Spartacus (1960)

RIP, Kirk Douglas.

One of the last living legends of Hollywood has gone. Kirk Douglas passed away on February 5th, at the age of 103. A ripe old age, and a life that seems to have been as heroic as the characters he portrayed onscreen. Kirk Douglas grew up in a Jewish ghetto as the son of immigrants from what is now Belarus; his athleticism (he became a professional wrestler at an early age) was what eventually helped him pay for an education and go on to win a scholarship at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Douglas’s acting career (on stage, at the time) was interrupted by the outbreak of World War II, and he, having enlisted in the US Navy, did not return to theatre until ceasefire in 1945.

The post-war period also resulted in a breakthrough into cinema for Douglas, leading him to his first role, in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946). From this point onwards, there was no looking back: over the next 60 years, he acted in many films, some of them landmarks in the history of cinema, like Lust for Life, Spartacus, and Paths of Glory. Besides his impressive acting career, Douglas was also involved in various humanitarian causes, donating funds for causes as diverse as a children’s hospital and a television and motion picture fund.

As tribute, therefore, to Kirk Douglas, my review of one of his most famous films, a sword-and-sandals epic about a rebellious (real life) slave.

It is 73 BC.

Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) is introduced to us as he works in the salt mines up in the mountains of Libya. The son of an illiterate slave woman, Spartacus—or so the voiceover informs us—was sent to work here at the age of thirteen, and has been here ever since.

Unwillingly, it’s obvious, since Spartacus is renowned as a defiant, rebellious sort who won’t take punishment lying down. When he sees a fellow mine worker fall down, exhausted, under his load, Spartacus comes to the man’s rescue—and is immediately yelled at by the Roman overseer, who hurries up, cracking his whip and ordering everyone back to work.

Spartacus, instead of complying, tackles the Roman—and bites him on the ankle badly enough to hamstring the man. For this, Spartacus is pinned down on a rock under the hot sun and left to bake or die—or, fortuitously for Spartacus—be found by a Roman looking for strong men to buy. Lentulus Batiatus (Peter Ustinov) runs a gladiatorial school, and impressed by Spartacus, buys him and takes him to Italy to become part of the school.

Here, Spartacus and the other new recruits are introduced to the daily routine. They will be trained, they will be housed and fed. They will even, if they’re good and obedient, be given the pleasure of being with a woman on some nights.

To Spartacus’s lot comes the beautiful Varinia (Jean Simmons), who enters his cell and is a little taken aback by his wide-eyed wonder at the sight and touch of a woman. Spartacus frankly admits to Varinia that he’s never been with a woman.

A poignant and sweet admission, and one which turns to immediate rage when Spartacus discovers that he’s been overheard (and watched) by Batiatus and the trainer Marcellus (Charles McGraw), both of them thoroughly amused at Spartacus’s ‘not being a man’. Varinia is taken away, and on another night, is given to another gladiator, but the sense of comfort and companionship that had sprung up between her and Spartacus over those few minutes in his cell endures. He asks about her safety, he touches her hand briefly as she serves the gladiators their wine…

One day, Batiatus is informed of the sudden and unexpected arrival of some very important guests. These include the ridiculously wealthy and powerful general and politician Marcus Crassus (Laurence Olivier), his mistress Helena (Nina Foch), Helena’s brother Glabrus (John Dall) and Glabrus’s bride Claudia (Joanna Barnes). The women are eager to see Batiatus’s gladiators battle it out—to the death. When Batiatus quibbles about the cost of dead gladiators, Crassus (Croesus would have been a more appropriate name for him) asks what that would cost, and calmly agrees to pay the 25,000 sesterces Batiatus names.

Claudia and Helena go down to the gladiatorial enclosure where, separated from the gladiators by a row of bars, they pick the four men they want to see fight each other to the death. Basically, men who will look good stripped down to the bare essentials. Spartacus is one of the four chosen.

While the gladiators get ready for what will be the final fight for at least two of them, Crassus and his companions drink and chat. At Helena’s teasing that Crassus has not yet given Glabrus a wedding gift, Crassus hands over one: the command of the Garrison at Rome.

A short while later, after Batiatus joins them, Varinia is serving the guests when some spiritedness on her part impresses Crassus so much that he buys her from Batiatus. Send her to me in Rome the next time one of your men goes to the city, he tells Batiatus—which happens to be the following  day. Varinia, her life suddenly turned upside-down (and realizing that she’s going to be separated from the only man who’s been kind to her), is shattered. But of course, there’s nothing she can do.

