This is post #20 in my series, 100 Movies … 100 Posts. In this ongoing series, I’m watching and writing about each film on the American Film Institute’s list of 100 greatest movies from #100 to #1. I’m not just writing a review of each movie. I am going to write a piece about whatever I find most pressing, as a critique of the film, an address of the issues it brings up, or my own experiences with the film. It will serve as an examination of the list itself and of political issues in Hollywood and the film industry.
Without further ado, #81 “Spartacus”
For the soldier who asked which one was Spartacus, the answer is: Kirk Douglas.
It’s widely known throughout the film world that the Roman gladiator film “Spartacus” was Douglas’ movie, and even though director Stanley Kubrick got to play in it, it was Douglas’ playground.
Despite this, Kubrick is able to craft a decent story about the Romans’ oppression of the people around them, and how one man led a revolt on the idea that humankind deserves to be free and humans have the right to choose their own destiny.
Unlike other gladiator films, like “Ben-Hur,” and well, “Gladiator,” this film does not depict the glory of the coliseum (in fact, only the promise of it) but rather the poor treatment of the men who are tasked to fight one another to the death for the entertainment of wealthy nobles. Spartacus was a slave who looked pretty buff, and was promised fame and wealth if he could put on a good show, so take up the sword, he would. Upon being introduced to the world of gladiators, he’s taught how to not only fight, but how to make killing another guy look really cool. He’s kept in a cell, and his trainers bring him a woman named Varinia (Jean Simmons, as opposed to Gene, no long tongue or face paint here) and watch through a grate in the ceiling, hoping to get a look at some good, sexy action. But Spartacus proclaims, “I am not an animal!” and Varinia responds, “Neither am I.” Despite both not being animals, they form a bond and fall in love, which is totally not what the Romans were going for.
Spartacus goes on to lead a slave revolt, build an army and present a serious challenge to Roman rule. But this is only around 70 BCE, and the audience knows the Romans will keep their thing going another 400 years. It doesn’t end well for Spartacus. After his army is defeated and the commander of the Roman soldiers asks for Spartacus to identify himself, so he can be made an example, those still alive proclaim their allegiance and love for him and his ideas by standing in solidarity with him and claiming “I am Spartacus!” Then they all get crucified.
Considering when this movie was released, in 1960, it certainly seems to have been in solidarity with the civil rights movement then. Black people in the U.S. were fighting for the right to be treated as humans as well, trying to gain the full right to vote. It’s frightening that even today, many are now fighting to keep that right, as some states want to hinder that right with voter ID laws basically for the sake of trying to win an election. Although slavery is no longer legal in the U.S., socioeconomic systems strive to keep the status quo, and the wealthier folks want to abolish minimum wage laws because they don’t want to pay their workers. Meanwhile, the opposition is trying to raise the minimum wage to a livable standard. Some get upset at hearing this, saying that people with low skill jobs, like food service workers, don’t deserve to make more money. But with the state of the U.S. economy, those food service and other low skill, low education jobs have become the majority. Now, young Americans who have college degrees and older people near retirement are competing for those low skill jobs because so many middle class jobs have disappeared due to the economy’s collapse from a few years ago and older people don’t have enough money to retire. So, if being treated as a human in the U.S. means being able to work and make a living, that isn’t currently a reality for many people. That’s not counting struggles of LGBT people to be treated as equals with heteros. Certainly in most countries, similar struggles are going on, and sex slavery is common in most countries, even heavily modernized ones. So, even today, there are echoes of slavery and cries for freedom in the world that “Spartacus” can speak to. All the little people of the world are Spartacus.
Even as Spartacus gets the attention in this film, he wouldn’t have dared to lash out at his Roman captors if it wasn’t for the Ethiopian named Draba (Woody Strode). As a group of nobles visit the gladiator training camp, the piggish host Batiatus, playfully played by Peter Ustinov, shows off his gladiators to the men’s wives, as if he were showing dogs for a fight. “Look at that one. He’s short but strong.” Spartacus and Draba are among those chosen for a fight to the death for a private audience. Batiatus informs them that their gladiators don’t fight to the death … unless the money’s right.
As two others go out to fight before them, Spartacus and Draba sit in a box next to the ring and wait as they have to spend the time looking at one another and listening to the swords clang and waiting for the death blow to be dealt. Once it’s their turn, they put on a competitive fight, but Draba gets Spartacus in position for the kill. Instead of slaying Spartacus, in a move that would eventually be inspiration for Katniss Everdeen to fire an arrow at the gallery watching her train in whenever the hell the “Hunger Games” is supposed to take place, Draba tosses his trident in the direction of the nobles watching them from a box above the arena. Once he’s startled them, he tries to climb up the tapestries hanging down to get his hands on them, but his one-man rebellion doesn’t last long, as he winds up with a spear in his back. Nevertheless, his sacrifice would plant the spark in Sparty to eventually lead his own rebellion that would be a bit more successful. As such, the movie might have been more aptly named, “Draba,” but even though the black man made the inspirational sacrifice, it still ended up being the white guy who got to do all the cool stuff.
