This film clocks in at over three hours, so I was initially reluctant to watch on a weeknight. “It moves pretty fast,” Roommate Russ reassured me; that wasn’t exactly the reason I was uneasy at the length, but it proved true, and I ended up pleased after all.
Spartacus was in fact a real person – a former gladiator who became co-leader of a massive slave rebellion during Rome’s Republican era. This film was based on a 1950s novel about Spartacus – one which takes a few small liberties with the story, but otherwise is fairly straightforward, covering his origins in Thrace and his training as a gladiator, his strategic prowess, his defeat of several Roman legions, his growing popularity among other Roman slaves, and his eventual defeat. For yes, Spartacus and his men are eventually defeated – but it takes nearly the full strength of Rome to do it, and there’s a sort of Gladiator-meets-Braveheart tone to the end about how Rome has defeated Spartacus but not the idea he represented, and so forth.
To be fair, some of the details about Spartacus’ life are a little vague – it’s not clear whether he was always a slave, or was captured as a soldier, or was once loyal to Rome but then was imprisoned, or what happened. This left screenwriter Dalton Trumbo free to embellish things a bit – giving Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) a “born-into-slavery” origin story, playing up the foppish cruelty of the Romans, giving Spartacus a girlfriend named Varinia (Jean Simmons). The historic record says Spartacus started their rebellion by arming himself with kitchen tools at his training center and leading the other gladiators in a fight for escape in Trumbo’s account, the incident which touches the rebellion off is Spartacus discovering that Varinia, a kitchen maid (and sometimes prostitute for the gladiators), has just been sold off to the Roman statesman Marcus Crassus (Sir Laurence Olivier).
The film points out Rome’s decadence and ill regard for slaves fairly quickly. Early on, Crassus brings himself and a small entourage to the school where Spartacus trains, ordering the trainer Batiatus (Peter Ustinov) to entertain them with two fights to the death. When Batiatus desperately says that they don’t fight to the death there because, well, it’s a school, Crassus basically pulls rank and orders him. But Crassus ends up paying so little attention to the fights that later on, when Crassus is trying to defeat the rebellion, he summons Batiatus again to ask him what Spartacus looks like. “But…you saw him, in the ring,” a baffled Batiatus points out, reminding Crassus of his earlier visit. And even here, even though Crassus remembers the fight itself, he still doesn’t remember anything of what Spartacus looked like. He was just a generic slave.
Trumbo and Olivier also give us a scene hinting at Rome’s sexual decadence; an infamous bathhouse scene which was cut from the film for a while, in which Crassus’ manservant, Antonius (Tony Curtis), is tending to him, and Crassus coyly asks him if he likes eating either oysters or snails. Antonius likes one, he says, but not the other. “It is all a matter of taste, isn’t it?” Crassus muses, “and taste is not the same as appetite, and therefore not a question of morals…my taste,” he finishes, glancing significantly at Antonius, “includes both snails and oysters.”
Wisely, though, the script doesn’t suggest that Rome’s entire problem was its decadence and foppishness. Crassus could have been made even more of a camp power-hungry villain; instead, they simply underestimate Spartacus and his army of shepherds, stable boys, cooks, wet nurses, and other low-lifes. The Roman Senate sees Spartacus’ rebellion as a minor internal police matter, dispatching only a couple of legions to put him down at first; the real Roman army was off mopping up a couple of border wars. Only after Spartacus’ army beats the pants off those legions, and three more sent later, does the Roman Senate start taking things seriously – Crassus included, possibly because Antonius has also escaped and is said to be fighting amid Spartacus’ gang.
What Spartacus and his gang have on their side is determination and fanatical devotion to the idea of freedom. But fortunately, there aren’t any Big Dramatic Speeches to emphasize this; instead, director Stanley Kubrick does this quietly, by following a handful of different extras and showing them in little wordless cameos throughout. I started noticing them more often as the film went on – one white-haired old couple in particular, turning up in one early scene where he was polishing a battered shield while she washed his clothes or something, and then in a later scene they put up a tent in a camp together, and in another scene they danced together to a piper. There was also a young girl who kept on turning up in scenes with an even younger little brother in her care; and a whole family who dressed entirely in rags except for two men who wore bearskin cloaks, complete with the ears; or a young couple with a sickly baby, who sadly have to bury it during one vignette. The same extras turn up over and over, to the point that we start recognizing them, making them “real people” instead of the anonymous nobodies the Romans believed them to be. The night before one of their big final battles with Rome, Spartacus walks through the camp, and we visit each and every one of these now-familiar slaves, each group of them pausing to nod their hello’s to Spartacus as he passes. Spartacus returns their nods; they are free people, worthy of his respect. And later, when we see the battle’s aftermath, we see some of their bodies lying among the dead – and it gives us a start.
The rest of the film has much to recommend it – Roommate Russ was right about the quick pace, the writing is all quite fine, the performances as well. But I was most struck by how instead of bombast, Spartacus used quiet example to get its points across, and for me that was one of the finest bits of the film.