As I near the end of this long project of looking at the history of the world through the Hollywood lens, I have arrived at a film that feels most important to my purpose. It is Spartacus (1960). Not everyone loved this historical epic when it first appeared. There were those who pointed out the usual Hollywood flaws, and others who saw it as politically inflammatory. But it enjoyed a high level of success and has become a classic of its kind. Read only to the intermission if you like surprise endings.
There is some sense that Stanley Kubrick directed this film in 1960 on an intuition of the coming worldwide cultural revolutions in the late 1960s and early 70s. It plays surprisingly well forty or fifty years later. Based on the novel by Howard Fast, it is set in the time of the Republic, in the years 73–71 BCE. Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) is born into slavery and sent to work in the mines of Libya. “He dreamed of the death of slavery 2000 years before it finally would die.” Peter Ustinov as Batiatus (a historical character) is shopping for slaves for his gladiator school at Capua, and takes the rebellious Spartacus back to Italy. There are some very good scenes of gladiator training. This is a long meditation on the lives and repressed humanity of “those who are about to die.”
The powerful Crassus (Laurence Olivier) comes to the school with an entourage and demands a fight to the death, which is not normal in the school setting. It is the two women in his company that articulate the demand and choose the gladiators of their preference. Spartacus and an Ethiopian are selected. When they fight, Spartacus is downed by the trident and net, but the Ethiopian leaps into the gallery where he is struck down by a soldier and finished by Crassus. This invented moment effectively sets the scene for the slave rebellion against Roman nobility.
Pausing for fictional romance, Spartacus has fallen for a beautiful slave girl, named Varinia (Jean Simmons), from Britannia. Varinia is purchased by Crassus and taken away. When Spartacus is taunted in the slave quarters about his loss, he attacks his oppressor and incites the other slaves to escape. They make their way to the slopes of Vesuvius where they set up a revolutionary camp. The rebels cause some serious damage to noble households, and the Senate is greatly concerned. Charles Laughton is the chief orator, Gracchus. A Roman military force is sent out to put down the revolt. Young Julius Caesar (John Gavin) is given an improved command at home while this force ventures to the south.
In a further digression to fiction, Crassus is delivered a group of slaves as a gift. Among them is Antoninus (Tony Curtis), “a singer of songs.” Back at Capua, there is a pathetically funny scene in which the liberated slaves force two Roman nobles to fight in an arena. Spartacus interrupts the raucous affair and chastises the men for becoming like the Romans. He exhorts them to act like gladiators and take up their swords against Rome. They become an army to be reckoned with. Spartacus is reunited with Varinia when she escapes Crassus.
Now comes the famous episode where the Roman commander (Olivier) takes a heated bath with his slave (Curtis). In the midst of the seduction, Antoninus disappears from the palace to join the slave army. He will entertain the troops with magic tricks and poetry. The army of Spartacus continues to build strength from the escarpments of Vesuvius. They attempt to contract for ships that will take them to sea from Brindisium. The first force sent by Rome fails to stop the slaves, who continue their march toward the sea.
The Senate is in session, reviewing the military failure in the south. There is fear for the fragile Republic, and for the specter of chaos. Caesar is on the rise (though he appears only briefly), but Crassus prevails. Scenes in the baths underscore the gap between the nobility and the mob. The slave army is streaming toward the sea, led by Spartacus and his love. They are a huge throng, and it is a stirring sight. The film bogs down in travelogue sequences, and frolicsome scenes of love and celebration. They cross the Apenines (Ap-ee-nines). Spartacus and Varinia have wed, and she is pregnant. When they reach the sea, they find they have no ships. They turn to face the advancing forces of Crassus, who is determined to “kill the legend of Spartacus.” Pompey and others are at his rear. Crassus summons the help of Batiatus, the cynical gladiator schoolmaster. The confrontation comes at last on a field in south-central Italy. The two armies take up position; one a disciplined force, the other a desperate rabble. There is the appearance of a cast of thousands.
