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.
Spartacus is one of the all time great sword and sandals epics. The sheer scope and scale of it all is stunning and the acting is top notch as well. Its very much a film of its time but I think Kubrick’s work on it shines though, and its a lot more grittier and gorier that other films of this era and genre.
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