Spartacus represents the pinnacle of the epic film trend which included spectaculars such as Cleopatra, Ben Hur, and Fall of the Roman Empire. It was acclaimed as the first truly intelligent epic, but its director, the highly acclaimed Stanley Kubrick, has largely disowned it. Kubrick took the assignment, partially as a way of escaping the ill-fated One-Eyed Jacks project he was working on with Marlon Brando (Brando himself took over direction and went heavily overbudget with the film).
Kubrick was belatedly brought aboard by producer/star Kirk Douglas, who was impressed with their classic collaboration on Paths of Glory. Initial director Anthony Mann resigned after only a week's shooting, only completing the opening scenes at the rock quarry. Kubrick picked up the project from the gladiator school on.
Kubrick objected to the script for Spartacus on the grounds that it was dumb and rarely faithful to what is known about the actual Spartacus. The former slave in reality twice led his victorious slave army to the northern borders of Italy and could have easily gotten out of the country, but instead he led his army back to pillage Roman cities. Instead of exploring the question of why he chose to do this or whether the intentions of the rebellion changed, whether Spartacus lost the control of his followers who became more interested in the spoils of war rather than in freedom, Trumbo's script simply has Spartacus prevented from escaping by a silly contrivance in which a pirate leader (played by Herbert Lom) renegs on a deal to take the slave army away in his ships.
Nor did Spartacus die by crucifixion as the film depicts. He was actually killed in battle and hacked into pieces on the battlefield. However, six thousand of his followers were later crucified along the Appian Way. As a director-for-hire, Kubrick discovered he had to bow to the wishes of his producer.
Spartacus happened because producer Eddie Lewis brought the Howard Fast novel to Douglas's attention, and he optioned the book, seeing its potential to become a popular epic. He hoped to interest United Artists in the film, but they were planning their own version of the tale called The Gladiators which was to be directed by Martin Ritt and star Yul Brynner and Anthony Quinn with a script by Abe Polonsky. Howard Fast was given first crack at adapting the material into a screenplay, but his work had a political axe to grind and was quickly rejected. Douglas needed somebody who could write both well and fast, and so pitched the project to blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo, who hated Fast but agreed to write the script under the name Sam Jackson.
Douglas needed some high-powered talent to convince a studio to back the film, and so he approached Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton, and Peter Ustinov. Olivier expressed interest in both starring and directing the film as well, but then committed to appearing in Coriolanus in Stratford-on-Avon, and consented to appear as Crassus, provided the part was improved. Laughton did not care for the material but needed the money and so agreed to appear as Gracchus, the rotund Republican senator who opposes Crassus, while Ustinov was eager to play the role of an ingratiating middleman for once (he usually had played kings or peasants) and had suggestions for improving his part. Universal agreed to undertake the film.
Douglas wanted Ingrid Bergman to play his love interest Varinia, but she turned it down as being "too bloody." Jean Simmons wanted the role, but Douglas preferred a foreigner who was not British. Jeanne Moreau refused to leave a play she was in to take the part. Douglas thought German actress Sabina Bethmann had the right look and hired her for the part, despite her thick accent. She was sent to be coached by blacklist victim Jeff Corey.
Spartacus began with Anthony Mann as director on January 27, 1959, when Mann filmed the mine sequence in Death Valley, but when the production started filming the sequences at the gladiator school, it started to fall apart and Universal pushed for Mann's replacement, and Douglas paid him off $75,000 and asked for Kubrick to come in. Universal was against hiring the 30-year-old maverick director, but with the clock already running up large expenses, they capitulated and filming resumed under Kubrick on February 16.
Kubrick immediately realized that the inexpressive Bethmann was not going to work out, and decided to test her powers of improvisation by telling her that she had just lost the part in the movie. Rather than reacting emotionally, the actress froze and thereby ensured her departure from the production. Simmons was quickly summoned to take her place. However, shortly afterwards she had emergency surgery and could not work for over a month, so the production had to shoot around her.
One of Kubrick's innovations was to film the scene where Varinia serves food to the gladiator trainees without dialogue, using only Alex North's music to make his point, and thereby improving the scene. Indeed, the scenes in the gladiatorial school are some of the best in the film, especially those where Marcellus Charles McGraw) uses Spartacus to demonstrate where to maim or kill one's opponent and the famous scene where because of an idle whim by two Roman ladies, Draba (Woody Strode) is forced to fight Spartacus in the ring, but the Ethiopian chooses to attack Crassus at the cost of his own life rather than kill a fellow slave.