Unfortunately, the film does get bogged down with a lot of overcooked, talky portions. It’s true that everything there has a purpose, but in a film that’s nearly 3 and a half hours long, it’s often the parts without any dialogue that carry its power and where Kubrick flexes his creative muscle. Spartacus and Draba sitting in the box as the other two gladiators’ swords are heard clanging against one another before they have to go out and do the same thing is particularly tense, and their fight itself is raw and visceral, unlike many of today’s film fight that are so heavily produced and laden with CGI. Spartacus finally snapping on his trainer and drowning him in a pot of hot soup (!) and sparking the slaves to revolt is awesome to watch. There are few sights more freeing than slaves overthrowing their masters and fleeing into the countryside. The soup drowning is especially poetic, as something that was created to warm and nourish from within was instead fashioned as a weapon used to burn the very orifice that was meant to consume it and kill. The Roman army coming out to confront the slave army only to see the slaves set their rolly things on fire and are rolling them their way would have led to many a pant-shitting. After the battle, close up shots of the mass of corpses are a chilling and sobering sight. And nothing is as demonstrative of the Romans’ cruelty as the slaves in the midst of their crucifixion lining the roads.
The sight of the once-powerful Spartacus hanging there might make one question the wisdom in trying to take on the Roman army with a relative handful of gladiators. He explains that although to a Roman, death meant the fear of losing everything, to a slave death meant an end to suffering. The slaves were going to die no matter what. Gladiators were going to die in the arena. The others were going to die at the hands of their masters mistreating them or they would spend their entire lives stuck in slavery. To fight was to go out on their own terms. Just the possibility that they could have won and gained their freedom was a freeing thought.
But “Spartacus” does have its weaknesses. The square-jawed Douglas is pretty well suited to playing a gladiator, and he gives one hell of an inspirational speech, but his love story with Varinia, though somewhat touching considering their situation, seems kind of out of place. Their conversations are a bit overly modern romantic, given the setting. It’s meant to be a contrast to the Roman nobles, who openly rationalize about the morality of sexualizing their slaves. But Spartacus and Varinia have the freedom to love one another more purely or something. So, the dialogue seems weird when Spartacus makes her swear to never leave him again. Some freedom that is. At the end, it seems like their relationship is there more for the purpose of showing that Spartacus has someone to pass on his free ideals to. They talk about her conceiving a child, though without any evidence that they were participating in activities that would cause such a thing to occur, it’s not even clear that it’s Sparty’s kid (maybe that’s purposeful). Varinia has an important moment when she declares she’s not an animal along with Spartacus, to say that poor treatment of women is in its own category, separate even from male slavery. But unfortunately, that’s all she contributes, and most of her time onscreen is spent romancin’ with Spartacus.
Much of the time spent with the Romans seems to be there for the purpose of showing the true extent of the Romans’ evilness, with references to all manners of sexual debauchery. One Roman, Gracchus (Charles Laughton) in a conversation with Batiatus says that he isn’t married (though he keeps around some slave girls) to respect women’s “purity.” Batiatus gleefully retorts “it must be tantalizing to be surrounded by so much purity,” to which they share a heartily sleazy lecherous laugh.
Laurence Olivier as Crassus has a scene where he’s hitting on a male slave while the slave is bathing him. Crassus informs the man that he likes to eat “both oysters and snails,” where it’s pretty obvious he’s referring to neither oysters nor snails. Though Roman men having sexual relationships with slaves was a common practice in the Roman empire, using a homoerotically charged situation to express the depravity of the Roman nobility might not have been the best idea, especially at a time in which gays were themselves fighting for the right to have protection from harassment in the U.S.
And a reference to Christians eventually gaining their freedom from the pagan Romans in the opening monologue of the film has an odd ring to it today. Christianity has been the dominant religion in the U.S. for most of its existence, so it seems strange to bring that dichotomy up.
That being said, the actors playing the Romans are very fun to watch, and Ustinov walked away with an Oscar for his work.
Although Roman culture seems to be accurately depicted, even though the film is based on history, it takes liberties with Spartacus’ story, which works fine for the most part. But less than a decade removed from the Red Scare, it feels like the movie is pushing a certain form of nuclear family-promoting Cold War-era puritanicalism that was rampant in the U.S. at that time. It’s understandable, but it does look a little strange today. And when you’re taking liberties with history, it opens up to greater scrutiny the messages you’re trying to send with your piece.
But the film certainly has its merits, and I’ll never steer anyone away from a Kubrick film. The master didn’t even like this film due to the lack of control he had over it. It’s pretty easy to tell the points where his influence is heaviest, and that’s where the movie shines brightest. It’s bright enough to make for a very good and entertaining film. It’s just obvious that Douglas has control, and it’s interesting to think what could have been had Kubrick really been at the helm instead.
Next up, #80. “The Apartment”