USA (184 mi) 1960 ‘Scope d: Stanley Kubrick uncredited director: Anthony Mann 1967 re-release (161 mi) 1991 Restored version (197 mi)
The only Kubrick film that disappoints, as it was after this film, which Stanley Kubrick thought was a personal disaster, that he left the United States and took up permanent residence in Hertfordshire north of London in England. It remains the only film directed by Kubrick where he did not have complete artistic control. While Kubrick disowned the film and did not include it as part of his own original work, it grossed $60 million dollars for a $12 million dollar picture (one of the costliest movies of its era), becoming the biggest moneymaking hit in Universal Studio history until surpassed by AIRPORT (1970), and remains the third highest grossing Kubrick picture after 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968), nearly $200 million, and EYES WIDE SHUT (1999) at $160 million. According to Kubrick afterwards, “Then I did Spartacus, which was the only film that I did not have control over, and which I feel was not enhanced by that fact. It all really just came down to the fact that there are thousands of decisions that have to be made, and that if you don’t make them yourself, and if you’re not on the same wavelength as the people who are making them, it becomes a very painful experience, which it was.” Biblical epics, also known as sword and sandal movies, were extremely popular in the 50’s, including Mervyn LeRoy’s QUO VADIS (1951), which includes uncredited direction from Anthony Mann, Henry Koster’s THE ROBE (1953), Cecil B. DeMille’s THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1956), and William Wyler’s BEN-HUR (1959), which went on to win 11 Academy Awards. SPARTACUS came about largely from Wyler’s refusal to hire Kirk Douglas in the title role, a part he passionately craved, hiring Charlton Heston instead as the noble hero, while offering Douglas the role of the villainous enemy Messala, a part he refused, instead forming his own production company to make his own Roman epic, admitting “That was what spurred me to do it, in a childish way—the ‘I’ll-show-them’ sort of thing.” Initially turned down by David Lean, veteran director Anthony Mann, best known for his tense, psychological westerns like Winchester '73 (1950), The Naked Spur (1953), and Man of the West (1958), but also noir films like T-MEN (1947), RAW DEAL (1948), and Side Street (1950), a man with a predilection for shooting outdoors, was hired for the film. Supposedly after shooting the opening quarry sequence of slaves crushing rocks under the brutal hot sun while under the whip of Roman guards, filmed in Death Valley, Nevada, Douglas fired him, citing artistic differences during the shooting of scenes at the gladiator school, hiring the young 31-year old Stanley Kubrick to take over, a director he had worked with previously in PATHS OF GLORY (1957). To show how quickly this came about, Mann was fired on Friday, Kubrick read the script over the weekend, and was called in to begin shooting on Monday.
A Biblical epic with no religious overtones, the film about an early Roman slave revolt was based on the 1951 novel by Howard Fast, a former communist who began writing it as a reaction to his own imprisonment during the era of McCarthyism and Hollywood blacklisting, where he was imprisoned for 3-months for contempt of Congress after refusing to disclose the names of contributors to fund a home for orphans of American veterans of the Spanish Civil War. While Douglas optioned the book, he also took on the dual responsibilities of executive producer and star of the film. Ironically, after receiving 60 pages of script from Fast, Douglas turned to another blacklisted writer, Dalton Trumbo, one of the Hollywood Ten who defied the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947 and was sentenced to a year in jail for refusing to cooperate. After a decade of writing scripts under pseudonyms, Douglas helped destroy the Hollywood blacklist by using Trumbo’s own name in the credits. There are interesting parallels with the McCarthy Hearings demanding witnesses “name names” of supposed communist sympathizers and a climactic scene near the end of the film after the revolt is crushed, where the tyrannical Roman General Crassus demands the captured slaves identify their leader, where each one stands up and proclaims “I am Spartacus,” leading Crassus to make the ominous proclamation, “In every city and province, lists of the disloyal have been compiled,” where every one on the list is cruelly put to death. Hollywood columnist Hedda Hopper denounced the film, claiming “The story was sold to Universal from a book written by a commie and the screen script was written by a commie, so don’t go to see it.” Apparently nobody listened. This is truly a Hollywood spectacle, with 10,000 extras used in the climactic battle sequence between slaves and Roman legions, but much of the film has little or no dialogue (where Kubrick reported having the most artistic freedom), accentuating the visual composition, often featuring the grandeur of an immense landscape, much of which were painted sets used as backdrops. While the opening shots of the final battle sequence between Spartacus’s army of slaves and the geometrically arranged Roman army were actually shot in Madrid with Kubrick directing the armies from the top of specially constructed towers, the battle sequences were shot on a Hollywood soundstage, where the vast visual design recalls similar uses of perfectly choreographed battle formations set in giant landscapes from Miklós Jancscó’s THE RED AND THE WHITE (1967) and Kurosawa’s RAN (1985). This was Kubrick’s first film in color and the first shot in widescreen, using 35 mm Super 70 Technirama which was then blown up to 70 mm film. The cinematographer Russell Metty often complained about Kubrick’s unusually precise and detailed instructions for the film’s camerawork, but never complained about winning the Oscar for Best Cinematography.
