Saturday, 27 August 2016

Stanley Kubrick's "Spartacus" – Swords and Sauce-ry

What can you say about Kubrick’s 1960 epic Spartacus?  It’s a beast.  Multiple writers, multiple directors, multiple luvvies.  Plenty of egos here, Kirk Douglas (Spartacus), Laurence Olivier (Crassus), Charles Laughton (Gracchus), not to mention Mr Mega-ego himself, Kubrick.  To echo a famous scene from the film, it sometimes feels like: “I’m fabulous.”  “I’m fabulous.”  “I’m fabulous…”  The result is sometimes messy as these heavyweights slug it out for influence and screen time, but also often entertaining and breathtaking.


Spartacus makes no attempt to be historically accurate, so if you’re looking for a history lesson you won’t find it here.

It’s moulded into the epic genre so it’s got plenty of big, glib statements about slavery and religion but very little in the way of genuine human experience.  Spartacus is a hero from beginning to end.  Jean Simmons plays an out-and-out tart with a heart, apparently mentally un-scared at being pimped out nightly to the gladiators, and swiftly converted into Madonna mother figure once freed.

So perhaps the only way to rate the film is on how well it succeeds as an epic.  It does pretty well even after all this time.  Modern epics tend to squeeze in a few more battles.  The battles in the middle of Spartacus happen off-camera but the final big scene is amazing – and incomparably better for being filmed with real extras rather than the CGI armies which seem to be the only thing we see in recent films.  The Roman leaders are gloriously corrupt – particularly Peter Ustinov as Batiatus, the cynical owner of the gladiator school and Charles Laughton as Gracchus, whose face looks as though it is about to melt into a puddle of vice.  There are plenty of memorable scenes, including the gladiator fights and the revolt scenes and the initial salt mine sequence.  The music is suitably epic.

Review continues below...

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But there are also self-indulgent sideways glances at the Cold War and at Hollywood’s anti-communist blacklists.  Some of the veiled homosexual references seem childish or forced into the screenplay – the famous pool scene with its oyster vs snail discussion, for example, is dramatically redundant since Crassus goes on to have his odd relationship with Spartacus’ wife but it is a memorable scene nonetheless, with its sinister overtones of control since it directed to Crassus’ male slave.  There are also plenty of Carry On-style comments about swollen armies and enormous Roman lords.

The female characters are a problem, as in so many of Kubrick’s films.  As well as the tart with a heart, we have a feisty old slave crone and two nasty companions to Crassus who insist on the gladiators performing fights to the death for sexual kicks.  “I feel so sorry for the poor things in all this heat.  Don’t put them in those suffocating tunics.  Let them wear just enough for modesty.”  You can almost hear Kubrick cackling, delighted at creating such bitches.

Personal Score: 5/10

This is part of a series of film reviews where I give my comments on IMDB Top 250 films as a writer. The idea is that over time these posts will build into a wide-ranging writing resource.

For more details about the approach I've taken, including some important points about its strengths and weaknesses (I make no claims about my abilities as a film critic or even the accuracy of my comments... but I do stand by the value of a writer's notes on interesting films), see my introductory post here.

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