Hollywood Epics 3 – Spartacus

As famous as Stanley Kubrick is, before seeing Spartacus, The Shining and Full Metal Jacket were the only movies of his I’ve actually watched in full. He was a visionary in the film industry, he often pushed boundaries, and he wasn’t afraid of controversy. He was also known to be a demanding perfectionist at times, and would often assume control over as much of the filmmaking process as he could. He often took a lot of care with researching his films. It’s probably more interesting to talk about his career than it is to talk about his own Hollywood Epic, Spartacus, but that should be saved for if I ever decide to do a Stanley Kubrick month.

The development of Spartacus partly happened because Kirk Douglass couldn’t win the title role in Ben-Hur. Disappointed that director William Wyler chose Charlton Heston over him, he started pushing for another epic to star in. Around the same time, Ed Lewis, a vice president in Douglas’s film company, had the actor read Howard Fast’s Spartacus novel. It featured similar themes of an individual challenging the might of the Roman Empire, so he purchased the film option with his own money. Lewis then became the producer of the film. At the same time, Yul Brynner (Rameses II in The Ten Commandments) was pursuing his own version of Spartacus for United Artists. But with Dalton Trumbo’s screenplay for Spartacus finished in two weeks, and Universal Pictures already attached, the Douglass version won the race.

On that note, Dalton Trumbo was blacklisted from several studios at the time (having been jailed for contempt of Congress in 1950), so he used the pseudonym “Sam Jackson”. Douglass insisted that Trumbo would get screen credit for his work, which helped him break his blacklisting. There was also a bit of a fight over that credit, as Kubrick wanted the writing credit, despite not actually writing the script.

While Kubrick was picked as the director, he wasn’t the first choice. David Lean turned down the role, and then Anthony Mann took over, best known for his westerns, including Winchester ’73 and The Naked Spur. He was fired after the first week of shooting, in which only the opening sequence in the quarry had been filmed.

“He seemed scared of the scope of the picture,” Douglass said in his autobiography. Meanwhile, Kubrick was only 30 at the time, which is much younger than usual for someone to direct a Hollywood Epic. Even Ridley Scott didn’t really start directing epics until the early 2000’s, and he started directing films in the 70’s. Kubrick had only directed 4 full-length movies before, including Paths of Glory, an anti-war film that also starred Douglass. That movie featured a budget of $935,000. Spartacus’s budget – $12 million, not to mention it featured a cast of over 10,000.

Kubrick wanted to film mostly in Rome, but then president of Universal, Edward Muhl, wanted to prove that a successful epic could be made in Hollywood itself. They reached a compromise, where the intimate scenes would be filmed in Hollywood, while most of the battle scenes were shot outside of Madrid, Spain. Kubrick found shooting outdoors to be distracting, and believed that working on a sound stage would benefit the performances. To create the large crowds heard throughout the film, he used three-channel sound equipment to record 76,000 spectators at a Notre Dame college football game in Michigan chanting “Hail, Crassus!” and “I’m Spartacus!”.

Of the battle scenes, he shot them from the top of specially constructed towers. They used roughly 8,000 Spanish Infantry soldiers as doubles for the Roman army. He was so precise, that in the aftermath scenes, each corpse was assigned with a number and instructions. Sadly, all but one of his gory battle scenes ended up cut, due to negative audience reactions. Some of those scenes were reconstructed and added back in for the 1991 re-release, and have remained in every release since.

Kubrick’s preference for control resulted in several disputes while filming. Cinematographer Russell Metty, a veteran of the industry, complained about Kubrick’s precise instructions for the camera work. They even fought over lighting. At one point, Metty threatened to quit, to which Kubrick said,

“You can do your job by sitting in your chair and shutting up. I’ll be the director of photography.”

He eventually stopped criticizing Kubrick after he won the Best Cinematography Oscar. Also, Kubrick wanted to work at a slow pace of two camera set-ups a day, but the studio wanted 32. They eventually compromised at 8. Kubrick and Trumbo fought regularly over the script, with Kubrick complaining that Spartacus had no faults or quirks. Because of the lack of control he had over the film, and despite it being considered among the greatest historical epics in film history, Kubrick would eventually distance himself from the film.

I’ve already mentioned Douglass starring as Spartacus. Other major cast members include Laurence Olivier as Crassus, a Roman general who had a major role in transforming Rome from a Republic into an Empire. Jean Simmons played Varinia, Spartacus’s love interest and eventual wife. John Gavin played Julius Caesar. Peter Ustinov played Batiatus, the owner of the gladiatorial school that Spartacus and his followers escaped from, where they started their uprising.

