Spartacus (review)

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I Am Spartacus!

You cannot make an historical drama on film anymore and expect to be taken seriously if you sanitize and Hollywoodize the reality of the situation. That wasn’t the case in 1960 when Spartacus was released, but its prettified depiction of the harsh conditions of slave life — indeed, of life for everyone — makes it difficult for me not to crack wise about the film. But that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate it, or recognize its high standing in the history of film or the collective memory of film lovers.

Spartacus is a dude with a ‘tude — not surprising, seeing as how he’s Kirk Douglas, he of the steely blue gaze and terrifying chin cleft. Born into slavery, Spartacus nevertheless cannot or will not allow his spirit to be broken by forced servitude. His impudence catches the eye of slavebroker Lentulus Batiatus (Peter Ustinov: Animal Farm), who purchases the slave for his gladiator training school, situated in a remote Italian province. There, Spartacus and his fellow slaves are taught to fight to the death for later sale to “ladies and gentlemen of quality,” who will fight them for sport in Rome. If they survive enough bouts, Lentulus suggests, they may one day win their freedom.
Freedom can’t come soon enough for Spartacus, though, and he inadvertently sparks off a slave revolt when he sees the kitchen scullion he’s fallen in love with, Varinia (Jean Simmons), departing, having been sold to the first general of the republic, Marcus Licinius Crassus (Laurence Olivier: Hamlet, Rebecca), who requires her at his home in distant Rome. It’s hardly shocking that these two men will spend much of the film chasing after this woman, since despite her lowly status and hard life as a slave, she still manages to be smooth and pretty and free of unsightly, unwanted hair.

Spartacus’s uprising spreads rapidly, and as he and his gladiator army wreak havoc on the Roman countryside, trashing the estates of wealthy citizens and freeing their slaves. Meanwhile, political machinations in the Senate tie up official response to Spartacus: First senator Sempronius Gracchus (Charles Laughton: Mutiny on the Bounty) and first general Crassus, who’s also a senator, are in the middle of a power struggle for control of the republic.

Based on a true story of a slave revolt in 73 BC, Dalton Trumbo’s script mixes the corny melodrama typical of the epics of the era with some quite affecting, moving moments. When a fellow gladiator-in-training warns the sociable Spartacus that “gladiators don’t make friends” because they’ll likely have to kill each other in the ring one day, well, you can pretty much guess that Spartacus and this other fellow are gonna end up in the arena together. But making up for obviousness like that are startling scenes of thousands of rebel slaves punished with crucifixion along the roads to Rome, and a spectacular final battle. The film is visually striking, as Stanley Kurbrick’s (Eyes Wide Shut) films tend to be, though the bluntly homoerotic bath scene between Crassus and his handsome young slave (Tony Curtis) — Crassus reveals that his tastes include both “snails and oysters,” and we all know what that means — seems less daring when you discover that this was cut from the original release and only restored in the director’s cut that is the only video release now available.

Many of the actors playing slaves don’t seem to have been encouraged to actually act the part: Jean Simmons, for example, exudes a rarefied British-drama-school air that’s completely at odds with her low-born character, and John Ireland as Spartacus’s buddy and right-hand man Crixus comes across as a too-American heavy. The accents throughout the film range, hilariously, from British to Brooklyn. And the narration that opens the film sounds like something out of one of those horrible industrial arts film strips I was forced to watch in elementary school, and typifies Cold War arrogance in suggesting that slavery died out 2000 years later, presumably with the American Civil War, when of course it still continues in places around the world today.

So, Spartacus is a film very much of its era — but that only means you can enjoy it on the dramatic level and for its ironic retro cornball appeal as well.

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