Kubrick as gun-for-hire, and unfortunately his lack of control over the script shows. This was Kirk Douglas’ baby, and he brought in Stanley after firing Anthony Mann a week into the shoot (apparently the salt mine sequence is the only section of the film where Mann called the shots). Douglas was displeased that he didn’t get win the lead in Ben Hur (an all-round better film than this, even if it is filled with the same kind of simplistic moralising that Kubrick so disliked here) and originated Spartacus as an “I’ll show you” response.
It seems that there were tensions in every corner of the production; Douglas wanted a strong subtext paralleling Spartacus’ tribulations to those of the Jewish people, whereas screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (who was blacklisted at the time) favoured a commentary on East-West politics. On top of that you have Kubrick clashing with Douglas, who said he would not work with the director again (“a talented shit”). I expect the feeling was mutual; their previous collaboration, Paths of Glory, is a terrific film and vastly superior to this. And Kubrick also clashed with his cinematographer Russell Metty (resulting in Metty walking out and Kubrick handling the majority of the photography himself; ironically Metty won an Oscar for the work he didn’t do). Apparently both David Lean and Laurence Olivier declined offers to direct the film; I can’t help think that Lean would have been a better fit than Kubrick, although he would likely have been as uncomfortable with all the power being in the hands of his star.
It’s ironic, then, that the least interesting aspects of the film concern the titular character. There’s just not a lot to Spartacus, and Douglas – all shaved chest and immaculate coiffeur – brings little to the part to really make him stand out. He glowers a lot, clenches his jaw and behaves stoically in the face of adversity. But his motivations are strictly one-note, his romance utterly clichéd and there’s little to really suggest how and why he came to lead such a successful rebellion. We cut from his revolt at the gladiator school (the whole sequence at the school being one of the film’s high spots; certainly the characterisation goes downhill after this) to his uprising in full swing, but there’s never a sense of how he became such a charismatic and powerful force, He just does it, and it’s the same with his battlefield tactics.
The result is a lack of substance at the film’s centre. Scenes showing him interacting with new recruits and being a generally good sort fall flat because you sense they’re inserted to portray a tick-all-the-boxes hero rather than a realistic and no doubt brutal leader. So Kirk gets egg on his face when Tony Curtis does a magic trick, and because he’s so magnanimous and well-rounded has a good laugh about it. And he supports (old) women’s rights when one puts him in his place regarding their value as fighters. And he has a good laugh about it. I suspect that John Cleese’s Robin Hood in Time Bandits (“Jolly good!“) was taking the piss out of the scene here where Spartacus asks recruits where they’re from and why they want to fight.
The romance with Jean Simmons actually begins promisingly, with Spartacus instructed to copulate with Virinia while Ustinov and cronies look on. After that it becomes as tedious as the travelogue scenes of Spartacus and his army (which seem interminable). Tellingly, the spark only returns to the character of Virinia once she has been procured by Olivier’s Crassus.
Whether or not the Romans enthused Kubrick more than his hero, the onscreen results suggest this. Indeed, every time we move away from Spartacus to the machinations within the Senate, or whatever Ustinov’s Batiatus is up to, the film comes alive.
Ustinov deservedly won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance as the slippery owner of the gladiatorial training school (the only actor on a Kubrick film to receive a gong), and he steals every scene he’s in, with the exception of those with the masterful Charles Laughton. Ustinov’s natural comic timing and immaculate delivery see him gaining the upper hand to the starchier Olivier in their early scenes together; his bit where he hides a bust of Gracchus (Laughton’s character) and it is then discovered by Olivier is wonderfully played and brings a free-flowing ease to the proceedings. Elsewhere the film plays all-too formally and self-consciously epic. This is unfortunately pervasive, from Alex North’s score down.