On that note, Ustinov received an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his role as Batiatus. The movie won four Oscars in total, including the previously mentioned Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, and Best Costume Design. It was also nominated for Best Film Editing, and Best Music Score, by Alex North (who also composed Cleopatra’s soundtrack). On that note, North was the first composer to win an honorary Academy Award, but despite 15 nominations, he never won an annual award.

Spartacus released in October of 1960, and went on to earn $60 million on its $12 million budget. It also received widespread critical praise. Variety’s review stated, “Kubrick has out-DeMilled the old master in spectacle, without ever permitting the story or the people who are at the core of the drama to become lost in the shuffle.” Los Angeles Times’ review highly praised Kubrick, saying “Here young director Stanley Kubrick gives notice that from now on he’s definitely to be reckoned with. His use of cameras and handling of people are very effective and skillful.” The Washington Post wrote that the film “achieves the unlikely triumph of being intimate on a big scale.”

Only a handful of reviews at the time were negative. The New York Times called the film a “spotty, uneven drama”, while another review written by Hedda Hopper actively discouraged anyone from seeing it because she believed the film “was written by a commie.”

As for myself, I’ve never seen this movie before, only brief clips of the famous “I am Spartacus” scene. This movie is definitely a classic epic, but it feels very different from the others I’ve seen, both this month and before. As much as he didn’t have full creative control over the film, you can definitely feel Kubrick’s influence on the camera work, the acting, and the editing. The main battle sequence, in which Spartacus’s forces are defeated, is also noticeably gorier than the norm for the 1960’s. There’s blood all over the place, a few severed limbs shown directly on-screen, and people getting run over by burning logs. When I say being run over, I mean you see them trip and fall, and the log rolls over them, in one continuous take.

The acting is strong all-round. Douglass shows a lot of range as Spartacus, from his cold, hard stares during his time as a slave, to his charisma when he’s leading an army of former slaves, to his more dramatic moments between either Varinia or his close friends. Olivier is convincing as Crassus, an intelligent and ambitious general, who is both disturbed by how Spartacus commanded such loyalty, and nervous about Julius Caesar eclipsing him. Then of course there’s Ustinov, stealing every scene he’s in with his entertaining charisma. It’s no wonder he won the Academy Award for his performance here.

Because this movie’s not afraid to get bloody, and because of Kubrick’s filmmaking style, one could argue it’s aged better than a lot of classic Hollywood Epics. That’s not to say the others I’ve looked at this month haven’t, but besides the very classic style soundtrack and the complete lack of CGI, Spartacus feels modern in a lot of ways. It’s also quite impressive how the Roman army marches in and modifies formations with ease before the main battle. It’s a grand scale sequence that few movies of the era could match.

The movie’s most famous scene, “I am Spartacus”, is inspirational in its own right. When all the surviving slaves are offered a full pardon in exchange for identifying Spartacus, they all start shouting “I am Spartacus”, showing how loyal they really are. As a result, the majority of them are crucified along the road to Rome. In reality, they claimed that Spartacus died in the battle, and they were crucified anyway, but it makes for a great film moment. Also in the real events, they never found Spartacus’s body in the battlefield.

Earlier this year, I watched Ridley Scott’s Gladiator. This movie, along with the true story of Spartacus, is one of that movie’s inspirations. That alone makes this movie worth watching if you’re a fan of Gladiator, but this is a fantastic Hollywood Epic in its own right. There’s a reason it’s frequently quoted and parodied even to this day. There’s a reason it was selected for preservation at the National Film Registry in 2017. Kubrick may have distanced himself from this film, but that is by no means an insult to film’s quality.

To close off this month, I’ll be watching a Hollywood Epic from the 90’s, directed by someone who was a personal friend of Kubrick’s. It also features a number of actors appearing in a variety of movies I’ve reviewed before on this blog. It’s not epic in the same sense as these other three, but it’s still a long movie based on historical events, with a rather large cast. As for next month, I’ve decided to do a Bruce Willis month to celebrate the recently retired actor’s career. I’ve looked at Die Hard already, so I won’t be looking at any of those movies, but I’ll be looking at both some of his best, and at least one movie that’s hilariously stupid.

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Hollywood Epics 2 – Cleopatra (1963)

Apart from this movie being recommended to me by a co-worker who’s got a very similar taste in movies to me, I came into this movie almost completely blind. Not only have I never seen this movie before, but I don’t know much about Cleopatra other than the fact that she ruled Egypt towards the end of the Egyptian Empire, and that it’s said that she committed suicide via. a poisonous snake.

