Friday, 31 August 2007

Review - Spartacus (1960)

Spartacus, based on Howard Fast's popular novel, is Stanley Kubrick's glorious masterpiece about a slave uprising in Rome in 70 B.C. A young and ambitious Kirk Douglas apparently did not care to lose the title role of Ben-Hur to Charlton Heston. On the policy that outdoing rivals is the best revenge, Douglas plotted a new project. A best selling novel on a Roman slave revolt, light on history but heavy on drama, was written into a screenplay by a writer blacklisted as a Communist sympathizer. A nearly all-star cast was assembled, which included Laurence Olivier (who reputedly thought he would perform better in the title role than Douglas, and only grudgingly accepted a secondary role). The original director of the project was fired, and in his place was brought the artistic Stanley Kubrick (whose eye for dehumanization clashed with Douglas' humanism). The Spanish army was enlisted to ape Roman legionaries, and an epic score was composed to bring orchestral notes. The result, whether foreseen or not, was one of the best films Hollywood ever produced. But it is not about history, and never was.

Douglas' Spartacus is born into slavery and spends his miserable life dreaming of the death of the institution. He believes in honesty, fair play and equality. He would rather be a singer and poet than a fighter. He wants to understand the natural world and the way it works rather than rely on hokey mythology. In short, he presages the humanism and intellectualism of modernity. As he hangs on his cross at the end, watching his now free wife and son leave Rome behind, we are to anticipate... what exactly? The coming of Christianity and a new breed of morality? A proletariat revolution? The end of Hollywood blacklisting? Perhaps all the above.

As a piece of historical validity, the movie is bollocks. Spartacus was not born into slavery, but sold into it after deserting the Roman armies. He sought not the end of slavery, but merely to turn the tables on his former masters. Nor was he crucified, but presumed dead on the battlefield.

Spartacus is a movie that firmly establishes pagan Rome as an Evil Empire, against which either Judeo-Christian morality or post-industrial humanism may be contrasted. The opening dialogue in fact offers some of the worst over-the-top moralizing in history of cinema; something about the evils of pagan Rome which the future religion of Christianity shall cleanse. I am not altogether convinced the theocracy and serfdom of Medieval Christianity was any more virtuous than the paganism and slavery of Ancient Rome.

In a sense, though, this is all beside the point. Spartacus is not about history, but aesthetics. We have superb customs and scenery (for 1960). We have a memorable score; the haunting love melody between Spartacus and Varinia, and the harsh martial blasts that announce Crassus. We have the Spanish army offering a shivering impression of what a Roman legion must have looked like marching into the field of battle. And we get a sense, thanks to the training school of Capua, of the rigors of gladiatorial study. The movie won four academy awards, three of which are in these technical areas and are all well deserved.

But most of all, we have superb acting. Forty-seven years later, Olivier's shining performance as Crassus still sets the standard for the self-aware dignitas and gravitas projected by a Roman patrician. Indeed, in the modern age one assumes a Roman patrician should have a cultured British accent. Olivier should not have suffered any insults for playing second banana to Douglas, for his commanding presence steals all the scenes in which he performs. His harangue of the Roman Senate and army before the showdown with the rebels should be required viewing for orators. Olivier is also perhaps the only actor that can convincingly deliver such lines as: 'Rome is an eternal thought in the mind of God.' Too bad the historical Crassus was neither so conservative nor as dignified (oh, but I need to remind myself this is not about history).

Charles Laughton plays another kind of patrician, one that every American frat boy trains to imitate: a senator given to looser morals and more corpulent pleasures. Laughton is delightful as the kind but wily Gracchus, lover and beloved of the people, guardian of Rome's left wing.

The real ham, and the one who actually won an academy award, is Peter Ustinov. Lentulus Batiatus is a fawning middle class Roman lanista, forever seeking profit and ingratiating advancement at the hands of his patrician betters. Crassus and Spartacus both offer, in their own ways, ideals that mean little to Batiatus' business minded pragmatism. Watch Ustinov scurry about at this deliciously pathetic “sesterci” pincher, displaced by his former slave's revolt and groveling before the sinister Crassus and benevolent Gracchus! It is one of the wonders of Hollywood's Silver Age.

Then we have Tony Curtis, perhaps best known in the modern age for contributing one half the chromosomes that created the wondrous body of Jamie Lee Curtis. But before that, the Bronx native was apparently a star in his own right. He plays Antoninus, a house servant trained in Greek culture. He finds his way into Crassus' employment. The conservative Roman senator sneers at this product of Greek aesthetics, and could find better uses for the handsome slave. The famous scene has Curtis cringing before Olivier's veiled hints of bisexuality. (In the historical world, a Roman patrician would not have had to justify his bisexuality to anyone, least of all a lowly slave, but I seem to forget this movie is not about history). In any event, Antoninus escapes to join the slave army, and becomes the educated foil to Douglas' illiterate rebel leader. The cultured slave and the warrior slave wish they could be like each other. In them we are supposed to see embodied the refined peace and just war promised by the slave revolt.

The one downside in the acting cornucopia is the fellow who played Glaborus. I am not sure of his name, but it is best forgotten. I have seen better acting from street vendors.

I should mention something about the famous scene where the survivors of the slave army stand up and shout 'I am Spartacus!' to prevent the actual Spartacus from being identified. They are, indeed, all Spartacus. For Spartacus is no longer a man; he has become an ideal, etched into the souls of all freedom loving people, breathed into the life of the yearning masses straining from oppression. I guess, once again, it is not about history.

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