Kubrick doesn’t seem particularly inspired by these classical “epic” requirements; only the final battle really has much energy to it (not least in the spectacle of the fiery rollers mowing down stuntmen, and the reinserted shot of Douglas hacking off the fake arm of an amputee – complete with a Python-esque geyser of blood spurting forth). Even then, the cut away to the aftermath, a tableau of a battlefield strewn with bodies, seems to suggest Kubrick was much more interested in getting to that shot than in the big fight itself. In contrast, the early scenes at the gladiator school crackle with kineticism. There is immediacy to the personal stakes there, absent from the later grand scale. Charles McGraw’s vindictive trainer Marcellus is just the kind of antagonist that works well set against the brawn of Spartacus, and the film misses him when he’s offed (in a superb sequence of drowning by soup). Woody Strode also stands out in this passage of the film; Draba is a superior fighter to Spartacus, and bests him in combat. The preceding scene, where they wait in a cage until they are called to fight, highlights Draba’s collected quietude and so pulls the focus from Douglas’ concerned energy.
I’ve never been the greatest fan of Olivier; he’s usually an effective screen presence, but I rarely find his performances compelling. There are moments in this where he absolutely holds the screen, though. Mostly these are ones where we see more personal chinks in Crassus’ power and authority. His knifing of Draba, when the latter attempts to climb into the viewing balcony, is the act of a man who would stab you in the back sooner than have a fair fight. Then there’s the famous, reinserted, “oysters and snails” episode with Tony Curtis (with Anthony Hopkins voicing Oliver). It’s a scene, beyond the dripping innuendo, that is heavy with the impending threat of violation of Curtis (who, as a slave, would presumably yield to his master). And the moment where Virinia calls out her would-be partner is gripping. He professes to want her to give herself willingly to him, but resorts to threatening her son as leverage.
Unsurprisingly, we are immediately on the side of Laughton’s playful Senator Gracchus in his power struggle with Crassus. Laughton’s a delight to watch, in one of his final screen roles. Apparently Ustinov rewrote some of their scenes together at Laughton’s behest, and their chemistry together is one of the film’s highlights (“You and I have a tendency towards corpulence”). It’s a testament to his skills that his final scene, where he sends Virinia and Ustinov away to safety, bears considerably greater emotional wallop than Spartacus’ subsequent crucifixion.
Talking of which, I’m completely with Batiatus’ fretting while Virinia’s mopes at the foot of Spartacus’ cross. What does she think she’s doing, drawing attention to herself and putting her baby in danger? It’s pleasing that Batiatus escapes; as a less than noble character he might have been disposed of. It may have been a sop for the demise of the titular character.
The “I’m Spartacus” scene is the most famous aspect of the movie but, while it provides a snappy summation of what a great guy Spartacus, it’s also a moment that doesn’t really feel earned. We haven’t witnessed exactly what steely-eyed dimple chin has done to provoke such unfettered loyalty from his followers. We’re told he’s a great leader so he must be.
There is some extremely random casting in this film. I can only assume Tony Curtis’ Antoninus was added so there’d be someone who looked more out-of-place in 73 BC than Douglas. Even less convincing is John Dall’s Glabrus (a crony and political tool of Crassus) who should have a big sign over him saying “This is why Hollywood shouldn’t attempt historical spectacle”. And I can see a certain originality in portraying Julius Caesar as a bit of a thug who is kicked around by his brighter peers like a senate football, but John Gavin lacks the presence to make such a take on the character work. He seems like blatant miscasting (he was far better used by Hitchcock in the same year’s Psycho, where all he needed to do was provide the muscle). On a brighter note, Herbert Lom’s Trevantus – like Ustinov – is a scene-hogger.
So this is something of an anomaly for Kubrick; his preceding films (The Killing, Paths of Glory) show a distinct, unified, vision, and subsequently his grip on his material is vice-like. But here, he only seems to connect with the story sporadically. Even the effectiveness of his direction is inconsistent; cutting from locations to studio sets-as-locations was commonplace at the time, as were the joins being very obvious with such an approach. But it comes as a surprise that such a stickler for precision as Kubrick was content with this (perhaps he wasn’t). That said, Kubrick was only 32 when the film was released and this was a formative experience in terms of his later output; he had no say over the script, cast, had no final cut and was not a producer. None of which would recur in his career.