Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Spartacus: A favorite movie with an interesting history


If I had a time machine, one of the many things I would do is stop in 1960 so I could watch Spartacus on the big screen. This spear-and-sandle epic based on the novel by Howard Fast is one of my all-time favorite movies.

What do I like so much about Spartacus?

- Directed by Stanley Kubrick
- Starring Kirk Douglas (love that man!)
- The Roman Empire
- Passionate script
- Great acting
- Lavish spectacle with thousands of extras
- Lots of man flesh
- Multiple dramatic scenes that reduce me to tears
- And Jean Simmons is a delight as Virinia

I don't know how many times I've watched Spartacus. I used to have it on a double VHS set that was added to a landfill long ago. Now I just request it from Netflix when necessary.

The original Spartacus movie delivers thoughtful and exciting entertainment every time. My recent research informed me that the screenwriter of Spartacus was Dalton Trumbo, a notorious blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter. Trumbo was jailed in 1947 for refusing to give information to the House Un-American Activities Committee. In the aftermath of being blacklisted, Trumbo had to earn a living writing under pseudonyms. His talent is tremendously apparent in the script for Spartacus, and Trumbo was even able to put his real name on the movie due to the support of Kirk Douglas. This is just another reason for me to admire Kirk Douglas, whose acting always pleases me.

As for the movie, it opens with Spartacus, played wonderfully by Kirk Douglas, laboring as a slave in some broiling North African mine. He is purchased by a trainer of gladiators and taken to Italy. At gladiator school his spirit suffers within the wholly inhumane system that is shaping him to kill for the entertainment of others. During his training, he gradually falls in love with one of the slave women, Virinia. To torment him, the owner of Spartacus sends Virinia to spend the night with another man. This is punishment because Spartacus won't have sex at the bidding of his master who is interested in breeding more slaves.

Despite his simmering rage, Spartacus excels in his training. The day comes when Crassus, a wealthy Roman lord, visits the school with friends and they request to see gladiators fight to the death. Spartacus survives, but morale is abnormally low after the death matches. Unknown to Spartacus, Virinia has been sold to Crassus. When Spartacus sees her being taken away, he explodes and the whole gladiator school rebels with him. This is the beginning of a massive slave revolt that will threaten Rome. Legions are marshalled to fight the slaves, and Spartacus becomes the leader of a great slave army. The desperate plight of the slaves to escape the Italian peninsula drives the rest of the story.

Spartacus is full of great scenes. One that I call the "gay scene" did not make it into the original theatrical release because, of course, no one was gay in 1960. This brilliant scene is in current releases for the home market. The Roman Crassus played by Laurence Olivier has taken Antoninus (Tony Curtis) into his bath with him. As Antoninus washes him, Crassus explains in a coded way that he wants sexual favors and that Antoninus as a slave must submit to his Roman master. The scene is shocking, beautiful, and terrifying, and I love watching it every time. It is made even more entertaining because the next time we see Antoninus, he is joining the slave army.

The most tear-jerking scene for me is before the final battle between the slaves and the Romans. At this point Virinia is nine months' pregnant and she and Spartacus are sharing their last night together. Spartacus knows that he is going to lose the battle. He knows he cannot defend his wife. He knows that he will not see his child. They hold each other and proclaim their thanks for their brief happiness together.

They just don't make movies like these anymore!

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