The Romans advance, and the slaves roll burning logs at them. A fierce battle (very impressive moviemaking) is waged, with Spartacus in the vanguard of the fighting. When the armies of Lucullus and Pompey appear on the horizon in vast lines of horsemen, all is lost. By nightfall, the field is littered with thousands of rebel corpses. Those that are left of the slave forces are chained as prisoners of war. Crassus proposes to spare them the horrors of crucifixion if they will identify Spartacus. As Spartacus stands, many men rise to cry, “I am Spartacus!” Crassus and Batiatus find Varinia and the child, and send them back to Rome. All along the Appian Way, there are 6,000 slaves crucified on T-shaped crosses. The movie should end here.
Resorting to fiction again, Spartacus and Antoninus are discovered among the prisoners and saved for last. Back in Rome, Laughton and Ustinov continue to intrigue. Crassus has taken Varinia into his home, and there is a long Richard III scene between Olivier and the indifferent Simmons. “You think that by threatening to kill my child you can make me love you?” Spartacus and Antoninus have time to talk about things as the end nears. Spartacus says that just by fighting the Romans they have won something. “When just one man says no, Rome begins to fear.”
The frustrated Crassus forces Spartacus and Antoninus to fight to the death. Each of the friends attempts to kill the other to spare him the cross. Spartacus wins, and is led off to crucifixion. Olivier gives the order, and informs Spartacus that Varinia and her child are slaves in his household. He adds that there should be no grave and that the slave leader’s ashes should be scattered to the wind. He has a brief encounter with young Julius Caesar. Laughton secretly arranges for the freedom of Varinia and the baby. Batiatus takes them away toward the sea. At a checkpoint, she sees her husband among the crosses along the road, and he is still alive. She brings the baby to him, so he can die knowing his son will be free. The End.
The ending, though a total movie fabrication, remains one of the more remarkable scenes in the folklore of the human race. The legend will not die. A History Channel special called “The Real Spartacus,” confirms that 6,000 men were crucified by the Romans along the Apian Way (and so it was said in the film), roughly a century before the death of Christ. They were left on view for three months. The body of Spartacus, it says, was never found.
Historically, this was called The Third Servile War (73–71 BCE). It would take almost 2000 years for the first waves of revolutionaries to decisively throw off the yoke of monarchy and restore the ideal of republic.
This film was directed by Stanley Kubrick under the heavy hand of producer Kirk Douglas. Ultimately, Kubrick elected to disassociate his name from the final product. More behind the scenes drama arose from the determination of Douglas to hire people that had been blacklisted. The famous “I am Spartacus” scene is said to have been a condemnation of the McCarthy hearings and their demands for the accused to name names.
The novel by Howard Fast, Spartacus (1951), provides more social and cultural context for the story. It is still necessary, however, to play the game of separating fact from fiction.What becomes clear is that little or nothing is known about the life of Spartacus beyond his military history.
Spartacus – USA (2004)
USA Today hated this fresh effort at rendering the Howard Fast novel. Indeed the acting ensemble cannot come close to matching the Kirk Douglas film, but this work exploits the easiest advantage of modern filmmaking, beautiful photography. The action follows the same lines as the 1960 version, except that in the end Spartacus is hacked to pieces on the battlefield and his body is never found. Here they say “Sparta-coose.”
Amazons and Gladiators (2001)
It opens with an account of the career of Crassius (sic), who vanquished Spartacus, but ran afoul of Caesar and was banished to a distant province. Embittered, Crassius takes out his frustrations on the people. He rampages through the village of a young girl named Serena and forces the girl to hold her mother on her shoulders with her head in a noose. He then sets fire to a bed of coals under her feet. The mother dies. Serena is taken away to a life of slavery. Ten years later, she is rescued by a group of Amazons and taken to their training camp. When she has mastered the necessary fighting skills, she challenges Crassius in a small arena and has her vengeance. She then warns the Roman spectators that if they abuse any more woman and slaves she will come back and kill them all. This is a tawdry little film, interesting for the fictional follow-up to the Third Servile War and the fusion of modern feminism with the improbable story of the Amazons.