There are many moments in the movies that, once seen, we remember for the rest of our lives and that nowadays attract the label ‘iconic’. One such occasion just has to be the scene near the end of ‘Spartacus (1960)’ where the captured gladiator slaves are offered an escape from crucifixion if they identify their leader who the Romans believe to be still one of their number. Kirk Douglas as Spartacus points the dimple in his chin skywards and proclaims, “ I’m Spartacus!” Tony Curtis as Antoninus then claims that he too is the great leader. Before long there are hundreds of brave souls confounding their captors by announcing that they too are Spartacus. It’s a moment full of emotion and bravado where he of the cleft chin sheds a tear as he realises that all of his supporters are willing to die in his place. It’s a very powerful scene and just the kind of thing to make a huge impression on small boys to the extent that gladiatorial combat would then take place in school playgrounds for years thereafter.
The only other scene from ‘Spartacus’ to lodge in my memory is the one where the black slave played by Woody Strode, upon winning his bout with Spartacus in the ring refuses to kill him and instead makes a bee line for the Roman guests only to lose his own life in the process. This was the same character who claimed he didn’t want to make friends as he might have to kill them in combat. It’s interesting to note that both moments involve heightened human emotion such as selfless thought, caring about others and bravery. It’s because of this that we remember them as they celebrate what’s best in human beings in a world that doesn’t always display such traits on a daily basis. How many films of recent years, I wonder, have burnt themselves into our memories to the extent that we’ll remember them 50 years on?
Now released on UK Region free Blu-ray in the version restored back in 1991, ‘Spartacus’ should be interesting to watch with a modern day audience to see if it holds their interest for its duration. With its Overture and Entr’acte music intact, the movie clocks in at an epic 197 minutes. The reason for wondering how it may be received by a younger audience is that we now live in a push button age full of sound bites, car chases and CGI effects where instant gratification is the name of the game. The thing about ‘Spartacus’ is that it’s a story well told in a leisurely manner but it also requires an audience to think. It was directed by Stanley Kubrick at the tender age of 31 when he was still trying to make a name for himself as a movie director and therefore available for hire when Kirk Douglas was intent on producing his very own answer to ‘Ben Hur’. In terms of direction, it could only be described as workmanlike and Kubrick disowned it after it was released as he’d had no creative input prior to commencement of shooting. Indeed, he was only brought on board when director Anthony Mann walked after having ‘creative differences’ with producer Douglas. Kubrick also didn’t want to work with composer Alex North, whose score is punchy and prods the story along in a manly fashion but fails to be memorable in the way that other great movie themes play in a mind loop.
The film tells the tale of the rebellious slave Spartacus (Douglas) who leads a freedom revolt against the ailing Roman Republic and its generals. With an intelligent screenplay by, then, blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo (from a novel by Howard Fast), its liberal message of freedom and civil rights, highly relevant in the early 1960s, is still extremely effective and thought provoking today.
The movie scores well in the acting stakes with a strong central performance from star Kirk Douglas that's as sensitively emotional as it is intensely heroic. Tony Curtis is very good as Spartacus’ great friend Antoninus while Jean Simmons plays Virinia, the slave woman who becomes Spartacus' wife, and Peter Ustinov steals the show with his often amusing performance as a slave trader who shamelessly seeks favour with his Roman customers. There’s also the opportunity to see the legendary Charles Laughton in a toga and Laurence Olivier is excellent as patrician Crassus. It’s interesting to note that it was Peter Ustinov who stole the show from under the others’ noses – in the face of some serious competition from his fellow thesps. At the 1961 Oscars, Ustinov walked off with a well deserved Best Supporting Actor Oscar on the same night as Cinematographer Russell Metty picked up a statuette for his work on the picture. ‘Spartacus’ also celebrated the winning of Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design awards, while its Editor Robert Lawrence and Composer Alex North were each nominated in their respective categories.
The restored version adds back in around 5 minutes of previously deleted footage including the infamous bathhouse scene in which Laurence Olivier's Crassus (with restored dialogue dubbed by Anthony Hopkins) takes a more than friendly interest in Antoninus played by Tony Curtis. Another standout scene (geddit?) is one where in the midst of battle, a man has his arm severed and blood squirts in three different directions. It’s just the kind of thing to impress schoolboys the world over. These and other restored scenes expand the film to just over three hours in length.
Compared to today’s fast paced, quickly cut, overlong pop videos that very often pass themselves off as movies, ‘Spartacus’ might seem to have a few lulls but it goes to prove that sometimes it’s worth slowing the pace to allow the audience to think about what is taking place before them. It’s a film that is truly worthy of the term ‘epic’, not only for the scale of the production, but for the magnitude of the story. I can imagine that some people will struggle to cope with the slower scenes, but if they hold out to the end, they too can’t fail to be impressed by the ability of the storyteller.