’t a war movie. It’s a movie about what happens to four or five people while a big, ugly war tramples around off screen. And mostly it’s about sex.
Kubrick spent the rest of his career revisiting themes he established here in Spartacus, namely the underlying sexual tensions baked into all the violence. It begins early, with a scene where Spartacus the slave is handed a sword and prodded to fight. He refuses and dangles the sword limply by his side. He’s pushed harder by his owner, slapped. As the aggression level rises, so does the sword. Spartacus never moves his arm, but the sword rises slowly to attention, obviously phallic. It’s a throwaway bit, maybe, but Kubrick designed that shot and knew what he was doing. He also designed Antoninus’s death scene where he declares his feelings for Spartacus, the pair of them framed like lovers even as they refer to each other as father and son. These aren’t accidents, nor is it an accident that the film enjoys popularity in the gay community for daring to let the subtext free.
This has to be Kubrick’s influence, because I’m not sure screenwriter Dalton Trumbo would have approved. Trumbo, writer of Gun Crazy, Roman Holiday, and ohholycraphewasjustawesome, was the most famous name on the Hollywood blacklist and might have been feeling just catty enough to puncture some studio stuffed shirts with a oversexed satire, but I don’t buy it. Trumbo’s work just doesn’t have the same bent toward cynicism that Kubrick’s always did. I believe that, much the same as his infamous reading of Red Alert, Kubrick simply saw the story in a different way than it was written and decided to shoot the film as it made sense to him. And who can argue with him, faced with a story in which the fate of Rome and thousands of free men is decided in a war largely about whether it’s Crassus or Spartacus that gets to bed Virinia.
So Spartacus is a weird movie, pulled in two directions by the artist and the suits, somehow held together by a world-class script and great performances (I haven’t even gotten into Peter Ustinov’s Oscar-winning performance as a cowardly slaver or Charles Laughton’s brilliant turn as a shrewd senator), and then elevated by Kubrick’s eye for human triumph and weakness. It shouldn’t hold together, but it does. An accidental classic, but then again, aren’t they all?
The Stanley Kubrick Project
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11. The Killing
12. Killer’s Kiss
13. Fear and Desire