In the meantime, the gladiators get ready. The first pair goes into the makeshift arena, one is killed and the other returns, alive for now. Then out go Spartacus and Draba (Woody Strode)—Draba, who, when  Spartacus had once greeted him and tried to be friendly, had flatly refused that friendship, because some day they might have to fight each other. And that would mean killing a friend.

Now they fight each other, Draba and Spartacus, and that is exactly the situation Draba finds himself in.

He manages to disarm Spartacus and pin him to the ground. He looks up questioningly towards the Romans, asking for a decision, and Helena gives the thumbs down. Draba hesitates, and then, instead of killing Spartacus, flings his trident into the balcony where the Romans are sitting. Nobody is hurt, but as Glabrus hurries the women away, Draba tries to climb up into the balcony, and is killed by Crassus.

That evening, as the gladiators go to their cells for the night, they file past the body of Draba, hung upside down ‘until he rots’. An example for the others, to refrain from imagining themselves equal to their masters.

But the next day, as he’s going for his meal, Spartacus forgets all of that—because, glancing out of the window, he sees Varinia sitting in a cart and being driven off. Marcellus, noticing the astonishment and dismay in Spartacus’s expression, gleefully tells him the truth, about Varinia having been sold off. Take a good last look, he suggests gloatingly.

Spartacus is so furious at Marcellus that he whips around and bashes him—and all hell breaks loose. Following Spartacus’s lead, the other gladiators too jump into the fray, hitting the guards who come running to Marcellus’s aid. Spartacus drowns Marcellus in a pot of some sort of stew.

Batiatus, realizing what’s happened, thinks on his feet and rushes to the cart carrying Varinia to Rome. He tells the cart driver that he, Batiatus, had better take over the driving of this cart; who knows whether the driver will be able to keep his nerve in all the turmoil. And before anybody can stop him, Batiatus has gone off, escaped.

Following some time later, once they’ve established themselves in Batiatus’s estate, go the now-free gladiators, swarming all over the slopes of Mt Vesuvius.

Far away in Rome, the matter comes up for heated discussion at the Senate. Spartacus’s men have gone feral, raiding villa after villa, estate after estate. They must be stopped. The powerful Gracchus (Charles Laughton), who is Crassus’s arch rival in the struggle for power in Rome, makes a suggestion: send six cohorts of the Garrison of Rome. Glabrus, as commander, will lead them to victory at Vesuvius. Glabrus, who is present in the Senate, gladly (and proudly) accepts.

Gracchus also makes another suggestion: that the remaining cohorts of the Garrison of Rome be put under the charge of Gaius Julius Caesar (John Gavin), a suggestion which is also accepted. Later, however, when Julius Caesar and Gracchus are alone, Julius wonders what Gracchus has up his sleeve. Simple, replies the wily old man. By sending Glabrus off to Vesuvius, he’s depriving Crassus of what could have been his biggest asset in seizing power in Rome.

… a fact which Crassus also recognizes, and bitterly chastises Glabrus about. But there’s nothing to be done now, though Glabrus naively promises that he’ll turn down the assignment. As a patrician, says Crassus, Glabrus has no choice but to carry out the responsibility he’s been given. And Crassus (who has a well-trained legion stationed just outside Rome) must also be bound by another matter of patrician honour: he must not attack his own city. But he will bide his time, and he will find a way to make Rome bow to him.

In the meantime, though, Crassus finds himself attracted to a new slave, a quiet young singer named Antoninus (Tony Curtis).

And far away, on the slopes of Vesuvius, the slave rebellion gathers pace. Spartacus and his men marshal their forces, recruit new members to their cause, and dream of when they will be able to return to their own homes. But in order to get home, they must first get to the port of Brandisium, where they might be able to buy ships from Silesian pirates to take them home…  if the Romans will let that happen.

Spartacus won four Academy Awards: Best Supporting Actor (Male) for Peter Ustinov, Best Colour Cinematography for Russell Metty, Best Costume Design for Valles and Bill Thomas, and Best Art Direction-Set Decoration (Colour). It also won a Golden Globe for Best Film (director Stanley Kubrick was nominated for Best Director as well) and has won or been nominated for numerous other awards. It is certainly one of the best sword-and-sandals film out there, and worth every minute of the 3 hours and 16 minutes it runs to.

What I liked about this film:

All of it, really. Everything comes together well: the scale of it is impressive, the cinematography is topnotch, the dialogues are good—and the cast is excellent. Peter Ustinov in his award-winning role as Batiatus, is brilliant, but I thought three other actors also were superb: Laurence Olivier as Crassus, Charles Laughton as Gracchus, and Kirk Douglas as Spartacus.

