For 1 Year, 100 Movies, contributor/filmmaker Trey Hock is watching all of AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Movies list (compiled in 2007) in one year. His reactions to each film are recorded here twice a week until the year (and list) is up!
I have stared at a blank page for a while on this entry. I know that Stanley Kubrick would try and distance himself from “Spartacus,” saying that the studio had too much sway in the final outcome. It does stand out as somewhat dissimilar from his other, later works, but it is still a huge movie. I will tell you that no matter what I write, it will in no way do a sufficient service to this truly epic film.
Its scope makes it almost impossible to write something short, simple and straightforward about “Spartacus”. If you want to discuss storytelling, shot structure, and modernist filmmaking, we can do that. Want to talk politics in modern cinema? “Spartacus” gives us many points of entry. Queer theory anyone? We can talk about subversive movie-making and the sexuality of visual storytelling under the Production Code with this movie.
So do you understand my dilemma? “Spartacus” is way too big.
Still, I’m gonna give it a try. I will focus on the story, but make slight diversions to touch on other issues. Deep breath, and. . .
“Spartacus” is the story of a slave, Spartacus (Kirk Douglas), who is trained to become a gladiator. When two Roman noblemen, Crassus (Laurence Olivier) and Glabrus (John Dall), arrive and demand a spectacle, a fight to the death between two pairs of prospective gladiators, it breeds unrest in the remaining gladiators-to-be. Crassus and Glabrus return to Rome, but the gladiators revolt and take over the training facility. In this scene, Spartacus emerges as the clear leader, and defines what this new force will stand for.
Douglas is awesome. Kubrick has total control of his shots and almost instantly conveys the emotional content of this moment through his framing and composition. Spartacus is calm, cool, and in control.
His main adversary is Crassus, a senator of Rome, who aspires to become a singular dictator. Olivier’s performance is so compact and well developed that he turns Crassus into an ambitious patriot, who gets set astray by his love of his country. He is sympathetic and complex. In this scene, we see that there is much more to Crassus than a lust for power. His tastes are more diverse.
This scene is one of the more controversial and famous. Under the Production Code, one couldn’t openly discuss matters of homosexuality. Instead writers, actors and directors had to mask their intentions with a code of their own. Oysters and snails are references to male and female genitalia, and this is a philosophical discussion on whether being straight or gay is a question of morality. Pretty clever. I wish I could have sat next to someone who didn’t get the coded language in 1960, when this movie came out. I’m sure there were plenty of confused faces.
Because Antoninus’ tastes were dissimilar to Crassus’, Antoninus (Tony Curtis) decides to skedaddle and joins Spartacus’ army. There, Antoninus wants to fight, but for the time being Spartacus has other plans for him.
One of the best things about “Spartacus” are the few scenes between Spartacus and Varinia (Jean Simmons). Here Spartacus discusses his freedom and lack of learned knowledge.
This moment is tender and real. It is passionate, yet not over done. It is excellent filmmaking.
The final two scenes I will offer point to the final, and inevitable outcome of “Spartacus.”
We see that Spartacus is aware that his death may be coming, but even in death there is hope and freedom. This next scene points to the impending loss of the Senate of Rome and the rise of the Empire.
This one scene masterfully, and without tedious exposition, presents both sides. You can have unwavering protection for Rome but will live under a dictator, or you get to live free in a democratic state, but must allow for the possibility and practice of corruption. Those are the two choices, even today.
We will meet up with Stanley Kubrick further up the list, but even though he did not see “Spartacus” as representative of his style and artistry, it is still remarkable.
We should all be so lucky as to have “Spartacus” as our worst or most disappointing achievement.
Next up #80 The Apartment (1960)