Theatrical release poster by Reynold Brown
|Directed by||Stanley Kubrick|
|Produced by||Edward Lewis|
|Screenplay by||Dalton Trumbo|
by Howard Fast
|Narrated by||Vic Perrin|
|Music by||Alex North|
|Edited by||Robert Lawrence|
|Distributed by||Universal International|
|Box office||$60 million|
Spartacus is a 1960 American epic historical drama film directed by Stanley Kubrick. The screenplay by Dalton Trumbo was based on the novel Spartacus by Howard Fast. It was inspired by the life story of the leader of a slave revolt in antiquity, Spartacus, and the events of the Third Servile War.
The film starred Kirk Douglas as Spartacus, Laurence Olivier as the Roman general and politician Marcus Licinius Crassus, Peter Ustinov, who won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, as slave trader Lentulus Batiatus, John Gavin as Julius Caesar, Jean Simmons as Varinia, Charles Laughton as Sempronius Gracchus and Tony Curtis as Antoninus. The film won four Academy Awards in all.
Douglas, whose Bryna Productions company was producing the film, removed original director Anthony Mann after the first week of shooting. Kubrick, with whom Douglas had worked before, was brought on board to take over direction. It is the only film directed by Kubrick where he did not have complete artistic control.
Screenwriter Dalton Trumbo was blacklisted at the time as one of the Hollywood Ten. Douglas publicly announced that Trumbo was the screenwriter of Spartacus, and President-elect John F. Kennedy crossed American Legion picket lines to view the film, helping to end blacklisting. The author of the novel on which it is based, Howard Fast, was also blacklisted, and originally had to self-publish it.
In the 1st century BC, the Roman Republic has slid into corruption, its menial work done by armies of slaves. One of these, a proud and gifted man named Spartacus (Kirk Douglas), is so uncooperative in his servitude that he is sentenced to fight as a gladiator. He is trained at a school run by the unctuous Roman businessman Lentulus Batiatus (Peter Ustinov), who instructs Spartacus's trainer Marcellus (Charles McGraw) to not overdo his indoctrination because he thinks "He has quality." Amid the abuse, Spartacus forms a quiet relationship with a serving woman named Varinia (Jean Simmons), whom he refuses to rape when she is sent to "entertain" him in his cell.
Batiatus receives a visit from the Roman senator Marcus Licinius Crassus (Laurence Olivier), who aims to become dictator of Rome. Crassus buys Varinia on a whim, and for the amusement of his companions arranges for Spartacus and three others to fight in pairs. When Spartacus is disarmed, his opponent, an African named Draba (Woody Strode), spares his life in a burst of compassion and attacks the Roman audience, but is killed by an arena guard and Crassus. The next day, with the school's atmosphere still tense over this episode, Batiatus takes Varinia away to Crassus's house in Rome. Spartacus kills Marcellus, who was taunting him over this, and their fight escalates into a riot. The gladiators overwhelm their guards and escape into the Italian countryside.
Spartacus is elected chief of the fugitives and decides to lead them out of Italy and back to their homes. They plunder Roman country estates as they go, collecting enough money to buy sea transport from Rome's foes, the pirates of Cilicia. Countless other slaves join the group, making it as large as an army. One of the new arrivals is Varinia, who escaped while being delivered to Crassus. Another is a slave entertainer named Antoninus (Tony Curtis), who also fled Crassus's service after the Roman tried to seduce him. Privately, Spartacus feels mentally inadequate because of his lack of education during years of servitude. However, he proves an excellent leader and organizes his diverse followers into a tough and self-sufficient community. Varinia, now his informal wife, becomes pregnant by him, and he also comes to regard the spirited Antoninus as a sort of son.
The Roman Senate becomes increasingly alarmed as Spartacus defeats the multiple armies it sends against him. Crassus's populist opponent Gracchus (Charles Laughton) knows that his rival will try to use the crisis as a justification for seizing control of the Roman army. To try and prevent this, Gracchus channels as much military power as possible into the hands of his own protege, a young senator named Julius Caesar (John Gavin). Although Caesar lacks Crassus's contempt for the lower classes of Rome, he mistakes the man's rigid outlook for nobility. Thus, when Gracchus reveals that he has bribed the Cilicians to get Spartacus out of Italy and rid Rome of the slave army, Caesar regards such tactics as beneath him and goes over to Crassus.
