Kubrick takes us back to 1st Century B.C.E. for the next stop in the Great Movies – 100 Years of Film. The classic story of a slave that leads a revolt against the Roman Empire, that has become decadent, and indulgent.
Leading the cast, and serving as executive producer is Kirk Douglas, who is joined on the screen by Laurence Olivier, Jean Simmons, Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov, Tony Curtis, and Herbert Lom.
In the title role, Douglas has his work cut out for him in this three hour plus sword and sandal epic. This is old school style film-making, from the overture (I miss those), featuring Alex North’s bombastic score, onward, this is an epic in all senses of the word.
Recruited from a slave camp by Batiatus (Ustinov), Spartacus (Douglas) is cleaned up, trained, and taught to fight as a gladiator. He’s coupled with a slave girl, Varinia (Simmons), with whom he falls in love, a moment that will serve as a catalyst for almost all that follows it.
When a moment allows the gladiators to rebel, they do, amassing an army of equally trained fighters, a group of men who are willing, and ready to take on the Roman army. As men flock to his side, the Romans prepare for the oncoming battle, and the story plays out heroically, tragically, and brilliantly.
The film, while not as gritty, violent and dirty as those that would follow it, is still vastly entertaining, features iconic imagery, battles, and an engrossing story, featuring a script by Dalton Trumbo, based on Howard Fast’s original novel.
Ustinov went home with a Best Supporting Actor, and the film itself walked away with Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, and Best Costume Design.
The film is undeniably Kubrick, there is detail, gorgeous images, and a strong cast who know what they are about. As the story plays out, we join Spartacus on his journey from slave to leader to his final fate. There are dizzying shots, those crows shots, of the gladiator army crossing the lands that lay between them and their goal are stunning.
The beautiful locations, unfortunately, sometimes give way to studio sets that, despite Kubrick’s eye, still look like sets, and those moments jarred me from the reality of the film. They never last long, however, and the film, quite possibly set the standard for any of the sword and sandal stories that came after it.
I will say it’s odd that despite all of their travels, and all of their encounters, so many of the costumes refuse to tear or become dirty… weird.
In the end, it’s a beautiful epic, Douglas embodies his role perfectly, a leader that all would follow, and only a few would truly know.
This was a lot of fun, and the recommendations that arise from it are just as sure to be a lot of fun!