Saturday, April 14, 2012


BACK-STORY: “Spartacus” is a famous historical epic released in 1960. It is based on the book by Howard Fast. Kirk Douglas was fascinated by the novel and wanted to ease his disappointment over losing the starring role in “Ben Hur”. He recruited Olivier, Laughton, and Ustinov. When Fast proved unable to make the jump to screenwriter, noted commie Dalton Trumbo was brought in. This was a daring move as Trumbo was, at that time, blacklisted as a member of the Hollywood Ten. He had run afoul of the House Unamerican Activities Committee during McCarthyism and was writing screenplays under pseudonyms. After completion of the film, Douglas insisted Trumbo be credited by his real name – a move that ended the blacklisting movement. Kudos! The first director (Anthony Mann) did not meet Douglas’ standards so he was replaced by Stanley Kubrick. It was not exactly smooth sailing after the change. The massive egos of the stars made each scene difficult. Kubrick looked back on the film with far from fond memories. Based on his recollections, you would think the movie was terrible. He wanted the movie to be more gritty and less a hagiography. He wanted more battle scenes, but test audiences reacted negatively (boo!). The movie was the most expensive to date ($12 million).

OPENING: A Roman lanista (gladiator school owner) named Batiatus (Peter Ustinov) arrives at a mine in Libya and buys a slave named Spartacus (Douglas) who is not only rebellious, but has good teeth. Perfect gladiator material.

Draba versus Spartacus
SUMMARY: At the gladiator school in Capua, Spartacus begins training under the brutal Marcellus (Charles McGraw). We get a training montage. Spartacus makes a love connection with a servant named Lavinia (Jean Simmons). Crassus (Laurence Olivier), the richest man in Rome, arrives with two “ladies” who insist on watching pairs fight to the death. Spartacus loses to “the big black one” Draba (Woody Strode) who inexplicably tries to kill Crassus and is himself dispatched by a “brilliant dagger stroke”. The resulting bad blood leads to a rebellion in the kitchen with Marcellus finding out the soup is not always good food.

       Spartacus halts the pairing of Roman nobles, swearing he will never witness a gladiator match again. He convinces the rebels to form an army and battle their way out of Italy. Slaves join up from the countryside and the “army” encamps on the slopes of Mt. Vesuvius. When six cohorts of the Roman garrison approach under the command of Crassus’ boy Glabrus (John Dall), Spartacus ambushes his unsecure camp (off screen unfortunately).

      Back in Rome, Crassus has dreams of bringing law and order to the untidy democracy of the late Republic. A dictatorship would be more efficient and guess who he thinks the dictator should be. Representing that democracy is the portly Senator Gracchus (Charles Laughton) whose hedonistic lifestyle represents the immorality of democracy. He is determined to thwart the power-hungry Crassus.

       The slaves are on the move and defeat several Roman armies off screen. Spartacus and Varinia smooch enough to get Varinia pregnant. A pretty slave youth named Antoninus (Tony Curtis) who does magic and sings songs joins them. He had escaped Crassus’ villa after deciding that he does not like snails and oysters.

       The rebels make contact with Cilician pirates and make a deal to get passage out of Italy. In Rome, Crassus wins the power struggle with Gracchus and gets himself appointed dictator to deal with the slave menace and restore patrician authority. He pays off the pirates to abandon the rebels at the port of Brindusium. When Spartacus learns of the betrayal, he determines the only strategy is to march on Rome and confront the lion in its den. He gives a heartfelt speech to his mob emphasizing the value of freedom. The scene jumps back and forth to a speech given by the pompous Crassus to his robotic legions. He lauds the old Roman virtues of discipline and patricianness and promises the head of Spartacus.

Spartacus is not about to stab his horse
       The climactic battle is epic. Kubrick used 8,000 Spanish soldiers for the legionaries. They ominously approach the mass of rebel warriors (men and women) in their famous checkerboard formation. The rebels are supposed to be intimidated, but they have a trick up their tunics. Fire rollers! (Future epic movie makers take note. Fire is cool.) The velites panic and then Spartacus leads a mass assault that threatens to swamp the legion. While Crassus leads from the rear, Spartacus is in the thick of the fighting and even severs a soldier’s arm in the only graphic moment in the scene. Things take a turn for the worse when two other Roman legions arrive to doom the rebels. Cut to a field strewn with corpses.

