Movie Review: Spartacus (1960)

From the earlier days of ‘our people’ _____ 9/10

spartacusTigranes Levantus: If you looked into a magic crystal, you saw your army destroyed and yourself dead. If you saw that in the future, as I’m sure you’re seeing it now, would you continue to fight?
Spartacus: Yes.
Tigranes Levantus: Knowing that you must lose?
Spartacus: Knowing we can. All men lose when they die and all men die. But a slave and a free man lose different things.
Tigranes Levantus: They both lose life.
Spartacus: When a free man dies, he loses the pleasure of life. A slave loses his pain. Death is the only freedom a slave knows. That’s why he’s not afraid of it. That’s why we’ll win.

Funny how so many of the classics elude us as we progress through our lives. Spartacus is one of them. What a sad miss for me, realizing now having watched courtesy Turner Classic Movies (TCM) one of the watershed movies of political freedom in all times. Send yourself back to 1960 when the film was created and produced—this was an original ‘Rocky‘ affair where Douglas raised the money, contributed his own, produced, acted, and helped get the coffee; it was an era of the butch haircut, Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle, where men were men and crazed US generals were planning a preemptive nuclear attack on the Soviet Union.

Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Novel Howard Fast
Screenplay Dalton Trumbo

Kirk Douglas … Spartacus
Laurence Olivier … Marcus Crassus
Jean Simmons … Varinia
Charles Laughton … Sempronius Gracchus
Peter Ustinov … Lentulus Batiatus
John Gavin … Julius Caesar
Nina Foch … Helena Glabrus
John Ireland … Crixus
Tony Curtis …  Antoninus

You have to wonder what Kirk Douglas was thinking to tackle so ambitious a project exploring the dimensions of human freedom in ancient Rome when even to think about changing the established order meant death, usually slow and painful. And Spartacus is a real person, beginning his life as a slave and becoming a gladiator who broke free to challenge the Empire, you can look it up. The book behind the movie, also named Spartacus, is from noted biographer, Howard Fast… who wrote several great freedom-person biosthinking now of a truly great one I read Citizen Tom Paine.

The film starts with Spartacus working with a pick in the Libyan mines and showing his attitude, through an altercation with a guard. Shortly thereafter, a local businessman/gladiator trainer Lentulus Batiatus (Peter Ustinov) drops in to visit the boss man, looking to acquire some new talent. Naturally, he picks Spartacus.

At this point the film could substitute for footage in Gladiator, only lacking the superior special effects and exercise physiology benefit of 50 years down the road. Douglas has the physicality for the role, as well as the mindfulness to convey a broad sympathy for those subject to injustice. Batiatus is a good boss/trainer, sensitive to the well being of his gladiator stock, partly caring for them as human beings, but also aware of the winds of power. For example, he has to be nice to the Roman super wombat overlord types like Marcus Crassus (Laurence Olivier); Crassus does pay a visit, setting up the sequence leading to Spartacus’ liberation and eventual creation of a large force of former slaves seeking to ‘opt out.’

In those days, if you wanted to quit, to tell the authorities you had a new opportunity you wanted to check on, it wasn’t like deciding today that according to Article 1, Section 9 of the US Constitution, you aren’t liable for any federal direct taxes. No sir. Back then, for the crime of disobedience, the authorities didn’t just hit you with subpoenas, warrants, and throw your ass in jail for a few years. They came after you with a friggin’ army, and if you were lucky you died in battle, unlucky they strapped you to a cross to make you a scarecrow. Highly uncivilized. So the conflict is established—Spartacus representing the freedom fighters vs. Crassus leading the seemingly invincible statist authority.

It’s a beautiful story from the freedom fighter’s side: Jean Simmons as Spartacus’ love interest/wife Varinia is the personification of what men seek freedom for; Tony Curtis as Antoninus adds a cultural and artistic vision to the enterprise. After all, Spartacus, aside from taking some reparations from the recently dispossessed owner class, really doesn’t want anything from the Roman hierarchy except to be left alone, to be left free. But the Roman government,[1] effectively dominated by Crassus, isn’t about to tolerate this ahead-of-its-time experiment in civil rights.

Spartacus is a movie explicitly about human freedom… at the most basic level: the fight to emerge from slavery. One can quibble with some of the characteristics of the film: many in the Objectivist/positive-ending camp object to the Alamo syndrome, where the good guys fight the valiant fight but prevaileth naught; there’s a lack of realism in the 1960s films that we’ve come to expect 40-50 years later (compare True Grit (1969) with True Grit (2011)); and it was simply a major human challenge to be able to make such epics back in the day, nature has a bigger say when technology isn’t mature. But each of those apparent clouds has a silver lining, too. For one thing, it’s nice to go back and soak in the relative simplicity of life on the planet in 1960—at least if you were “free, white, (American), and 21.”

Also, at the time, Kirk Douglas was making a bold political statement about more than slavery in 100-ish BC. Yes sir, there’s no doubt in my mind Kirk is one of the Hollywood icons who took risks vis a vis our own budding system of tyranny: the US Cartel State-Orama. The so-called Red Scare and our government’s Movie-Business Inquisition in the late 1940s and early 1950s targeted large numbers of intellectuals and writers who tended to favor communism and socialism politically… which political views, of course, are a matter of right and protected by the US Constitution. Didn’t matter, small prosecutorial armies of fascist goons backed by the Grand Poobahs of Crony Capitalism descended upon this particular branch of the creative class and ruined lives.

Spartacus’ screenwriter Dalton Trumbo was one such ruinee, blacklisted for ‘un-American’ ideology, whatever that is. Douglas effected Trumbo’s comeback by boldly identifying the writer in the leading credits. That took balls, the same kind of balls it must have required to tweak the nose of the Roman Empire. Then, just three years previously, Douglas starred in another Stanley Kubrick directed social-message movie Paths of Glory. This antiwar movie set in the bowels of World War 1 is simply one of the first (1957) and bravest SunFLOWerstatements against the Machinery of War (the hierarchical financier state) that you will ever see. Its 8.6 rating on IMDb shows the celestial status it holds among film lovers around the world.

Freedom and Peace: made for each other.

[1] Charles Laughton as Senate leader Sempronius Gracchus does a wonderful job expressing whatever ideals of liberty and justice were yet animating the dying republican embers of the Roman system. Sempronius exudes intelligence and humor, finding common cause with Spartacus, even though he must be circumspect.


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