The year is 73 B.C. and the Roman Empire is master of all it surveys, though that power is built upon a process of conquering and slavery to keep it in motion. One such slave is Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) who was born into the life of oppression and has no hope of ever leaving it, having been forced to work in a quarry with countless others. But one day, after fighting back briefly against a soldier who tried to prevent him from helping another slave who had toiled to the point of exhaustion, he is chosen by Lentulus Batiatus (Peter Ustinov), the head of the gladiator academy, to join a few others to be trained in the art of killing other men for sport. This disgusts Spartacus, but he has little choice, unaware he now has the chance to change history.
It's safe to say that for all its classic status in the realm of that heyday of Hollywood epics, be they Roman or otherwise, Spartacus did not enjoy a consensus on how accomplished it actually was, and that was just from the people who made it. Stanley Kubrick had worked very well with star and producer Kirk Douglas on Paths of Glory, so when the initial director Anthony Mann was essentially fired by Douglas, Kubrick seemed an obvious choice to take over for a film that had something important to say about war and society through the prism of history. However, he had problems almost immediately, and this status as a director for hire rather than the head of all decisions rankled with him.
Not to mention that Douglas had some very strong views about how the project should be going himself, and the two men clashed often, leading to a film whose shoot dragged on way past the patience of anyone involved with it. One problem with the final product once it was eventually released was the presence of Dalton Trumbo as screenwriter since for most of the previous decade he had been labouring under pseudonyms as he had been blacklisted in Hollywood as a suspected Communist. With his real name proudly announced in the opening credits, there was a lot of grumbling and even some protest from the more right wing members of the filmmaking community, and many could discern a distinct left wing bias to the plot.
Naturally, with Trumbo a hero to many on the left this only made Spartacus more attractive to them, and it remains a controversial effort to this day, with either end of the political spectrum unable to make up their minds how impressive it was, and film buffs debating that if Kubrick did not consider it part of his canon, should we even consider it a valid production either? He didn't like the moralising tone of the script at all, and you can tell with his imperviousness to your puny human emotions his interest in the love scenes between Douglas and Spartacus' wife Varinia (Jean Simmons) was next to nothing, delivering them in gooey soft focus as if to send them up with exaggeration. Then there was the sheer length of the film, fine for a lazy holiday afternoon when you have nothing to do, but rather overwhelming for all that bulk.
And yet, while there was an inconsistency in quality from scene to scene, when Spartacus was good, on form if you like, it was frequently excellent. Much of this was down to how well cast it was; Douglas was fond of surrounding himself with top talent, possibly so he could boss them around and show himself to be their equal or even better, knowing his huge movie star ego, but it was a trick that undeniably paid great dividends, especially with a roster of performers as keen as this one. Spartacus' main antagonist (who he barely meets) was the Roman senator Marcus Crassus, and was played with silky smooth villainy by Laurence Olivier, who Douglas had worked with to some success before. To hear Olivier speak some very finely crafted lines (some by Ustinov) in his impeccable diction and delivery was a rarefied cinematic pleasure in itself.
To hear Tony Curtis trade dialogue with Olivier was perhaps not quite as arresting, or if it was then that was in the wrong way, but when Crassus toys with Curtis' slave in the bath (verbally) in a scene cut out of the original version for being too homosexual (!) then his casting makes more sense. Better, however, was to see Sir Larry spar with rival senator Charles Laughton, who illustrates the conniving Roman senate with a twinkle in his eye, this being a tale of political manoeuvring as much as it was a tale of war, and Peter Ustinov deserved his Oscar in a perfectly judged reading among some strong contenders. That this was a condemnation of slavery was a given, so Woody Strode as a black actor was very significant in kicking off the revolt, yet it was also an endorsement of the freedom to control your own choices and not be constrained by others. However, to highlight that it left its characters in a curious place, with nobody truly satisfied, suggesting life was more than compromise, it was a constant losing struggle that would only be effective if you left it on your own terms. But the spectacle was enough to keep you watching. Music by Alex North.
American director famous for his technical skills and endless film shoots, who made some of modern cinema's greatest pictures. New York-born Kubrick began shooting documentaries in the early 50s, leading to his first directing jobs on the moody noir thrillers Killer's Kiss and The Killing. The powerful anti-war film Paths of Glory followed, leading star Kirk Douglas to summon Kubrick to direct the troubled Spartacus in 1960.
Lolita was a brave if not entirely successful attempt to film Nabokov's novel, but Kubrick's next three films were all masterpieces. 1964's Dr Strangelove was a brilliant, pitch black war comedy, 2001: A Space Odyssey set new standards in special effects, while A Clockwork Orange was a hugely controversial, shocking satire that the director withdrew from UK distribution soon after its release. Kubrick, now relocated to England and refusing to travel elsewhere, struggled to top this trio, and the on-set demands on his cast and crew had become infamous.
Barry Lyndon was a beautiful but slow-paced period piece, The Shining a scary Stephen King adaptation that was nevertheless disowned by the author. 1987's Vietnam epic Full Metal Jacket showed that Kubrick had lost none of his power to shock, and if the posthumously released Eyes Wide Shut was a little anti-climatic, it still capped a remarkable career.