Looking Back: Spartacus (1960)


spartacus

Kirk Douglas, one of the last remaining legends of Hollywood’s Golden Era, turned 100 years old last Friday so I thought it would be a good time to look back at the film that he is perhaps most famous for. SPARTACUS, which was released in 1960, was, at the time, one of the most expensive films ever made. Coming in at US$12 million (equivalent to just under US$100 million in 2016 dollars), its price tag was surpassed by only one other film to that point — BEN-HUR, another “swords-and-sandals” historical epic that came out a year earlier. While BEN-HUR, which cost US$15 million to make, became Hollywood’s most Oscar-winning film (11), a record that still stands today, SPARTACUS only racked up four such awards and three of them were for technical merit. British actor Peter Ustinov took home the film’s only Oscar for acting (Best Actor in a Supporting Role) for his turn as the smarmy Roman businessman, Batiatus.

The connections between the two films go even deeper though. Douglas was apparently miffed when BEN-HUR director William Wyler chose Charlton Heston over him for the title role of that film. Douglas had previously worked with Wyler on the 1951 film DETECTIVE STORY, and thought he was a shoo-in for the part but perhaps the studio had the final say in the decision to cast Heston. Hollywood egos being what they are, Douglas then decided to purchase the screening rights to Howard Fast’s novel, Spartacus, a story that had a similar theme to BEN-HUR — an individual who challenges the might of the Roman Empire. The race to find a studio to produce the film was on though. Word had it that Yul Brynner was working on his own Spartacus film. When Ustinov, Sir Laurence Olivier and Charles Laughton all committed themselves to Douglas’ project, Universal Studios agreed to produce the film with Douglas as the executive producer and Brynner’s project was abandoned.

More problems cropped up even before the cameras started rolling. Fast was hired to write the screenplay to his novel but he wasn’t able to make the transition that cinema required. Dalton Trumbo was then brought on board but he was under the Hollywood blacklist because of his refusal to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) on suspected Communist influences in the motion picture industry. (Read my review of the film TRUMBO for more information on his life.) There were rumours swirling around Hollywood in 1959 that Trumbo was gainfully employed writing screenplays under various pseudonyms, and when director Otto Preminger announced that he had hired Trumbo to write the screenplay for his next film, EXODUS, cracks began to appear in the blacklist. Immediately after, Douglas announced that Trumbo was writing the screenplay for SPARTACUS, thus ending the Hollywood blacklist for good. (In the lead up to Douglas’ announcement, director Stanley Kubrick offered to take credit for the screenplay, a move that apparently infuriated Douglas.)

The director’s chair never stayed too warm either. Anthony Mann, who later went on to direct Heston in EL CID, was fired after just one week of shooting. The actors were apparently rewriting their scenes to give themselves the best exposure and Mann wasn’t able to keep all their egos in check. Kubrick, who had worked with Douglas before, was asked to take over. Interestingly, although he would go on to direct such cinematic classics as DR. STRANGELOVE; 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY; A CLOCKWORK ORANGE and THE SHINING, SPARTACUS was only his fifth film and the combined box office receipts for his first four films was less than what this picture cost. Nevertheless, he was up for the huge task and he completed the film even though its costs kept rising throughout the production.

Anyone who has seen the film and probably many who haven’t, will be familiar with the iconic scene towards the end of the film where Spartacus (Douglas) and his band of rebel followers are captured. Because the Roman senator Crassus (Olivier) doesn’t know what Spartacus looks like or if he is still alive, he offers a pardon to the men (although they’d have to go back to being slaves) if they identify who Spartacus is. Beginning with Crassus’ former slave, Antoninus (Tony Curtis), one by one, all the men stand up and shout “I’m Spartacus!”, thus thwarting Crassus’ efforts to turn them against each other. This idea, apparently, came from Fast’s novel. Fast, who also suffered under McCarthyism, was given a three-month prison sentence for contempt of Congress. It was while he was in prison that he wrote the book and this scene has been suggested to show the Wisconsin senator and his fear-mongering cronies that the will of the people would not be broken. How correct he was!

Surprisingly, for being the focal point of this epic tale, Spartacus has relatively little to say. Legend has it that Trumbo slashed many of Douglas’ lines from the script, leaving him to smile, scowl or make out with leading lady Jean Simmons depending on what the scene required. In fact, for a film that runs just over three hours in length, SPARTACUS is very light on dialogue and very heavy on elaborately choreographed sequences such as gladiators fighting, rebels travelling en masse across southern Italy, and the final battle between the rebels and the Roman legions. (Eight thousand Spanish soldiers were used as extras in that sequence alone.)

Audiences in 1960 didn’t see the version that is available today. The film was restored in 1991 (a whole story in itself, which is available as a bonus extra on the DVD) and a number of scenes were added back in. One in particular was between Crassus and Antoninus, where the former asks the latter whether he prefers eating oysters or snails. As innocent as that may sound, it would seem that Crassus plays for both teams and he wonders if his slave does too. Such a discussion, even couched under such euphemistic terms as seafood, would have been taboo back then and, so, the scene was cut. However, audiences back then may have been slightly confused as to why Antoninus suddenly runs off to join up with Spartacus. On the other side of the equation, the original film included the suicide of Gracchus (Laughton) whereas the restored version only alludes to it. This scene was apparently lost due to mishandling of the original prints back in the 1970s. (In 2015, for its 55th anniversary, the film went through an extensive 4K digital restoration. This version is apparently 12 minutes longer but the suicide scene is still missing.)

Though the film wasn’t nearly as popular or as successful as BEN-HUR, its message is especially relevant today and the production still manages to hold up to time, thanks in large part to the performances of Douglas, Olivier, Laughton and Ustinov. Hollywood rarely makes films like this anymore and it certainly doesn’t have actors like them anymore either. If you haven’t seen SPARTACUS yet, or if it’s been eons since you have, it’s worth checking out (again).

Listen to the review online on Radio 4. (Click on the link. Select Part 2 and slide the time bar over to 30:30.)

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