Crassus uses a bribe of his own to make the pirates abandon Spartacus and has the Roman army secretly force the rebels away from the coastline towards Rome. Amid panic that Spartacus means to sack the city, the Senate gives Crassus absolute power. Now surrounded by Romans, Spartacus convinces his men to die fighting. Just by rebelling and proving themselves human, he says that they have struck a blow against slavery. In the ensuing battle, after initially breaking the ranks of Crassus's legions, the slave army ends up trapped between Crassus and two other forces advancing from behind, and most of them are massacred. Afterward, the Romans try to locate the rebel leader for special punishment by offering a pardon (and return to enslavement) if the men will identify Spartacus, living or dead. Every surviving man responds by shouting "I'm Spartacus!" (an idea from Fast's novel, not documented by history). As a result, Crassus has them all sentenced to death by crucifixion along the Via Appia.
Meanwhile, Crassus has found Varinia and Spartacus's newborn son and has taken them prisoner. He is disturbed by the idea that Spartacus can command more love and loyalty than he can and hopes to compensate by making Varinia as devoted to him as she was to her former husband. When she rejects him, he furiously seeks out Spartacus (whom he recognizes from having watched him in the arena) and forces him to fight Antoninus to the death. The survivor is to be crucified, along with all the other men captured after the great battle. Spartacus kills Antoninus to spare him this fate. The incident leaves Crassus worried about Spartacus's potential to live in legend as a martyr. In other matters, he is also worried about Caesar, who he senses will someday eclipse him.
Gracchus, having seen Rome fall into tyranny, commits suicide. Before doing so, he bribes his friend Batiatus to rescue Spartacus's family from Crassus and carry them away to freedom. On the way out of Rome, the group pass under Spartacus's cross. Varinia is able to comfort him in his dying moments by showing him his little son, who will grow up without ever having been a slave.
- Kirk Douglas as Spartacus
- Laurence Olivier as Crassus
- Jean Simmons as Varinia
- Charles Laughton as Gracchus
- Peter Ustinov as Batiatus
- Tony Curtis as Antoninus
- John Gavin as Julius Caesar
- John Dall as Marcus Glabrus
- Nina Foch as Helena Glabrus
- John Ireland as Crixus
- Herbert Lom as Tigranes Levantus (pirate envoy)
- Charles McGraw as Marcellus
- Joanna Barnes as Claudia Marius
- Harold J. Stone as David
- Woody Strode as Draba
- Peter Brocco as Ramon
- Paul Lambert as Gannicus
- Robert J. Wilke as Guard Captain
- Nick Dennis as Dionysius (credited as Nicholas)
- John Hoyt as Caius
- Frederick Worlock as Laelius (credited as Frederic)
The development of Spartacus was partly instigated by Kirk Douglas's failure to win the title role in William Wyler's Ben-Hur. Douglas had worked with Wyler before on Detective Story, and was disappointed when Wyler chose Charlton Heston instead. Shortly after, Edward (Eddie) Lewis, a vice president in Douglas's film company, Bryna Productions (named after Douglas's mother), had Douglas read Howard Fast's novel, Spartacus, which had a related theme—an individual who challenges the might of the Roman Empire—and Douglas was impressed enough to purchase an option on the book from Fast with his own financing. Universal Studios eventually agreed to finance the film after Douglas persuaded Olivier, Laughton, and Ustinov to act in it. Lewis became the producer of the film, with Douglas taking executive producer credit. Lewis subsequently produced other films for Douglas.
At the same time Yul Brynner was planning his own Spartacus film for United Artists with Douglas's agent Lew Wasserman suggesting he try having his film produced for Universal Studios. With Dalton Trumbo's screenplay being completed in two weeks, Universal and Douglas won the "Spartacus" race.
Howard Fast was originally hired to adapt his own novel as a screenplay, but he had difficulty working in the format. He was replaced by Dalton Trumbo, who had been blacklisted as one of the Hollywood Ten, and intended to use the pseudonym "Sam Jackson".
Kirk Douglas insisted that Trumbo be given screen credit for his work, which helped to break the blacklist. Trumbo had been jailed for contempt of Congress in 1950, after which he had survived by writing screenplays under assumed names. Douglas's intervention on his behalf was praised as an act of courage.
