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TCM Spotlight: Sword and Sandal
Remind Me


Monday, February 20 10:45 am ET

From 73-71 B.C., the empire of Rome was shaken by a massive slave rebellion. The uprising began when Spartacus, an enslaved bandit from Thrace (now part of Bulgaria), and about seventy other slaves escaped from a gladiator training school run by Lentulus Batiatus at Capua. Over the next two years, Spartacus and his ragtag army repeatedly defeated Roman armies and even threatened Rome itself. Eventually, the rebel slave was defeated by a Roman army commanded by M. Licinius Crassus. Spartacus was killed and some 6,000 of his followers crucified along Appian Way between Capua and Rome.

Though Roman histories tend, for obvious reasons, to downplay the importance of Spartacus, he has in modern times been cited as an inspiring figure to revolutionaries everywhere. Three major novels were written about him and one of these, by the leftist writer Howard Fast, found its way into Kirk Douglas' hands. According to Douglas: "I was intrigued by the story of Spartacus the slave, dreaming of the death of slavery, driving into the armor of Rome the wedge that would eventually destroy her." While not historically accurate, Douglas' words give some sense of how much the project meant to him. His production company, Bryna, optioned Fast's book and Douglas took on the dual roles of executive producer and star.

Fast insisted that he write the script but when he turned in the first sixty pages, Douglas decided that he needed a real screenwriter and he needed one fast. He turned to blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo. One of the Hollywood Ten, Trumbo had in 1950 defied the House Un-American Activities Committee and been sentenced to a year in jail. Over the next decade, he cobbled together a living by writing scripts under various pseudonyms (one of which, "Robert Rich," even won an Oscar for The Brave One (1956). Without Fast's knowledge, Douglas approached Trumbo and set him to work. At this time, there was no talk of giving Trumbo screenwriting credit and so his used the alias "Sam Jackson."

Next, Douglas needed a director. Though Universal insisted that Anthony Mann direct, Douglas thought Mann was wrong for the film. "I like people who come up with ideas to make things better; Tony Mann had very little to say. He seemed scared of the scope of the picture. I fought with the studio to replace him. But they had done well financially with him, and ignored all my pleas." Mann began shooting on January 27, 1959, and initially all went well. After directing the opening sequence at the mining camp, production moved to the scenes at the gladiator school. Here Douglas and Mann clashed over Mann's direction of Peter Ustinov. Douglas thought Mann too deferential to the great actor: "He let Peter Ustinov direct his own scenes by taking every suggestion Peter made. The suggestions were good - for Peter, but not necessarily for the picture." On February 13, Douglas told Mann he was fired. Douglas then proposed that Stanley Kubrick take the helm but Universal balked. Douglas had been impressed with the young director when they made Paths of Glory two years earlier. But with pressure mounting and the clock ticking, Universal reluctantly agreed to hire Kubrick. This put the 30-year-old director in charge of the most expensive film made in Hollywood up to that point ($12 million). The young director read the script over the weekend and was ready to shoot the next Monday, on February 16.

Kubrick had just emerged from a six-month mental ordeal with Marlon Brando over the direction of One-Eyed Jacks (1961), and he badly needed a job. But with production already in full gear, he had no hand in the script, an anomaly in his career, and was, in his words, merely a "hired hand." Over the years, Kubrick repeatedly denigrated the film. In 1968 he said: "Then I did Spartacus, which was the only film that I did not have control over, and which I feel was not enhanced by that fact. It all really just came down to the fact that there are thousands of decisions that have to be made, and that if you don't make them yourself, and if you're not on the same wavelength as the people who are making them, it becomes a very painful experience, which it was." According to Kubrick, Spartacus "had everything but a good story." In his next film, Lolita (1962), Kubrick has Clare Quilty (Peter Sellers) respond to a question about his identity by exclaiming: "No, I'm Spartacus, have you come to free the slaves or something?" Though Kubrick and Douglas had worked well together on Paths of Glory (1957), the experience of Spartacus soured their relationship. As Douglas notes in his autobiography, "You can be a shit and be talented and, conversely, you can be the nicest guy in the world and not have any talent. Stanley Kubrick is a talented shit."

But despite all this, Kubrick proved a wise choice. His sense of visual composition is unerring and many of the best parts of the film are the sequences which have little or no dialogue. This was Kubrick's first film in color and his first using a widescreen format. The final battle between Spartacus' fighters and the geometrically arranged Roman army is absolutely stunning and recalls some of the films of Sergei Eisenstein. The opening shots of the final battle were shot in Madrid using some 8,000 Spanish soldiers as extras. The shots of the battle, however, were shot on a Hollywood soundstage. The sounds of the crowds yelling "Hail, Crassus" and "I am Spartacus" were actually 76,000 fans at a Notre Dame-Michigan State football game enlisted for this purpose. As an interesting side note, one of the film's stuntmen was the actor Richard Farnsworth (The Grey Fox, 1982; The Straight Story, 1999).

