Sunday, January 27, 2013

Spartacus (1960)

Director: Stanley Kubrick                               Writer: Dalton Trumbo
Film Score: Alex North                                  Cinematography: Russell Metty
Starring: Kirk Douglass, Jean Simmons, Laurence Olivier and Peter Ustinov

I’m not a big fan of the epic, but Spartacus is one I like a lot. Unlike The Ten Commandments or Ben Hur, the film really benefits from the lack of Christian themes. Although it’s alluded to in the beginning, and one can’t help the association with the crucifixions at the end, Howard Fast’s story of a slave rebellion in the Roman empire is mercifully free from proselytizing, even from its protagonist, Kirk Douglas. In fact, he’s one of the most refreshing hero/martyrs in all of film history. He’s not anguished, he’s not brooding, he simply takes each circumstance as it comes and attempts to make things better for himself and, by extension, the rest of humanity.

This is especially surprising considering screenwriter Dalton Trumbo was one of the Hollywood Ten, persecuted by the House Un-American Activities Committee for alleged Communist affiliations, and whose ordeal was chillingly mirrored in the film Guilty by Suspicion with Robert De Niro. Blacklisted from film credits for over a decade, his onscreen acknowledgement in Spartacus was insisted on by Kirk Douglas and began the demise of the blacklist. If anyone had an ax to grind in writing about a slave who leads an uprising against the most powerful empire on earth, it was Trumbo. But through it all Spartacus never thinks of himself first, never anguishes about saving himself or his family at the expense of the rest of the slaves, and goes to his death knowing that the cause for which he gave his life must eventually be realized.

Douglas is great in the role. Perhaps not perfect, but it was his project and, freed from Hollywood studio contracts in a similar fashion to his character, he carries it off with great aplomb. But there are other brilliant performances as well, most notably Jean Simmons as the slave Varina, whose stoicism sinks all of her captors and yet hides an depth of emotion that she is able to share only with Spartacus. Again, it is largely due to Trumbo’s script, but Simmons does a terrific job of bringing the pages to life. Laurence Olivier is also an exceptional villain in the role of Crassus. Unlike the villains you love to hate, he manages to keep his inhumanity at a low simmer, rather than chewing the scenery like Charles Laughton’s Gracchus, and gives the audience a genuine, three-dimensional antagonist.

The most surprising performance for me, however, was Peter Ustinov as Batiatus. Used to seeing him mostly in his later years in Disney films or as Hercule Poirot, his performance as a sycophant goes right up to the edge of farce at times, but he always brings it back to an emotional center that is startling in its genuine emotion, and well deserving of his supporting actor Oscar. Spartacus won three other Academy Awards, but they were for set design, costumes, and cinematography, snubbing director Stanley Kubrick, along with the star and his film. But time has proven that the film’s popularity has exceeded those of its rivals that year and is consistently at the top of many critic’s lists. Ultimately, it’s a great film and its legacy well deserved.

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