In his autobiography, Douglas states that this decision was motivated by a meeting that he, Edward Lewis, and Kubrick had regarding whose name(s) to put against the screenplay in the movie credits, given Trumbo's shaky position with Hollywood executives. One idea was to credit Lewis as co-writer or sole writer, but Lewis vetoed both suggestions. Kubrick then suggested that his own name be used. Douglas and Lewis found Kubrick's eagerness to take credit for Trumbo's work revolting, and the next day, Douglas called the gate at Universal saying, "I'd like to leave a pass for Dalton Trumbo." Douglas writes, "For the first time in ten years, [Trumbo] walked on to a studio lot. He said, 'Thanks, Kirk, for giving me back my name.'"
Blacklisting effectively ended in 1960 when it lost credibility. Trumbo was publicly given credit for two major films: Otto Preminger made public that Trumbo wrote the screenplay for the hit, Exodus, and Kirk Douglas publicly announced that Trumbo was the screenwriter of Spartacus. Further, President John F. Kennedy publicly ignored a demonstration organized by the American Legion and went to see the movie.
After David Lean turned down an offer to direct, Spartacus was to be directed by Anthony Mann, then best known for his Westerns such as Winchester '73 and The Naked Spur. Douglas fired Mann at the end of the first week of shooting, in which the opening sequence in the quarry had been filmed. "He seemed scared of the scope of the picture," wrote Douglas in his autobiography; yet a year later Mann would embark on another epic of similar size, El Cid. The dismissal (or resignation) of Mann is mysterious since the opening sequences, filmed at Death Valley, Nevada, set the style for the rest of the movie.
Thirty-year-old Stanley Kubrick was hired to take over. He had already directed four feature films (including Paths of Glory, also starring Douglas). Spartacus was a bigger project by far, with a budget of $12 million (equivalent to approximately $98 million in today's funds) and a cast of 10,500, a daunting project for such a young director. Paths of Glory, his previous film, had only been budgeted at $935,000.
Spartacus was filmed using the 35 mm Super 70 Technirama format and then blown up to 70 mm film. This was a change for Kubrick, who preferred using the standard spherical format. This process allowed him to achieve ultra-high definition and to capture large panoramic scenes, including one with 8,000 trained soldiers from Spain representing the Roman army. Kubrick had wanted to shoot the picture in Rome with cheap extras and resources, but Edward Muhl, president of Universal Pictures, wanted to make an example of the film and prove that a successful epic could be made in Hollywood itself and "stem the flood of 'runaway' producers heading for Europe". A compromise was reached by filming the intimate scenes in Hollywood, and the battle scenes, at Kubrick's request, in Spain. Kubrick found working outdoors or in real locations to be distracting; he believed the actors would benefit more from working on a sound stage, where they could fully concentrate. To create the illusion of the large crowds that play such an essential role in the film, Kubrick's crew used three-channel sound equipment to record 76,000 spectators at a Michigan State – Notre Dame college football game shouting "Hail, Crassus!" and "I'm Spartacus!"
The battle scenes were filmed on a vast plain outside Madrid. Eight thousand trained soldiers from the Spanish infantry were used to double as the Roman army. Kubrick directed the armies from the top of specially constructed towers. However, he eventually had to cut all but one of the gory battle scenes, due to negative audience reactions at preview screenings. So precise was Kubrick, that even in arranging the bodies of the slaughtered slaves he had each "corpse" assigned with a number and instructions.
Disputes broke out during the filming. Cinematographer Russell Metty, a veteran with experience working in big pictures such as Orson Welles' The Stranger (1946) and Touch of Evil (1958) and Howard Hawks's Bringing Up Baby (1938), complained about Kubrick's unusually precise and detailed instructions for the film's camerawork and disagreed with Kubrick's use of light. On one occasion he threatened to quit to Ed Muhl, to which Kubrick told him: "You can do your job by sitting in your chair and shutting up. I'll be the director of photography." Metty later muted his criticisms after winning the Oscar for Best Cinematography. Kubrick wanted to shoot at a slow pace of two camera set-ups a day, but the studio insisted that he do 32; a compromise of eight had to be made.
Despite the film being a huge box office success, gaining four Oscars, and being considered to rank among the very best of historical epics, Kubrick disowned the movie, and did not include it as part of his canon. Although his personal mark is a distinct part of the final picture, his contract did not give him complete control over the filming, the only occasion he did not exercise such control over one of his films.