Tony Curtis begged to be put in the film, and so the part of Antoninus was written for him as a sensitive young man who becomes like a son to Spartacus and is forced to fight him to the death at the end of the film. Curtis severed his Achilles tendon and had to spend some time in a wheelchair. Even Douglas became sick, the film went months over schedule, and 250 percent over budget.
Douglas, Lewis, and Kubrick got into a discussion over who should get the writing credit on the film. Lewis did not feel right taking credit for Trumbo's work, and Douglas was uneasy about crediting the film to a Sam Jackson who did not really exist. Kubrick put forth the suggestion that he be given credit for the script. Revolted, Douglas decide to break the blacklist by crediting Trumbo and summoning him to the studio. (Soon afterward, Otto Preminger announced that Trumbo would be credited on Exodus as well, and soon other blacklisted artists were finding employment again). One of Spartacus's most significant accomplishments was this breaking of the blacklist, considered a risky move at the time.
Kubrick's rough assemblage of the film was not well-received. Trumbo wrote a critique running over 80 pages, detailing the changes made and what he felt was wrong with them. Douglas agreed and declared that the film would have to be restructured and a battle scene added (originally, the battle was just to have been suggested, much like Kurosawa did in Kagemusha). Visual design consultant Saul Bass was hired to design the battle sequence and noted that scenes of preparation for the battle helped build up more excitement than the actual battle itself. The Spanish government loaned their army to play the Roman army, and the scenes were shot in Spain. The budget became $12 million, or $750,000 less than MCA paid for Universal Pictures in its contemporaneous takeover.
Finally, Spartacus was ready for release. The American Legion sent a letter demanding a boycott of the film because of Trumbo's involvement to 17,000 local posts. Hedda Hopper joined the fray, attacking the film's use of "Communist" writers. Still, despite its shortcomings, the film stands up as one of the best of the Roman screen epics, and won Peter Ustinov an Academy Award for best supporting actor for his role as Batiatus, the conniving purveyor of slaves.
In 1988, Spartacus was restored and re-released to theaters in all its glory. Kubrick, although he had never expressed a fondness for the film, was involved in carefully re-editing the film, adding numerous small snippets that had been trimmed previously. One of the most significant additions was the scene where the bisexual Crassus attempts to seduce Antoninus while Antoninus is bathing him by asking Antoninus if he eats oysters and snails, explaining that it is a matter of appetites rather than morals. (Crassus then proceeds to compare himself to Rome, expounding, "No nation can withstand Rome. No man can withstand her. And how much less—a boy. There's only one way to deal with Rome, Antoninus. You must serve her. You must abase yourself before her. You must grovel at her feet. You must love her."
The footage for the scene was located, but not the original soundtrack. Tony Curtis agreed to revoice his part, but Olivier was dead, and so Anthony Hopkins imitated Olivier's vocal inflections in order to restore this scene that had so outraged the censors of the 1960s. The scene does add to the film's portrait of Crassus as a self-serving manipulator obsessed with demonstrating his power and authority.
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Spartacus (died 71 B.C.) was a Thracian gladiator who led a slave war in Italy against the Romans. He plundered most of Italy before being defeated and killed in a pitched battle.
It is not known how Spartacus became a gladiator. He is said to have fought either with or against the Romans. Eventually he found himself in the gladiator school of Gnaeus Lentulus Batiatus at Capua. From there in 73 B.C. some 70 gladiators escaped and fled to Mt. Vesuvius, where they were joined by slaves and farm workers from the countryside. Spartacus with the help of two Celts, Crixus and Oenomaos, led them, forging the motley group into a first-class fighting force.
Roman response to the uprising was at first slow and inadequate. Spartacus defeated local levies led by a propraetor and a praetor in three sharp engagements. The slaves then broke out of Campania and raided all of southern Italy, eventually establishing winter quarters at Thurii and Metapontum in Lucania. There their forces grew to 70,000 men.
In 72 the Senate assigned both consuls and four legions to the war against the slaves. After a minor engagement at Mt. Garganos in which Crixus was killed, Spartacus defeated the two consuls in separate battles in central Italy. At this point he attempted to lead the slaves north to freedom beyond the Alps. But after they defeated the governor of Cisalpine Gaul at Mutina (Modena), they elected to turn back to Italy to plunder and enrich themselves. Spartacus not only threatened Rome itself but again defeated both consuls in a major battle in Picenum. The Romans no longer dared face him in the field. He then returned to southern Italy and again made Thurii his headquarters.