Despite hiring a visionary director like Kubrick, he was little more than a hired hand, unfortunately straddled by the suffocating restrictions of the era, where the film is basically a traditional “sword and sandal” costume drama with little or no character development, accentuating the heroic nature of the noble hero Spartacus (Kirk Douglas), while all the other Roman characters couldn’t be more despicable in their plotting attempts to continually manipulate and outmaneuver others for power or money. According to Kubrick, the film “had everything but a good story,” as there’s a lack of identification with anyone onscreen, where Kubrick complained the character of Spartacus was depicted as a saint, with no human faults, which has a way of dating the film, unlike the timelessness of Kubrick’s other films, but this was the typical Hollywood formula that continued unabated throughout the 50’s and 60’s until they broke the bank with CLEOPATRA (1963), where by the end of the decade studios had completely lost their autocratic power. Kubrick distanced himself from the film afterwards, continually at odds with the writer Trumbo over conflicting visions, where the working relationship with Douglas soured as well. Douglas notes in his autobiography, “You can be a shit and be talented and, conversely, you can be the nicest guy in the world and not have any talent. Stanley Kubrick is a talented shit.” Despite all the troubles on the set, SPARTACUS was a critical and commercial success, winning four Academy Awards, and established Kubrick as a director of note, though many of the violent battle scenes were eventually cut due to negative audience reactions at preview screenings. Also excluded in the original release was a bath scene (filmed at William Randolph Hearst’s San Simeon estate) where Roman general Crassus (Laurence Olivier) attempts to seduce his slave Antoninus (Tony Curtis with his completely out of place Brooklyn accent), claiming sexual preference is all a matter of taste, like “eating oysters” or “eating snails,” rather than a reflection of morality. The film was re-released in 1967 in a version 23-minutes shorter, and again in 1991 with the same 23-minutes restored while also adding an additional 14-minutes cut from the original release. Due to the death of Olivier two years earlier, when the film was restored in 1991, the original audio recording of the bath scene was missing, so it had to be redubbed by Tony Curtis, and with the permission of Olivier’s widow, actress Joan Plowright, she recommended Anthony Hopkins, a protégé of Olivier from the Royal National Theater, to impersonate Olivier’s voice in the scene. Also missing is a scene where Roman Senator Gracchus (Charles Laughton) commits suicide, though the act is certainly implied due to the dramatic power shift.
