1960 was a big year for film with the release of The Apartment (review to come next week) and Stanley Kubrick’s Roman epic Spartacus. It was such a big year that Spartacus didn’t even get a nomination for best picture, in spite of the fact that it now sits at #81 on the AFI list.
Spartacus came out the year after Ben Hur (which I previously reviewed) and the parallels are obvious – a really long (in this case 3 hours and 19 minutes) picturesque film set largely in Ancient Italy. The sets, costumes, make-up and shooting angles all look very similar between the two films. And they are both, at least in part, about an uprising fomented by a former slave.
Spartacus (the legendary Kirk Douglas) is born into slavery and sold to a mining operation at the age of 13. In adulthood, he rebels and bites a guard and is strung up as an example to the other miners. A visiting slaver, Bariatus (Peter Ustinov), is looking for potential gladiators takes a liking to him and buys him. The next hour of the film shows gladiators being trained and Spartacus falling in love with another slave, Varinia (Jean Simmons) after he declines her “services” when she is offered to him as a prostitute in a somewhat creepy scene where his captors are watching him.
Crassus (the also-legendary Lawrence Olivier), a senior Roman nobleman visits the gladiator camp with a friend and their wives and asks Batiatus to stage some fights to the death. He also purchases Varinia to take back to Rome. Spartacus is selected for the fight and loses his fight but the victor refuses to kill him and charges the viewing stage instead and is killed.
Later on, Spartacus starts a riot in the mesh hall by killing one of the guards after he is mocked and the gladiators overrun their captors and flee the camp. The gang of ex-slaves begins growing in numbers as they sack local towns and other freed slaves join them. He is reunited with Varinia, who escaped on the way to Rome and marries and impregnates her. Their plan is to head south to Cicilla and pay the pirates there to take them out of Italy. Rome learns of this plan and dispenses troops to attempt to kill them, led by Marcus Glabrus. The slave gang ambushes the Roman encampment and send Glabrus back as one of the few survivors.
Glabrus is exiled from Rome for failing to crush the uprising and Crassus, who had sponsored sending Glabrus resigns his Senate seat. Shortly after, however, the Senate fears that if the slave uprising is successful, it will inspire similar uprisings. Crassus offers to crush the uprising, but only if he is made commander over all Roman forces. He pays off the pirates in Cicilla to deprive Spartacus of his ships and then uses two legions to force him north to Rome.
The ex-slave army goes north to Rome and is crushed by the Roman legions with most of the ex-slaves killed. Spartacus is captured, but the other captives help him conceal his identity. Crassus finds Varinia and takes her back to Rome and attempts to woo her, as well as learn about why she loved Spartacus. Crassus figures out who Spartacus is and pits him against Antonious, his former slave who had joined Sparatcus’ uprising in a match to the death, with the winner to be crucified. Spartacus kills Antonious and is crucified. Varinia is snuck out of town by Batiatus and sees Spartacus hanging from his cross on the way out of town. They share one final moment together before she rides out of town.
I tried to condense the plot down and skipped a lot, but this is a LONG movie with a lot of twists and turns (I didn’t even mention Gracchus in my initial description, who is Crassus’ rival in the Senate and helps Batiatus and Varinia escape).
The scenes and shooting are absolutely stunning, similar to Ben Hur. The actors are obviously some of the best ever and it is obvious in their performances, although, amazingly, Peter Ustinov sort of steals the show among the giants that he is starring along side, portraying a complex, self-interested, conflicted and ultimately somewhat moral slaver.
What, for me, makes this a far better film that Ben Hur boils down to two things. First, the characters are much more imperfect and complex – no one is purely good or evil and decisions and motivations are not always clear. Second, this film has some powerful things to say politically and societally. There is clear commentary on the centrality of slavery to the ills of the Roman society which is an obvious allegory for America in the 1960s. There are also more subtle commentaries that critique Mccarthyism. There is even a commentary on gay rights and the nature of homosexuality in a clever scene between Crassus and Antonious where Crassus subtly describes the intrinsic nature and morality of homosexuality by talking about how some people like oysters and some people like snails, but that it is a matter of taste and not morals. I was pretty impressed by the level of discourse for a film from 60 years ago. Spartacus also is highly quotable and gives us many memorable lines that are still quoted today such as “I’m not an animal” and “I am Spartacus!”
I won’t lie, the epic style of 1960 can be a little tedious and the film is very long. But within that style, this film gives us beauty, a compelling story, interesting and complex characters and real, uncontrived commentary about issues pertinent then and today. What more can you ask for out of a film?
Production Quality 10/10
Rewatch Value 7/10
Total Score 36/40
Next up, we stay in 1960, but for a completely different kind of film with The Apartment.