Crassus woos Varinia
        Varinia is taken by Crassus and shipped to his villa. He is determined to identify Spartacus and feature him in his triumph. An offer of leniency to the slave who fingers Spartacus results in the iconic “I am Spartacus!” scene. They refuse to name names (“get it?”, says the blacklisted Trumbo) so the survivors will be crucified along the Appian Way. Gracchus (his name is at the head of a list of the “disloyal”) also refuses to kowtow and kiss Crassus’ ring (“get it?”, says Trumbo). Before he has a rendezvous with a dagger and a bathtub, he gets Batiatus to rescue Varinia and her baby.

CLOSING: Crassus is upset that Varinia is not charmed by his wealthy good looks so he decides to pair off Spartacus and Antoninus. One of them is better than him and preferred by Varinia and the other did not want to eat his snails. Spartacus and Antoninus decide to both avoid the crucifix by stabbing each other. Just kidding, how unHollywood would that have been? Those of you who bet on the magician/singer – you lose. Spartacus wins the right to be crucified. In the last scene, Varinia comes upon the dying Spartacus and he gets to meet his newborn who will grow up free.


Acting - 10

Action - 7

Accuracy - 6

Realism - 7

Plot - 9

Overall - 9

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT? Definitely! Partly because it is not really a war movie. Note the cutting of the battle scenes. There is plenty of romance and scantily clad gladiators. There is a strong female character who tells her soulmate that he’s “strong enough to be weak”.

HISTORICAL ACCURACY: There are a lot of gaps in the historical record concerning Spartacus. This should allow Hollywood to fill in the gaps. Unfortunately, Hollywood takes some of the known facts and changes them. We do not know exactly who he was before the rebellion, but most likely he was a Thracian soldier who deserted from the Roman army and possibly became a bandit until he was captured and sold at a slave auction in Rome. He was purchased by Batiatus and trained at his gladiator school in Capua. The training was probably similar to that depicted in the movie. The rebellion did break out in the kitchen, but the cause is unknown.

       The rebels did make camp on the slopes of Vesuvius and they were joined by local slaves. A Roman unit (a hastily recruited militia, not the Roman garrison) led by Glaber was sent to put down the rebellion and did leave its camp undefended. The movie does not specify how the slaves surprised the Romans, but in reality they made vine ropes to climb down the slope. The original plan was to march north to escape over the Alps, but Crixus argued for staying and continuing to plunder Italy. Spartacus acceded, but remained in command. The movie does not clearly depict the disagreements between Spartacus and Crixus.

      In the second year of the war, the army split with most going northward under Spartacus and the rest staying in southern Italy under Crixus. Crixus was defeated and killed. At the funeral games for Crixus, Spartacus honored him with gladiatorial bouts between Roman prisoners. This is just one example of how Spartacus was not as saintly as the movie would have you believe.

      Spartacus defeated a Roman army on the way to the Alps, but again he turned back for reason unknown. After yet another Roman defeat, the Romans turned to Crassus who raised an army of six legions. Crassus’ motivations were not as broad as the movie suggests. He was mainly interested in the power that would come with rescuing Rome from the slave menace. After a subordinate violated orders and allowed part of the army to be brought to battle and got his ass kicked, Crassus used decimation (killing one-tenth of an embarrassed unit) to show his men he meant business. Crassus defeated Spartacus, but not decisively. Spartacus did negotiate with Cilician pirates for passage to Sicily, but they took the money and sailed off. Most likely they were not bribed by Crasssus, but simply were being pirates. A desperate attempt to build rafts to float to Sicily ended in failure.

      Meanwhile, Crassus constructed a line of fortifications to trap Spartacus in the toe of Italy. Spartacus had a Roman prisoner crucified in no man’s land to show his men what awaited them if they gave up. The stalemate caused the Senate to recall Pompey from Spain and Lucullus from Macedonia (a strategy alluded to in the film). On a snowy night, Spartacus launched an attempt to break through the Roman line. This was only partially successful with less than half his army reaching safety on the other side. For some reason, the slave army splintered again and the non-Spartacus part was caught by Crassus and had to be rescued by Spartacus. A second surprise attack on the splinter group resulted in its destruction a few days later.

      Spartacus headed for Brundisium, but Lucullus landed ahead of him. The slaves spanked the van guard of Crassus’ approaching army and overconfidently insisted on a pitched battle with Crassus. Spartacus must have expected the worst because before the battle he made a show of killing his horse in a victory or death analogy. In the subsequent Battle of Silarus, there is no reference to fire rollers, of course. And the movie does a poor job on Roman weaponry as it does not have the Romans using their pila (javelins). Also, Crassus won the battle with no intervention by Pompey or Lucullus. Spartacus apparently was trying to cut his way to Crassus when he was killed. (How did Hollywood resist that?) In one version, he was abandoned by his retinue and surrounded. In another, he was wounded in the thigh after dispatching two centurions and was finished off as he fought from one knee. Obviously he was not crucified and in fact his body was not identified.