It was actually during the making of this movie that Kubrick discovered a preference for filming in the controlled environment of a studio, as there were fewer outside distractions or acts of nature to contend with, believing actors could better concentrate working on a sound stage. Douglas assembled a powerful cast, starting with Laurence Olivier, who read the book and felt he’d be perfect playing the part of Spartacus, then afterwards suggested he’d consider the part of Crassus if it was improved upon. Laurence Olivier playing one of the first bisexual characters in a major Hollywood film, you’d think this would be noteworthy, but according to Douglas, the scene was “very subtle, nothing explicit. The censors weren’t sure it was about homosexuality, but just in case they wanted it out.” Douglas fought for the scene, claiming it was significant because it “showed another way the Romans abused the slaves.” For the role of Varinia, Spartacus’s love interest, initially the role was given to German actress Sabina Bethmann, but once shooting got underway, it was decided she was not right for the part, so Douglas quickly replaced her with Jean Simmons, who had just finished shooting ELMER GANTRY (1960), eventually marrying the director Richard Brooks. Peter Ustinov quickly signed on as Batiatus, a major slave trader and the operator of the gladiator training school, winning the Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor, but it was harder to convince Charles Laughton, who took one look at the script and reportedly uttered, “Really, a piece of shit.” In the end he took the role as he needed the money, earning $41,000 for 13 days of shooting that he claimed was far from a pleasant experience, though Laughton stole most every scene he was in. Rounding out the cast was Woody Strode, part of the John Ford stable of actors who played one of the strongest gladiators, matching Douglas blow for blow in the ring, among the better scenes in the film, becoming the spark that led the slave revolt at the training camp in Capua, quickly overrunning the guards, leading to an uprising that soon spread across the Italian Peninsula freeing tens of thousands of slaves, expressed as a utopian vision of freedom, where they quickly overrun the initial Roman army dispatched to rout them, causing a great deal of embarrassment and dissatisfaction in the Roman Senate, where John Gavin as Julius Caesar is promoted as Commander of the garrison of Rome, while General Crassus and his own army takes it upon himself to quell the rebellion.
The historical era of the slave revolt was the two year period from 73 – 71 B.C., a time when slavery accounted for roughly every third person in Italy, where Spartacus and his ragtag army that included the elderly, women and children, actually defeated the Roman army on several occasions, even threatening Rome itself, eventually hoping to escape through the purchase of pirate ships awaiting them in the Eastern seaport of Brundisium, where the slaves could return to the lands of their origins where they had originally been sold to the Romans. In the film Spartacus improbably announces their intentions, disclosing the exact location where they are heading, all but guaranteeing a massive Roman army would be there waiting for them. While this strategy appears doomed from the outset, had they not been double crossed by Crassus, the ships bought out from underneath them, they might have gotten away with it. Instead, after a long march to the sea, they have to turn and face the enemy, unwittingly moving his forces into a historical trap that the Romans were well acquainted with, having the time to bring in legions of troops from abroad, leaving Spartacus pinned between armies in what turns into a gory spectacle with tens of thousands slaughtered and a few thousand survivors left for capture. When they refuse to identify which one is their leader Spartacus in exchange for leniency, Crassus decrees they all forfeit their right to live, stringing up all 6000 of his followers along with Spartacus on wooden crosses where they are crucified along the Appian Way, a 120 mile corridor between Capua and Rome. For Trumbo, the barely hidden allegory of Joseph McCarthy’s fascist destruction of left-wing dissent in the 50’s was paramount, where the scene was meant to dramatize the solidarity of those accused of being Communist sympathizers during the McCarthy Era, glorifying the heroism of those who refused to implicate others, but there’s little evidence Kubrick held similar interests or motivation. There’s no hint of any revolutionary spirit, or any sense of sacrifice for a greater good, instead there is a rush to doom where each one is left to an inglorious fate, dying an agonizing death, left isolated and alone, where they end up pawns in somebody else’s game. Like most costume dramas, especially one based in antiquity, actors rarely give their best performances as they tend to overact and overdramatize, where the human element along with subtlety is diminished in order to emphasize the dazzling spectacle and pageantry. Kubrick remedied that situation when he made his own historical costume drama, BARRY LYNDON (1975), one of the most ravishingly beautiful films ever made, where the contemplative pace balanced with plenty of sardonic wit and humor on display are a welcome change to these dreadfully pompous Hollywood presentations, where Kubrick’s later film is an advanced experiment in cinematic structure and design, one of his most worthy masterpieces.