In addition to Trumbo and Kubrick, Douglas managed to assemble one of the finest casts imaginable. Spartacus was the second film in as many years in which Douglas co-starred with Laurence Olivier. Douglas had given Fast's novel to Olivier while making The Devil's Disciple (1959), and Olivier was immediately interested. As Douglas notes in his autobiography: "He read it and reacted very favorably. He thought Spartacus would be a terrific role - for him. Uh oh." Eventually, Olivier sent Douglas a telegram saying that if the part of Crassus was improved upon, he would be amenable to working on such a "gallant enterprise and one I should be extremely proud to be a part of." Peter Ustinov readily signed on, but securing Charles Laughton presented a more difficult problem. In London, Douglas went backstage to see Laughton after a stage performance. "I glanced at the script," said Laughton. "Really, a piece of sh*t." But Douglas' hopes were buoyed by a comment from Hollywood agent Lew Wasserman: "Don't worry. That's just Laughton's attitude. It's a good role and he'll do it. He needs the money." In the end, Laughton did the film for a much needed $41,000, though he later complained that his 13 days of shooting were far from a pleasant experience. Olivier, Laughton and Ustinov are uniformly terrific though, and they steal every scene they are in.

For the role of Varinia, Spartacus' love, Douglas searched far and wide, before settling on a beautiful German actress, Sabina Bethmann. But as shooting got under way with Kubrick, it was decided that Bethmann was not up to the part. Douglas then called Jean Simmons, who had earlier been considered for the role. Simmons had recently finished shooting Elmer Gantry (1960) - she would wed the film's director, Richard Brooks, in 1960 - and was staying at her ranch in Arizona. According to Simmons, "Kirk told me to get my ass on out to Los Angeles. I did. Pronto." Tony Curtis' role was added to the script after the actor came to Douglas and asked to be in the film. The cast was rounded out with memorable supporting roles for Woody Strode, John Gavin, Nina Foch and John Dall. Only Herbert Lom is seriously miscast as the trader Tigranes.

After 167 days of shooting, production moved to the editing room. Undoubtedly the most famous editing decision concerned the bathtub scene (filmed at William Randolph Hearst's San Simeon estate) in which Olivier tries to seduce Tony Curtis via a discussion about snails and oysters. According to Douglas, the scene was "very subtle, nothing explicit. The censors weren't sure it was about homosexuality, but just in case they wanted it out." For Douglas, the scene was important because it "showed another way the Romans abused the slaves." But this also resuscitates the pernicious idea that fascism and homosexuality go hand in hand. So in the end it is difficult to say which is more offensive: the portrait of Crassus as a bisexual Joseph McCarthy or its removal from the film. When the film was restored in 1989, the footage for this scene was found but the soundtrack was too damaged to be usable. Tony Curtis came in to re-record his lines, but since Laurence Olivier had died earlier that year, Anthony Hopkins was hired to impersonate Olivier for the scene.

When time came to decide whose name should go on the film, Douglas chose to use Trumbo's real name. Douglas recalls that, "I wasn't thinking of being a hero and breaking the blacklist; it wasn't until later that I realized the significance of that impulsive gesture." But not everyone was happy to see Trumbo back in the spotlight. When the film premiered, Hedda Hopper blasted it, writing that Spartacus was based on "a book written by a Commie and the screen script was written by a Commie, so don't go see it." The American Legion protested the film because of Trumbo's participation. But when President Kennedy saw the film and spoke well of it to the press, the controversy died down.

A reviewer in Variety declared that the film was an example of "sheer pictorial poetry" and that Kubrick had "out DeMilled the old master in spectacle." Some critics, however, were unmoved. In the New York Times, Bosley Crowther wrote that the film's ending is less than satisfying: "a great deal more is made of Miss Simmons' post-war predicament than of the crucifixion of 6,000 captive slaves." But, in general, the film was an enormous critical and commercial success. It won four Academy Awards: for Best Supporting Actor (Peter Ustinov), Best Cinematographer (Russell Metty), Best Art Direction, and Best Costume Design. It was also nominated for Best Score (Alex North) and Best Editing (Robert Lawrence).

Producer: Edward Lewis
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Screenplay: Dalton Trumbo
Production Design: Alexander Golitzen
Cinematography: Russell Metty, Clifford Stine
Costume Design: Bill Thomas, Arlington F. Valles, Irene Valles
Film Editing: Fred A. Chulack, Robert Lawrence, Robert Sculte
Original Music: Alex North
Principal Cast: Kirk Douglas (Spartacus), Laurence Oliver (Marcus Licinius Crassus), Jean Simmons (Varinia), Charles Laughton (Sempronius Gracchus), Peter Ustinov (Lentulus), Tony Curtis (Antoninus), John Gavin (Caius Julius Caesar), Nina Foch (Helena Glabrus), John Ireland (Crixus), Herbert Lom (Tigranes Levantus), John Dall (Marcus Publius Glabrus), Woody Strode (Draba), Charles McGraw (Marcellus).
C-196m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.

by Mark Frankel



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