Douglas as Spartacus and Laurence Olivier as Crassus are especially noteworthy for the interesting way in which their characters are built up, as near-opposites. One is a penniless slave with nothing to lose except his slavery; the other is one of the most powerful men in Rome as well as possibly the wealthiest. Yet, it’s eventually the poor slave, driven into a corner, who succeeds—and the Roman, with the might of Rome behind him, who fails—each in his own way, and each realizing it, too. The acting of the two men brings Spartacus and Crassus to life very well: Crassus calculating and clever, yet with his own weaknesses—and Spartacus, physically strong, an inspiring leader and a loyal friend, and so endearingly in awe of the woman who has thought fit to fall in love with him.

And, a special mention of the credits images. I love the symbolism here. The way the image of Rome, unassailable and all-powerful is built up, through the carved busts, unsmiling and unbending, of its greatest men… and how, in the final frame, that smooth, fine face cracks.

What I didn’t like:

Nothing. Really. When I heard how Spartacus ends, I thought to myself that no, I wouldn’t like that. But I was mistaken, because that is the best way for this story to end.

Goodbye, Mr Douglas. Thank you for the films.

10 thoughts on “Spartacus (1960)

  1. Kirk Douglas left an impression, didn’t he? I was just looking through his filmography on imdb and realised that I have seen only 3-4 of his films. And yet, his name would be included in my favorite actors’ list!

    sword-and-sandals film” lol! That is a very apt description. I am going to borrow your phrase often.

    I remember most parts of the film, but not the end (found it on wikipedia). Selective amnesia, probably. It is a pity Hollywood decided not to re-write history. If Maharana Pratap could win the battle of Haldighati 400 years after it took place, surely it is also time to change the course of Roman history?

    • I haven’t seen too many of Kirk Douglas’s films either – but the ones I have seen left quite an impact. Especially Paths of Glory, which I really liked.

      “If Maharana Pratap could win the battle of Haldighati 400 years after it took place, surely it is also time to change the course of Roman history?

      LOL! Yes, when Hollywood begins to completely kowtow to the white supremacist, Bible-thumping coterie, perhaps they should. Who knows, maybe Jesus will arrive on the scene 100 years earlier and rescue Spartacus. ;-)

  2. I’ve learnt a lot about Kirk Douglas the past few days, and been pleasantly surprised which does not happen often.

    Anyway, I watched this for the gay bits ages ago, and it was great for that, but also, I do find Douglas a magnetic actor, and while many of the 50s/60s toga film actors were just blocks of muscular wood, he had real personality. I don’t find his face very appealing but a wonderful body and personality, for sure. It was fun to read a real review of this! I like new takes on classics.

    • So true about most of the 50s/60s toga actors being just blocks of muscular wood! I’ve lost count of the number of those films I’ve begun watching and then just given up on because I couldn’t bear to see more witless hamming. Douglas was good. Have you watched Paths of Glory? Another great film.

      “I watched this for the gay bits ages ago

      I didn’t know about that until I watched the film. I wondered how that passed muster back in 1960, given the homophobic attitudes – but then I discovered that that scene had been taken out of the film and re-added only in 1991 when the film was restored.

      • Yeah, it’s pretty famous for it, and was mentioned in The Celluloid Closet if I recall correctly, which is how I got to it.

        “I’ve lost count of the number of those films I’ve begun watching and then just given up on because I couldn’t bear to see more witless hamming. ”

        looool, yes exactly. Whether I can make it through then depends on how hot the actor is and the plot.

        I have not seen Paths of Glory, I will look into that!

  3. I was waiting for this since the news arrived. I saw Kirk Douglas first in “20,000 Leagues under the Sea”. I have seen “Spartacus”, but along time back, I do remember the final scene though.
    But I have mostly seen him in movies when he grew older. The best of them is “Greedy” and it’s funny, till the end.
    You should also try “The Bad and the Beautiful”, but o watch “Greedy” and if possible “Tough Guys”- with Burt Lancaster.
    A personal opinion- I think he was better looking than Michael Douglas.

    • Thanks for all those recommendations! The only one of these films that I’ve seen is 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Must put the others on my list too.

      I agree with you about him being better-looking than Michael Douglas. Very much so!

    • I’d been meaning, for a long time, to finally watch Spartacus – I kept thinking I’d read the book and then watch the film. Sad I got around to watching it because Kirk Douglas passed away. :-(

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