      The movie does accurately show the crucifixion of 6,000 survivors along the Appian Way. In a post script neglected by the movie, Pompey finished off the fleeing remnants of the army and was able to falsely claim the lion’s share of ending the slave threat instead of it going to Crassus. Crassus does not go on to become dictator as the movie implies, but instead joins Pompey and Caesar in the First Triumvirate. The movies prediction that Spartacus’ rebellion would inspire slaves to eventually overthrow the empire was fantasy. In reality, the Spartacus rebellion was the last serious slave rebellion in Roman history.

      As far as the love story, there is little evidence to base it upon. Varinia is almost pure fiction. It is possible Spartacus was “married’, but his spouse would have been a Thracian. (In fact, Rome had not conquered Varinia’s Britain at this point.) She may have been a priestess. They probably knew each other before the rebellion. There is no evidence of a child. It seems very unlikely that he was the sensitive lover the movie depicts.

CRITIQUE: “Spartacus” is one of the all-time great epic films. It has all the ingredients necessary for grand entertainment. It has action, suspense, romance, and a little humor. The acting is stellar and the score is outstanding. The plot is well thought out. The dialogue is crisp.

       With a cast such as it is, no surprise the acting is great. Kirk Douglas is perfect in the role and it is obvious he put his soul into the role. The heavyweights (Olivier, Ustinov, and Laughton) do not disappoint and they chew the scenery less than you would expect. Ustinov is especially effective as Batiatus. He justifiably earned the Best Supporting Actor trophy. Some of the minor characters shine. Charles McGraw is great as the menacing trainer. Woody Strode brings gravitas to a key role. The only sour note is provided by John Dall as Glabrus. It appears they ran out of salary money and grab a guy off the streets.

       The soundtrack by Alex North is one of the best ever. He was a six time Academy Award winner, but was only nominated for this one. The music is epic as befits the movie. He used antique instruments for a unique feel. The music attached to the lead-up to the last battle is awesome.

       For those not familiar with the Third Servile War, the movie is suspenseful because it is not clear what the outcome will be. It’s a great movie to be seeing for the first time. It is unorthodox in that the hissable villain survives and thrives. If you end up depressed by this, try reading up on the rest of Crassus’ life. You’ll feel better, trust me.

      The romance is well done. I’m not much for mushy stuff, but if Kirk Douglas is okay with the script – fine with me. Jean Simmons is excellent as Varinia. Their opening scene is powerful and although unrealistic. It introduces the characters well. Compare their chaste relationship to the sexual escapades on the recent Starz series (which I am a big fan of) if you want to see how far morals have come since 1960. That series clearly answers the question “what would Hollywood do with Spartacus if it was remade today?” Conversely, how about that “snails and oysters” scene? There is an example of how Hollywood was too prudish in 1960.

        One flaw in the movie is the lack of actual combat. Spartacus fought numerous battles with the Romans, but only one is depicted. It is pretty standard in an epic of this type to have a victory in the first half and a loss at the end. The skipping over the attack on Glabrus’ camp is head-scratching. As much as I despise “Braveheart” (Gibson clearly was inspired by “Spartacus”), it does a better job on this. Another problem is that the final battle is overrated. It has ridiculous elements (the fire rollers) and does not accurately depict Roman tactics.

CONCLUSION: “Spartacus” is great entertainment, but is it a great war movie? It does not fall comfortably into that genre, but it is certainly a better fit than “Ben Hur”. It’s closest comparison would be to “Braveheart” which it is infinitely superior to. “Spartacus” is a good example of how you can tamper with history and not make it ridiculous.

"I am Spartacus!"


  1. This review really makes me want to watch it. It sounds like one to re-discover/discover.
    I haven't seen it before so I'm pretty sure I will like it.
    A little bit or romance isn't a bad thing, especially not when it brings out the characters.
    I'm not very familiar with the history, so wouldn't be bothered by inaccuracy.

  2. I'm pretty sure you will like it. You certainly should watch it. It is a must see. Make sure you watch a version with the oysters and snails scene. I think it is a good example of how it is tolerable to change history to make a movie more entertaining for the masses (not for me). What enrages me is when an "historical" movie changes facts that are more interesting than the Hollywood bullshit we end up with.

  3. I liked the "I am Spartacus" scene so much, I didn't care if it was historically inaccurate.

    1. Absolutely agree. Of course you could make a case that Spartacus is kind of a jerk for not proving that he is Spartacus and thus saving all his men from crucifixion.

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