The production behind 1963’s Cleopatra actually faced numerous difficulties and delays that are just too fascinating not to explore. Just like The Ten Commandments was director Cecil B. DeMille’s last film, Cleopatra is producer Walter Wanger’s last film. His career went back to the early days of cinema, working as a producer through the 1910’s and 20’s. He long wanted to produce a film about Cleopatra, having first read about the Egyptian Queen in college, but only decided to start working on it after seeing Elizabeth Taylor in A Place in the Sun (1951). Of course, getting the film started got delayed after he shot his wife’s agent, believing they were having an affair. That led to a 4-month sentence in prison. These difficulties led to the movie’s record breaking budget of $31 million, a record it held until 1978’s Superman.

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Hollywood Epics 1 – The Ten Commandments

The Hollywood Epic. These are movies that generally have high budgets, a large cast, and are grand in scope, but are not limited by genre. They also tend to be at least 2:30, and it’s not unusual for them to be over 3 hours long. I’ve looked at some epics here and there before, like Ben Hur, James Cameron’s Titanic, Gone with the Wind, Lawrence of Arabia, and Gladiator, among others. The Lord of the Rings trilogy is also considered a 3-part epic. You could even make the argument that Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame are superhero epics. Most of the movies I’m looking at this month are classics, released before 1970. There will be at least one newer Hollywood Epic. Also, I won’t be looking at any direct war movies, since they’re better saved for a War Movie theme month.

To kick things off, let’s look at The Ten Commandments, a 1956 epic religious drama film. At the time of its release, this was the most expensive film in history. Its budget of over $13 million dwarfed the previous most expensive movie, Quo Vadis, which cost $7.6 million. Its earnings of $122 million on its initial release is enough to make it the 8th most profitable film in history, adjusted for inflation. With later re-releases, it eventually earned over $600 million in theaters, not to mention how it’s done very well in home video releases and TV showings. It almost dethroned Gone With The Wind as the highest earning movie in history with its initial release. I figured it’s worth starting with this one because I’ve looked at another interpretation of the story of Moses before, with Prince of Egypt. Also of the four movies I’ll be watching this month, this is the only one I’ve seen before.

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Hilariously Bad Movies Month 5 – Battlefield Earth

The first four movies I looked at this month are all low-budget films. As much as it’s fun to watch quirky little movies by directors not skilled enough to make it big, hilariously bad movies are not limited to the indie scene. Although this movie isn’t quite what you would call a big studio film, it did have a production budget of $73 million, which for the year 2000 (when it released), was a fairly big budget.  It dwarfs the combined budgets of the other four movies I’ve looked at this month. This movie held the record for the most Razzie awards for 11 years, until Jack and Jill beat the record in 2012 by “winning” every single category.

I’m talking about Battlefield Earth, also sometimes referred to Battlefield Earth: A Saga of the Year 3000. This movie was a passion project by famed actor John Travolta, based on a novel by L. Ron Hubbard, founder of Scientology. Scientology itself is a rabbit hole that I’d rather not dig into for this review, but Travolta is a known practitioner of Scientology. Travolta himself has had a bit of a wild career, in that he’s involved with at least one movie every decade that nearly destroys his career. This movie is probably the closest he’s gotten to completely destroying his career, and being involved in the production that eventually bankrupted Franchise Pictures likely had something to do with that.

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Hilariously Bad Movies Month 4: Shock! Shock! Shock!

This review is going to be a relatively short one. Not because this movie isn’t worth talking about, but because I scoured the internet for any information on the making of this film, but couldn’t find anything. In fact, the movie is so obscure that if you type in the title exactly on IMDB’s search bar, it’s not the 1st movie that shows up – it’s the fifth. If you not only type the movie’s title exactly into google, but quote it and add its release date of 1987, it goes to the French Wikipedia page. Despite the movie being in English, there is no page for it on the main English Wikipedia site.

It kind of feels like the only reason anyone discovered this movie is that it features the very first on-screen appearance of late character actor and producer James Gandolfini. He’s best known for The Sopranos, but he also performed in Where the Wild Things Are, True Romance, Zero Dark Thirty, and Get Shorty.

