Grab your Gladiator helmet and take a trip back to the ancient age of empires; the legend of Spartacus lives on in what remains one of the most tremendous epics in cinema’s history.
Don’t pretend that you don’t know his name – Stanley Kubrick, beloved by movie patricians, university lecturers and up and coming directors-to-be; few would argue that he’s the single most influential filmmaker of modern cinema. Interestingly enough, his classic sword-and-sandals behemoth Spartacus does not come across as a typically Kubrick-ian film at first glance. It’s probably better remembered as one of those many historical epics á la Ben Hur that swept 50’s and 60’s Golden Age Hollywood. It does predate most of his signature work, but upon closer inspection, there’s definitely hints that a then fresh-faced, thirty-year-old Kubrick was well on his way to developing his movie-making mojo – despite the fact that he went on to disown the film, since he did not have complete control over the filming process.
Based upon Howard Fast’s classic novel, in turn inspired by the events of the Gladiator War of roughly 70 BC – Spartacus tells the tale of the titular hero, played by the mighty Kirk Douglas, and his rise from simple slave of the Roman Empire to leader of the slave revolt, amassing a mighty army to take down the very republic responsible for his imprisonment. Sentenced to battle fellow slaves to the death, one particular fight of Spartacus’ ends in a riot, allowing the imprisoned to overthrow their oppressors and conquer Italy. Upon appointing Spartacus their chief, he gathers a hefty following and plots to march on Roman Senator Crassus (Lawrence Olivier) and his congress, abolishing slavery once and for all – but things, unfortunately, go awry…
Filmed on a whopping $12 million budget ($90 million adjusted for inflation – an enormity for its time), Spartacus was one giant step up from Kubrick’s previous film, Paths of Glory, which had less than $1 million to work with. Every dollar was milked to the director’s advantage, and it shows – the dazzling set design of the towering temples and palaces of Rome, Russell Metty’s beautiful cinematography and rich use of yellow and blue lighting that truly pops in glorious technicolour, and Alex North’s thundering score, which truly provides the film its grand, epic scale. It’s unafraid to open with a 5-minute overture of nothing but black screen and the theme song, something that still effectively gets you squirming in your seat with excitement.
Intriguingly, the most powerful scenes are not the ones featuring great war schematics, but rather the more intimate moments of the love story between Spartacus and Varnia (Jean Simmons), a former slave girl who takes a liking to Spartacus after he refuses his captor’s wishes to rape her. It’s the kind of romance that only classic Hollywood could produce; a pair so hopelessly devoted to each other that it can only end in tragedy – it’s heart-warming, and gut-wrenching.
Of course, it all leads to the long-awaited battle sequence between the slave army and the Romans. When we finally do arrive there it’s nothing short of breathtaking; a panorama of 8000 mercenaries – actual trained soldiers from Spain – marching in formation across the countryside towards Spartacus’ clan. It’s far more effective than any CG-clone army seen far too often in cinema today.
Post-battle heralds the film’s most famous scene; surrounded by Crassus’ men, the surviving slaves are told to identify their leader, only to martyr themselves by each shouting “I’m Spartacus!” – temporarily saving their captain from death by crucifixion. It’s a great sequence, parodied countless times (the best in Monty Python’s Life of Brian), and proves – like the film itself – that something so magnificently crafted can withstand the test of time, inspire and entertain audiences for generations to come.
Images courtesy of Universal Pictures