The original score for Spartacus was composed and conducted by six-time Academy Award nominee Alex North. It was nominated by the American Film Institute for their list of greatest film scores. It is a textbook example of how modernist compositional styles can be adapted to the Hollywood leitmotif technique. North's score is epic, as befits the scale of the film. After extensive research of music of that period, North gathered a collection of antique instruments that, while not authentically Roman, provided a strong dramatic effect. These instruments included a sarrusophone, Israeli recorder, Chinese oboe, lute, mandolin, Yugoslav flute, kythara, dulcimer, and bagpipes. North's prize instrument was the ondioline, similar to an earlier version of the electronic synthesizer, which had never been used in film before. Much of the music is written without a tonal center, or flirts with tonality in ways that most film composers would not risk. One theme is used to represent both slavery and freedom, but is given different values in different scenes, so that it sounds like different themes. The love theme for Spartacus and Varinia is the most accessible theme in the film, and there is a harsh trumpet figure for Crassus.
The soundtrack album runs less than forty-five minutes and is not very representative of the score. There were plans to re-record a significant amount of the music with North's friend and fellow film composer Jerry Goldsmith, but the project kept getting delayed. Goldsmith died in 2004. Numerous bootleg recordings have been made, but none has good sound quality.
Political commentary, Christianity, and reception
The film parallels 1950s American history, specifically HUAC hearings and the civil rights movement. The hearings, where witnesses were demanded to "name names" of supposed communist sympathizers, resemble the climactic scene when the slaves, asked by Crassus to give up their leader by pointing him out from the multitude, each stand up to proclaim, "I am Spartacus". Howard Fast, who wrote the book on which the film was based, "was jailed for his refusal to testify, and wrote the novel Spartacus while in prison". The comment of how slavery was a central part of American history is pointed to in the beginning in the scenes featuring Draba and Spartacus. Draba sacrifices himself by attacking Crassus rather than kill Spartacus. This scene could point to the "fact" that Americans are indebted to the suffering of African Americans, who played a major role in building the country. The fight to end segregation and to promote the equality of African Americans is seen in the mixing of races within the gladiator school as well as in the army of Spartacus where all fight for freedom. Another instance of the film's allusions to the political climate of the United States is hinted at in the beginning where Rome is described as a republic "that lay fatally stricken with a disease called human slavery", and describing Spartacus as a "proud, rebellious son dreaming of the death of slavery, 2000 years before it finally would die"; thus the ethical and political vision of the film is first introduced as a foreground for the ensuing action.
The voice-over at the beginning of the film also depicts Rome as destined to fail by the rise of Christianity:
In the last century before the birth of the new faith called Christianity which was destined to overthrow the pagan tyranny of Rome and bring about a new society, the Roman Republic stood at the very center of the civilized world. "Of all things fairest" sang the poet, "First among cities and home of the Gods is Golden Rome." Yet even at the zenith of her pride and power, the Republic lay fatally stricken with the disease called human slavery. The age of the dictator was at hand, waiting in shadows for the event to bring forth. In that same century, in the conquered Greek province of Thrace, an illiterate slave woman added to her master's wealth by giving birth to a son whom she names Spartacus. A proud rebellious son, who was sold to living death in the mines of Libya, before his thirteenth birthday. There under whip and chain and sun he lived out his youth and his young manhood, dreaming the death of slavery 2000 years before it finally would die.
The film's release occasioned both applause from the mainstream media and protests from anti-communist groups such as the National Legion of Decency, which picketed theaters showcasing the film. The controversy over its "legitimacy as an expression of national aspirations wasn’t stilled until the newly elected John F. Kennedy crossed a picket line set up by anti-communist organizers to attend the film".
Re-releases and restoration
The film was re-released in 1967, without 23 minutes that had been in the original release. For the 1991 release, the same 23 minutes were restored by Robert A. Harris, as were another 14 minutes that had been cut from the film before its original release.
Steven Spielberg gave his backing to the restoration effort and recommended that Stanley Kubrick be informed of the project. Kubrick, who had disowned the film, had nothing to do with the physical restoration of the film, though he gave his approval to the effort; and the producers wanted his final approval of their work. Universal's negative was unusable because it had been cut twice and the colors were badly faded. Kubrick's print of the film, which was donated to the Museum of Modern Art, could not be used for the restoration because it was considered archival. The original studio black-and-white separation prints, used as a backup in 1960, were used, though the processing lab had to develop a new lens capable of printing the Technirama frame without losing fidelity. The restoration cost almost $1 million.
