Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Dir. by Stanley Kubrick

This is still the greatest of Sword & Sandal films and for my money still the best gladiator film (though Gladiator was pretty damn good). It is also one of many film triumphs by Stanley Kubrick.

The tale is about Spartacus (Kirk Douglas, in all his cleft-chin glory), a Thracian slave bought to be a gladiator. Spartacus is an odd mixture of under-class humility and iron-willed rebelliousness. On other words, he takes a lot of guff, then he snaps really violently. Spartacus takes a liking to Varinia (Jean Simmons), a beautiful slave girl. When Crassus (Lawrence Olivier) an ambitious Roman politician of the ultra-right wing variety, buys her Spartacus leads a revolt in the gladiator school and starts raising hell.

The crux of the film is the idealistic hopes aroused by Spartacus’ revolt in the downtrodden slaves of Rome. When the revolting masses start whipping the Roman troops sent against them, something like a revolution begins to rear its head. While Spartacus and his comrades are advancing the materialist dialectic in the countryside, Crassus is engaged in political battles with Gracchus (Charles Laughton) and the populist faction in the Senate.

This film has always been a favorite of mine. Though over the years I have come to a few criticisms of it. The film is an adaptation of Howard Fast’s novel. Fast was a Marxist who wanted to write about the legendary hero of revolution, in effect a Trotskyite Beowulf. His Spartacus is a slave born of slaves, a man of great humility, except when faced with class oppression. He is an instinctive Marxist. Indeed at the risk of a spoiler, he ends up nearly Christlike.

From studying the records we learn that Spartacus was actually a mercenary and a highway robber before he was a gladiator. That background helps make his phenomenal success against seasoned Roman troops more believable. Crassus was nowhere near the brilliant manipulator of politics that he appears as in the film. Although he beat Spartacus in the final battle, his triumph was stolen by the far more charismatic Pompey. Spartacus was a bit more like Conan than Che Guevara, and Crassus bore more of a resemblance to George W. Bush than Napoleon. But neither version would quite suit left-wing politics.

That’s not to say that I don’t still love this movie. The spectacle of Rome is splendid. The cast is marvelous (did I mention the amazing performances by Tony Curtis and Peter Ustinov?). In fact, Spartacus is part of what helped me develop a fascination with ancient history. It is so good, I think it may even be time for a remake of this classic tale of defiance, hope, and tragedy.

-Dave Hardy


Charles Gramlich said...

Yeah, a great movie. I wonder why it hasn't been remade, considering they've remade far worse fare.

Dave Hardy said...

It's more wishful thinking than anything else. Though you have to admit, some pretty big time Sword & Sandal movies have appeared over the last few years: Gladiatior & 300, along with some less successful ones (Troy, Alexander). Why not Spartacus?