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Hilariously Bad Movies Month 3 – Birdemic: Shock and Terror

Both of the first two movies I looked at this month have one major element in common – they were low-budget. Plan 9 From Outer Space had a budget of $60,000, back in the 50’s. Troll 2’s budget was $100,000 back in 1990. Considering inflation, you could say that Plan 9’s budget was larger, yet it still feels cheaper out of the two. Well … today’s focus “film” began production in 2006 and released in 2010. Its budget: less than $10,000. I’ve spent more than that on computer hardware since I finished high school. It’s also worth mentioning that of all the movies I’m looking at this month, this is the only one I haven’t seen before.

Birdemic: Shock and Terror, often shortened to Birdemic, is directed by Vietnamese filmmaker James Nguyen. Although he’s been living in the United States for most of his life, he’s still purely a Vietnamese citizen. He never received any kind of formal training in filming, but grew up watching Alfred Hitchcock movies, most notably The Birds. The Birds is a horror movie that serves as one of the main inspirations behind Birdemic. After he grew up, he worked a brief stint as a software salesman, before picking up a camera in 1999 and following his true passion, filmmaking.

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Hilariously Bad Movies Month 2 – Plan 9 from Outer Space

I strongly considered not covering this movie for this month’s theme. Not because it’s not hilarious, but because pretty much everyone in the bad movie culture talks about this one at some point. There’s really not much I can add to this. But considering this is meant to be an introduction to hilariously bad movies, and Plan 9 from Outer Space is the prime example of hilariously bad, I’ve got to talk about it.

Plan 9 from Outer Space is directed by Edward Davis Wood Jr. (generally known as Ed Wood), who directed a number of ultra low-budget science fiction, horror, and crime films between the 1950’s and 1960’s. Most of his films remained obscure even after his death in 1978, but after the Golden Turkey Award book from 1980 named him the Worst Director of All-Time, a number of his films gained a cult status.

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Hilariously Bad Movies Month 1 – Troll 2

Ahh, so bad it’s good. Movies of this sort are the reason I started blogging in the first place, even if I never link to my old blog because I’m not a fan of my older posts. Anyway, this sort of movie isn’t for everyone, and even for someone like me, who’s enjoyed hilariously bad movies for at last 15 years now, I need to be in the right mood. For the month, I’m going to introduce to you this sub-culture within the film industry. We’ll look at terrible movies from different decades, different genres, and potentially even different ways that they’re bad, to give you a general introduction to this fascinating element of the film world.

What better way than to start it off with the movie that introduced me to the “so bad it’s good” subculture, Troll 2?

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Ridley Scott Month 4 – Kingdom of Heaven

Most of the time, when you’ve got an extended cut or the Director’s Cut of a movie, there isn’t a huge level of difference in terms of quality. The Lord of the Rings movies are fantastic even if you watch the theatrical versions. The Rogue edit of Days of Future Past really just adds Rogue to the movie and reorganizes a few of the “future” death scenes, but otherwise it’s just as good either way. The extended cut of Gladiator adds some great character development scenes, but the theatrical cut is still a masterpiece.

Every now and then, you’ll get a substantially different movie with the director’s cut, be it 2003’s Daredevil, which cuts down the romantic subplot that didn’t really work to emphasize the movies stronger, darker elements, or Once Upon A Time in America, where the theatrical cut not only removed a bunch of vital scenes, but completely reorganized the movie into chronological order, which hurt many aspects of the storytelling. The Wolverine’s Unleashed Cut, while still flawed, is noticeably better than the theatrical cut. Heaven’s Gate may be the first example of a Director’s Cut significantly improving a movie where the theatrical cut was a complete disaster, both critically and commercially. Most people tend to agree that the “Final Cut” of Blade Runner, the only true Director’s Cut of the movie, is also the best version. Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven is one of these films.

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Ridley Scott month 3 – Blade Runner

Even if I wasn’t spending a month focusing on Ridley Scott movies, Blade Runner is worth fitting into a fairly nerdy blog that’s been doing a variety of movies for a while now. It’s often considered to be among the greatest sci-fi movies of all-time. It’s certainly a very inspirational one, influencing the visual styles, soundtracks, and speculative side of the genre in movies, games, and TV shows since. Yet despite all its fame, Blade Runner was not a financial success upon its initial release. It only earned $41.6 million with its theatrical release, on a budget of $30 million. Movies generally need to earn back at least double its budget to make a profit, if not more. It’s also got 7 official releases, and that in itself is insane.

Instead of talking about the behind the scenes details at length for this one, which are definitely worth checking out by the way, it’s more interesting to talk about the very different releases of this film, as well as a hotly debated subject the movie brings up. Is Deckard a replicant? In case you have no idea what I’m talking about, I’ll explain it when I focus on the movie itself.

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