The 1991 restoration includes several violent battle sequences that had been left out because of the negative reaction of preview audiences. It also has a bath scene in which the Roman patrician and general Crassus (Olivier) attempts to seduce his slave Antoninus (Curtis), speaking about the analogy of "eating oysters" and "eating snails" to express his opinion that sexual preference is a matter of taste rather than morality. When the film was restored (two years after Olivier's death), the original dialogue recording of this scene was missing; it had to be re-dubbed. Tony Curtis, by then 66, was able to re-record his part, but Crassus's voice was an impersonation of Olivier by Anthony Hopkins, who had been suggested by Olivier's widow, Joan Plowright. A talented mimic, he had been a protegé of Olivier during Olivier's days as the National Theatre's artistic director, and had portrayed Crassus in the Jeff Wayne musical album. Kubrick faxed instructions as to how the scene should be played. The actors separately recorded their dialogue.
Four minutes of the film are lost, because of Universal's mishandling of its film prints in the 1970s. These scenes relate to the character Gracchus (Laughton), including a scene in which he commits suicide. The audio tracks of these scenes have survived. They are included on the Criterion Collection DVD, alongside production stills of some of the lost footage.
In 2015, for its 55th anniversary, the film went through an extensive 4K digital restoration, from a 6K scan of the 1991 reconstruction of the film. The 2015 restoration is 12 minutes longer. The original, 6-channel audio track was also remixed and remastered in 7.1 surround sound. Robert A. Harris oversaw the 2015 digital restoration. The film was re-released to Blu-ray Disc on October 6, 2015, featuring a 1080p transfer of the 2015 restoration in 2.20:1 aspect ratio and 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio surround sound. Special features include a featurette on the 2015 restoration, a 2015 interview with Kirk Douglas, and several features from the Criterion Collection DVD.
The 2015 restoration had originally been scheduled to have its theatrical premiere in March 2015 at the TCM Classic Film Festival, but was pulled from the festival, and from a July 2015 engagement in Chicago, because the restoration had not been completed in time. The DCP version of the restoration played at Film Forum in New York City, November 4-12, 2015.
Awards and nominations
In June 2008, American Film Institute revealed its "10 Top 10"—the best ten films in ten "classic" American film genres—after polling over 1,500 people from the creative community. Spartacus was acknowledged as the fifth best film in the epic genre. AFI also included the film in AFI's 100 Years...100 Thrills (#62), AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes and Villains (Spartacus #22 Hero), AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition) (#81), and AFI's 100 Years...100 Cheers (#44).
The movie received mixed reviews when first released, but over time its reputation has gained in stature. Critics such as Roger Ebert have argued that the film has flaws, though his review is generally positive otherwise. When released, the movie was attacked by both the American Legion and the Hollywood columnist Hedda Hopper because of its connection with Trumbo. Hopper stated, "The story was sold to Universal from a book written by a commie and the screen script was written by a commie, so don't go to see it."
In the climactic scene, recaptured slaves are asked to identify Spartacus in exchange for leniency; instead, each slave proclaims himself to be Spartacus, thus sharing his fate. The documentary Trumbo suggests that this scene was meant to dramatize the solidarity of those accused of being Communist sympathizers during the McCarthy Era who refused to implicate others, and thus were blacklisted.
Regarding this scene, an in-joke is used in Kubrick's next film, Lolita (1962), where Humbert Humbert asks Clare Quilty, "Are you Quilty?" to which he replies, "No, I'm Spartacus. Have you come to free the slaves or something?" Many subsequent films, television shows and advertisements have referenced or parodied the iconic scene. One of these is the film Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979), which reverses the situation by depicting an entire group undergoing crucifixion all claiming to be Brian, who, it has just been announced, is eligible for release ("I'm Brian." "No, I'm Brian." "I'm Brian and so's my wife.") Further examples have been documented in David Hughes' The Complete Kubrick and Jon Solomon's The Ancient World in Cinema.
Comic book adaption
- List of American films of 1960
- List of films set in ancient Rome
- List of historical drama films
- List of films featuring slavery
- List of films based on military books (pre-1775)
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...it was Otto Preminger, the director, who broke the blacklist months later by publicly announcing that he had hired Mr. Trumbo to do the screenplay
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He recalled how his name returned to the screen in 1960 with the help of Spartacus star Kirk Douglas: 'I had been working on Spartacus for about a year'
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UPDATE: Because of unforeseen technical problems, Universal's 4K restoration of SPARTACUS was not completed in time for our scheduled screenings. We will be showing the 2K restoration instead.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Spartacus (film).|
- Spartacus at the Internet Movie Database
- Spartacus at Rotten Tomatoes
- Criterion Collection essay by Stephen Farber
- Rare, Never-Seen: Spartacus at 50 at LIFE