In the autumn of 72 the Senate transferred the command against the slaves to Marcus Licinius Crassus, who held no public office at the time. He recruited six additional legions and took up a protective position in south-central Italy. After an initial defeat Crassus won a victory over a contingent of the slaves. That winter he built a wall and ditch across the toe of Italy to contain Spartacus, whose attempts to escape to Sicily with his army failed.
Early in the spring of 71 Spartacus broke through Crassus' lines but suffered two defeats at his hands in Lucania. He then retired again to Bruttium (Calabria), where he defeated two of Crassus' lieutenants who were following him. Encouraged, Spartacus's men persuaded him to risk a major battle with Crassus. In it Spartacus and 60,000 of his men fell. Spartacus's body was never found. Stragglers from the massacre were caught in Etruria by Pompey, summoned by the people from Spain to help end the war. In a final act of cruelty Crassus crucified 6,000 prisoners along the Via Appia from Capua to Rome.
Although Spartacus has been justly lauded as a bold leader, the slave war was not a revolt of the lower classes against the bourgeois leadership of Rome. Spartacus got almost no support from the Italian population, which remained loyal to Rome. Nonetheless, Spartacus has been idolized by revolutionaries since the 18th century. From 1916 to 1919 the German Socialists styled themselves "Spartacists" when they tried to foment a proletarian revolution after World War I. Spartacus's stout resistance against the Romans has been a popular theme among poets and novelists, for example, Arthur Koestler in The Gladiators (1939) and Howard Fast in Spartacus (1951).
The principal sources for Spartacus are Plutarch and Appian. For additional details see The Cambridge Ancient History, vol. 9: The Roman Republic, 133-44 B.C., edited by S. A. Cook, F. E. Adcock, and M. P. Charlesworth; and H. H. Scullard, From the Gracchi to Nero: A History of Rome from 133 B.C. to A.D. 68 (1959; 2d ed. 1963). □
Spartacus ★★★★ 1960 (PG-13)
The true story of a gladiator who leads other slaves in a rebellion against the power of Rome in 73 B.C. The rebellion is put down and the rebels are crucified. Douglas, whose political leanings are amply on display herein, also served as executive producer, surrounding himself with the best talent available. Magnificent climactic battle scene features 8,000 real, live Spanish soldiers to stunning effect. A version featuring Kubrick's “director's cut” is also available, featuring a restored, controversial homoerotic bath scene with Olivier and Curtis. Anthony Mann is uncredited as co-director. A boxoffice triumph that gave Kubrick much-desired financial independence. 196m/C VHS, DVD, HD DVD . Vinton (Hayworth) Haworth, Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Jean Simmons, Tony Curtis, Charles Laughton, Herbert Lom, Nina Foch, Woody Strode, Peter Ustinov, John Gavin, John Ireland, Charles McGraw, Joanna Barnes; D: Stanley Kubrick; W: Dalton Trumbo; C: Russell Metty; M: Alex North. Oscars '60: Art Dir./Set Dec., Color, Color Cinematog., Costume Des. (C), Support. Actor (Ustinov); Golden Globes '61: Film—Drama.
Executed 71 b.c.e.
Slave, gladiator, and revolutionary
The People’s Champion . The Thracian-born slave Spartacus had once served as an auxiliary in the Roman army and had been sent to Capua to train as a gladiator. In 73 B.C.E. Spartacus escaped from the training school. With several companion escapees, Spartacus led a revolt, having attracted Thracian, Celtic, and German fugitives. His army, numbering approximately ninety thousand, defeated several Roman armies. The renegade gladiators and fugitives plundered Italy as they moved up and down the peninsula until Crassus caught and executed Spartacus in 71 B.C.E. All of Spartacus’s followers who had been caught were then crucified along the Appian Way. Although the gladiators who escaped from Capua had been slaves, they did not attempt to recruit runaway slaves from the towns around Italy. Instead they attracted downtrodden and disillusioned country folk. The experience is a reminder that gladiators, whether criminal or slave, were human beings whose dignity was compromised in the interest of mass entertainment.
Edward T. Salmon and Andrew William Lintott, “Spartacus,” in The Oxford Classical Dictionary, third edition, edited by Simon Hornblower and Antony Spawforth (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 1433.
Joseph Vogt, Ancient Slavery and the Idea of Man (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1974).
Spartacus League a German revolutionary socialist group (the Spartacists) founded in 1916 by Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht (1871–1919) with the aims of overthrowing the government and ending the First World War; they took their name from the Thracian slave and revolutionary Spartacus. At the end of 1918 the group became the German Communist Party, which in 1919 organized an uprising in Berlin that was brutally crushed.